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What a Biden "Clean Energy Revolution" Might Look Like

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David Gaier's picture
Owner, David Gaier PR

David Gaier is a communications professional, former spokesman for NRG Energy and PSEG Long Island, and consultant to energy advisory agencies. His 30+-year career includes crisis communications...

  • Member since 2019
  • 56 items added with 32,838 views
  • Nov 10, 2020

As the Inauguration of President-Elect Biden approaches, getting an effective Covid vaccination program up and running to replace the current disastrous one is the clear priority. But his ambitious agenda includes a strong focus on cleaner energy, so let’s look at what his administration is likely to do.

One thing is certain: global warming and climate change are not a hoax to the president-elect, and they will play prominently into the energy policies and the steps his administration will take. While not totally embracing the aggressive Green New Deal proposed by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her allies, Mr. Biden is sure to push for his own version, expressly touting hundreds of thousands of new clean energy jobs and supporting large scale renewables, especially offshore wind, for which there is already tremendous momentum among several states.

It’s instructive, too, to look at the energy policy history and enactments of President Donald Trump, to see where we are now. A key appeal of his candidacy four-plus years ago was to “bring coal back.” That didn’t happen, because it couldn’t: Coal plants are retiring across the country mainly due to economics, the life-limits of the equipment, and the costs of running back-end environmental controls on coal units that are in many cases more than 50 years old. He then tried, through a DOE Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR), to subsidize fossil and nuclear plants that have onsite fuel storage of 9o days or more, but the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) declined to run with that ball. Mr. Trump’s EPA also rolled back some key regulations; for example, the more stringent rules for dealing with Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) and scores of other, primarily environmental regulations, under a program that required eliminating two regulations for every new one proposed. Many if not most of these were enacted under President Obama. Other notable rollbacks included the much anticipated and widely debated Clean Power Plan, as well as the legal underpinnings for the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule. Interestingly, Trump’s DOE did not ignore nuclear power; in fact, it recently put its imprimatur on two designs for small nuclear reactors as well as advanced fuels for operating them. And in fairness, despite his assertion that “windmills cause cancer,” his administration earmarked billions for renewable energy and energy efficiency, including all the usual suspects—geothermal, offshore and terrestrial wind, solar, hydro, and more.

But Mr. Trump took two actions that made him an environmental and climate change pariah in the eyes of many: He abruptly pulled the United States out of the Paris Accord, and he promised to support and encourage use of the full range of fossil fuels, including mining, drilling and fracking in many places previously off limits.

At the same time, Mr. Trump also recently signed an executive order intended to regulate and protect key energy and grid infrastructure by limiting the procurement of new equipment and components from a number of foreign actors, and calling for replacement of some existing equipment out of an abundance of caution and security concerns.

The quasi-independent FERC was active, too, ruling on regulations covering the organized energy markets, intended to protect competitive generators from depressed wholesale capacity and energy prices caused by state-subsidized generation resources. FERC also updated regulations flowing from the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 (PURPA). And just after election day, the administration demoted FERC Chairman Neil Chaterjee to Commissioner replacing him with James Danly, a move widely seen as blatantly political. Chaterjee will, however, stay on as a commissioner until his term ends in mid-2021.

Mr. Biden ran on energy and power sector platforms that you might expect. His plan, named The Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice Plan, nonetheless builds on a skeleton of the Green New Deal. And he’s pledged “on day one” to put the United States back into the Paris Accord, but he can’t just snap his fingers; he’ll have to re-submit a plan with lower carbon limits. Still, the power generation sector has already made great strides in carbon and emissions reductions.

Biden’s plan rests on what he says are “two basic truths:” (1) the United States urgently needs to embrace greater ambition on an epic scale to meet the scope of this [climate change/global warming] challenge, and (2) our environment and our economy are completely and totally connected. It sets out a bold goal to achieve a 100% clean energy economy and reach net-zero emissions no later than 2050. In addition to a series of executive orders, which he can control, it also sets forth a goal that may prove much more challenging: he will “demand” that Congress enact legislation in the first year of his presidency that establishes an enforcement mechanism that includes milestone targets no later than the end of his first term in 2025; makes a historic investment in clean energy and climate research and innovation; and incentivizes the rapid deployment of clean energy innovations across the economy, especially in communities most impacted by climate change.

Another key goal of Mr. Biden is to make a “historic investment in our clean energy future and environmental justice, paid for by rolling back the Trump tax incentives that enrich corporations at the expense of American jobs and the environment.” Biden’s climate and environmental justice proposal promises a federal investment of $1.7 trillion over the next ten years, leveraging additional private sector and state and local investments to total to more than $5 trillion. Of course, this will require the strong support of Congress, as well as massive economic support from the states, which are today reeling from the financial drain caused by Covid19, bordering on financial disaster among many, and is easier said than fixed unless dramatic actions are taken such as new state taxes along with painful cuts in services.

More specifically, Biden pledges to establish ARPA-C, a new, cross-agency Advanced Research Projects Agency focused on climate. This initiative would support “game-changing technologies” to reach Mr. Biden’s climate-related targets, and includes an intense focus on and support of:

  • Grid-scale energy storage at a fraction of the cost of lithium-ion batteries
  • Small modular nuclear reactors at half the construction cost of today’s reactors
  • Zero net energy buildings at zero net cost
  • Using renewables to produce carbon-free hydrogen at the cost of shale gas

The plan will also include a new focus on reducing or eliminating carbon from several sectors, including food and agriculture; building materials; transportation; and power generation plants. It’s a fair bet that offshore wind will play a major part in retiring fossil-fueled plants and replacing them with utility-scale renewables, especially in the shallow waters of the Atlantic Bight off the coast of the U.S. Northeast, near load and with ample port and laydown areas available. Many states now have aggressive RPS or clean energy standards, with new goals as early as the end of 2021, and much higher targets by 2030. But while no new coal plants will be built, construction of natural gas-fueled combined-cycle plants will continue for the next several years or more, to back up intermittent renewables and as more coal plants retire. Electric vehicles will multiply as they become more affordable and even more so if both eV manufacturers and government entities offer continued incentives and rebates, and tighter CAFE standards re-emerge.  

Some other things seem all but certain. The United States will again take on the mantle of global environmental leadership, with rejoining the Paris Accord only the first step. The EPA of a Biden Administration will re-enact stricter EPA regulations and interpretations of existing ones, and enforcement will likely step up significantly. For the first time since Fukushima, new nuclear will get a serious look, while focusing on smaller, more affordable modular reactors and a solution to the nuclear waste storage problem.  A modest to massive infrastructure bill may be floated, with an emphasis on hardening against climate change and sea-level rise. But with a smaller House majority and uncertain—and some say unlikely—control of the Senate, along with massive inherited deficits from Trump-era tax cuts and yet another COVID-19 rescue package, funding many of Mr. Biden’s and state initiatives may prove difficult and laden with political landmines.  #  # #


Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 10, 2020

Thanks for this, David. Many Biden supporters hoped for that proverbial Blue Wave that would allow a mandate and path towards clean energy legislation across the board, but the end numbers in the Senate are certainly more subdued. But I think you've laid out a good argument for what can still be done to cut through some of the potential gridlock. 

David Gaier's picture
David Gaier on Nov 10, 2020

Thanks Matt. Now we must wait for the Electoral College, it seems. 


David Gaier's picture
Thank David for the Post!
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