My wishlist for Biden's climate change and green energy policy
(This piece first appeared at PV Magazine here)
This is my wishlist for Biden’s energy policy agenda during his first year in office. I’ve been a renewable energy policy attorney for almost twenty years, taught renewable energy law and policy at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management for many years, and have worked on local, state and federal energy policy.
And, for what it’s worth, I voted for Joe and am excited to see how he can get the U.S. back on track on the green energy transition.
So let’s dive in.
Enact a federal Renewable Electricity Standard (RES)
A lot of work on green energy policy can be, and is being, done at the state and local level. I’m a firm believer in “Think global, act local” and my consulting firm is called Community Renewable Solutions for a reason: real change happens locally. All that said, however, there is a strong role for the federal government to play in setting a floor (not a ceiling) for policy in various areas. And also—significantly—in providing funding for targeted programs if the political power is there.
The first kind of floor that Biden should set is a Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) that sets a renewable energy target for states to achieve by certain milestone dates. The RES idea is not new. Not at all. There have been many efforts to get this passed and it has passed the Senate a number of times but never cleared the House.
The most recent version is the Renewable Electricity Standard Act of 2019, introduced by Senators Udall, Heinrich, Whitehouse, Smith and Maine. It doesn’t stand much chance in a Republican-controlled Senate.
I recommend the following milestones for a federal RES, which are ambitious but achievable (as all good policy targets should be): 30% renewable electricity by 2030; 50% by 2035 (this is also in the Udall bill just mentioned); 80% by 2040. Market forces alone will probably achieve these levels in the large majority of states, but some states will be laggards without a federal floor. And setting a federal standard shows a level of resolve and political support that can assist market forces.
Enact a new federal feed-in tariff
A feed-in tariff is a law that allows renewable energy producers to sell excess energy to utilities for a defined price over a defined period of time. The law that kicked off renewable energy in the U.S. and arguably around the world was the Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA), signed into law in 1978 by Jimmy Carter. It still exists but it has been very significantly watered down over the years and has led to few new projects over the last decade.
Biden should lead an effort to either significantly beef up PURPA, returning the law to its former effectiveness (where it led, for example, to an “embarrassment of riches” in California during the 1980s and 1990s in terms of new renewable energy projects) or start anew with a different version of a federal feed-in tariff.
As with the current PURPA law, a new federal feed-in tariff should set a national floor rather than a ceiling. States should be able to continue, as they can under PURPA already, going above the floor set by federal standards.
Feed-in tariffs in the U.S. provide for market rate compensation so they don’t cost consumers anything extra, but they do provide long-term contracts that allow for financing renewable energy projects that wouldn’t otherwise be financeable if they sold only into wholesale markets without a contract.
Feed-in tariffs at the federal and state level have been proven to be highly effective around the world. It’s time to bring back this powerful tool to really move the ball forward on the renewable energy transition in all states, not just the progressive leading states.
It would be great strategy and policy to combine a new RES with a new feed-in tariff as a key tool for states to meet the RES targets.
Enact a federal efficiency standard
Energy efficiency in buildings and appliances is a significant source of primary energy reductions. It’s well-known that as economies become more advanced they generally use less energy per unit of economic activity. This is known as “energy intensity” and is related to but distinct from energy efficiency. Energy efficiency standards can help to spur energy intensity forward.
A large coalition of energy efficiency-focused nonprofits recommended a number of actions on energy efficiency to the incoming Biden administration in late November. Their top three picks were to revive appliance standards by starting the process for new standards for 2050 (standards are already in place for 2030 but design standards can take many years to be incorporated into new appliance designs and manufacture); new energy efficiency standards for federally-assisted housing; and, similarly, new energy efficiency standards for manufactured homes.
I support these priorities. I have not focused on energy efficiency policy at the federal level in my work, so I generally defer to these experts.
Enact a federal clean vehicle standard
Transportation remains the least certain in terms of the green energy transition because it takes so long for vehicle fleets to turnover. Average car lifespan is about 15 years so even if 100% of all vehicle sales by 2030 are electric it will take another 15 years for the fleet to turn over fully.
That said, the election bodes well for the future of EVs. In particular, Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan promises federal funding for states and includes substantial support for EVs and the build out of an EV charging infrastructure. The plan includes investing $2 trillion dollars over four years in green energy and sustainability projects, including a strong focus on EVs.
Biden’s plan surely will face an uphill battle with a Republican-controlled Senate and its entrenched fossil fuel representation, and like his predecessor, a President Biden may seek executive actions as the primary option to move forward with his EV agenda. However, funding is one of the key things that Congress controls, so Biden won’t be able to authorize anything like the $2 trillion he’s called for unless he gains either a Democratic Senate or bipartisan support in the Senate and House.
Biden’s plan also calls for investing in 500,000 EV charging stations, which makes good sense, but Biden should also push for a “clean vehicle standard”, calling for a target of, for example, “50% of all new passenger car sales will be EVs or clean energy vehicles by 2030.”
This target is ambitious but achievable and market forces alone are on track to achieve much of this already, due to dozens of companies, including all of the large car manufacturers, planning to offer scores of new EV models in the coming years. With prices dropping for batteries new EVs will cost the same or less as their gasoline and diesel counterparts in the next couple of years. And because EVs are generally just better cars, it won’t be a huge “sell” for EVs to increasingly find success in the market even without federal policy.
But as we’ve discussed above, federal policy is helpful in setting a floor to avoid backsliding or laggards. A target of 70% emissions-free passenger vehicle sales by 2040 is also feasible and desirable.
This standards-setting approach has abundant precedents — and California made big news this summer when Governor Newsom committed the state, via executive order, to achieving 100% zero-emissions passenger cars and trucks being sold by 2035. This doesn’t mean all vehicles must be zero emissions by then, just new vehicle sales. California’s Air Resources Board is working out the rules for how this program will work. Importantly, close to two dozen countries around the world have declared their intention to phase out the sale of new gas and diesel vehicles by certain dates.
In sum, my view is that federal standards in various key areas should be the Biden administration’s priority without a Democratic Senate, which is far from guaranteed. Standards set the tone and philosophy and can help provide certainty for manufacturers, consumers and state policymakers over time. The Trump administration’s backsliding on the green energy transition was very likely an anomaly in a longer-term trend toward increasing seriousness about green energy and climate change.
Tam Hunt is a renewable energy lawyer and policy expert, owner and founder of Community Renewable Solutions LLC, and author of the book, Solar: Why Our Energy Future Is So Bright, soon to be released in its second edition.