U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has set four top “Day One” priorities for his incoming administration: combatting the coronavirus pandemic, restoring a faltering economy, creating the conditions for greater racial equality, and taking on the “existential threat” of climate change.
In the days since Biden’s electoral victory over President Donald Trump was assured, this agenda has won a series of accolades from the clean energy industry groups most likely to benefit from it and to seek to play a role in how it takes shape.
Renewable energy and energy storage trade groups, providers of grid infrastructure and technology, and groups representing corporations committed to reducing their carbon footprint have issued congratulations to the incoming administration, along with their thoughts on what early steps it could take to meet its goals.
“The President-elect and his team have laid out an ambitious, comprehensive approach to energy policy that recognizes renewable energy’s ability to grow America’s economy and create a cleaner environment, while keeping electricity costs low and combating the threat of climate change,” Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, said in a Saturday statement. “The U.S. wind sector and its growing workforce of over 120,000 Americans stand ready to help put that plan into action.”
That plan includes a pledge to take executive actions such as rejoining the Paris climate agreement, reversing Trump administration actions that weaken automotive and appliance efficiency standards, and directing federal agencies to buy clean power. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has outlined a 100-day plan that includes a number of executive actions, such as increased renewable energy development on public lands and solar adoption by federal agencies and buildings.
With control of the U.S. Senate still awaiting the results of January runoff elections for Georgia’s two Senate seats, it’s unclear if Democrats will have a majority in both houses of Congress to overcome Republican opposition to more ambitious agenda items, such as Biden’s $2 trillion plan to drive decarbonization of the energy sector by 2035 and dramatically reduce emissions from transportation and buildings.
Under the likelihood of a split government, that plan “looks at the very least likely to be heavily watered down,” Simon Flowers, chairman and chief analyst for Wood Mackenzie, wrote in a Monday summary of the research firm’s outlook on the global energy impact of a Biden administration.
Still, there remains plenty that a Biden administration can do without support from Republicans in Congress, Flowers noted. It can order agencies to streamline and support permitting and leasing policies for the nearly 30 gigawatts of offshore wind projects being planned on the U.S. East Coast, for example.
The federal government will likely become a bigger buyer of renewable energy and electric vehicles. And Biden can appoint a new chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and nominate replacement commissioners that could reverse decisions that have created challenges for state clean energy policies in Eastern U.S. interstate energy markets.
The art of the possible for bipartisan energy policy
Still, clean energy groups expressed hope that actions that offered economic benefits, such as expanded funding and favorable tax treatment for investments in building energy efficiency, transportation electrification and expanded grid infrastructure, could win bipartisan support.
“We urge the Biden administration to work together with a closely divided Congress to incorporate energy efficiency into a recovery package, to invest in weatherizing homes and in the research and development of energy-saving technologies, and to pursue new bipartisan transportation and energy legislation,” Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, said in a Saturday statement.
ACEEE also urged the Biden administration to boost efficiency standards for light bulbs, appliances and vehicles, and to push for plans to retrofit millions of buildings and deploy half a million electric vehicle charging stations across the country.
Dan Pfeiffer, vice president of government and regulatory affairs for grid networking technology provider Itron, said in a statement last week that the company’s top priority is “a massive investment in infrastructure…to keep our energy and water grids safe and reliable.”
After a coronavirus pandemic relief bill, an infrastructure stimulus package is likely to be the next major legislative priority for Congress, and it could harness support from both parties, industry observers agree. That could include boosts for transmission to unlock more solar and wind power capacity, which could garner bipartisan support from Midwestern lawmakers.
Other major priorities of the solar and wind industry may be harder to achieve if Congress remains divided. SEIA has called for a federal tax framework that would extend the solar Investment Tax Credit that is set to expire over the next four years and include key extensions to bolster investment in projects delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“President-elect Biden’s plan to combat climate change enables our industry to create hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs across the country,” SEIA CEO Abigail Ross Hopper said in a Saturday statement. “We look forward to working with his administration and Congress on policies that reduce carbon emissions including tax policies that pave the way for greater adoption of solar energy and energy storage.”
Tax incentives for energy storage could also help boost technologies needed to integrate the country’s rising share of intermittent solar and wind power. Kelly Speakes-Backman, CEO of the U.S. Energy Storage Association, said in a Saturday statement that the group expects “to see strong support from the new administration focused on the decarbonization of the electric and transportation sectors, which will further drive the deployment of energy storage.”
But it’s unclear if expanding the scope of tax credits, or proposals to convert those credits to direct pay or cash grant options to increase their value to investors, will win bipartisan backing. Likewise, more long-term goals such as a federal carbon pricing mechanism or clean energy standard will likely face an uphill battle if Republicans retain their Senate majority.
“Over the longer term, we’ll need to turn to an ambitious climate agenda that builds on state renewable standards with a nationwide program, provides a level playing field for clean energy in the tax code, and includes a major effort to expand and upgrade the nation’s antiquated transmission infrastructure,” Gregory Wetstone, CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, said in a Monday statement. “There is a long history of bipartisan support for renewable power, and we look forward to working on this agenda with policymakers on both sides of the aisle.”
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