By Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin
President Biden’s infrastructure plan would turbocharge the country’s transition from fossil fuels, using the muscle and vast resources of the federal government to intervene in electricity markets, speed the growth of solar and wind energy, and foster technological breakthroughs in clean power.
The linchpin of Biden’s plan, which he detailed in a speech Wednesday in Pittsburgh, is the creation of a national standard requiring utilities to use a specific amount of solar, wind and other renewable energy to power American homes, businesses and factories. The amount would increase over time, cutting the nation’s use of coal, gas and oil over the next 15 years.
While 30 states and the District of Columbia already direct their utilities to include some portion of renewable energy, Biden’s strategy would amount to the most sweeping federal intervention in the electricity sector in generations.
Biden said his plan would confront climate change, while putting the U.S. ahead of its economic competitors. “It’s going to boost America’s innovative edge in markets where global leadership is up for grabs,” he said.
Tom Steyer, the billionaire activist who sought the Democratic presidential nomination last year and has advised the Biden administration on climate change, said in a statement that the president’s plan marks an “inflection point” in the nation’s energy trajectory.
“We can’t let ourselves be thrown off course by political hurdles,” Steyer said. “This is an opportunity to equitably shape America’s future prosperity and role in the world. It’s time to think big and get it done.”
Biden’s “Energy Efficiency and Clean Electricity Standard” would require congressional approval and is likely to face staunch opposition from Republicans. It is also unclear whether it could be included as part of a budget reconciliation bill, which would require just 51 votes for approval in the Senate. Even though it would require spending tax dollars, its primary impact would be on the private sector.
The White House has not specified what levels of solar, wind or other renewable energy would be required under its plan, leaving that to talks with members of Congress. Biden has said he wants a carbon-free electricity grid by 2035, so the proposed standard will probably be large.
University of Chicago economics professor Michael Greenstone noted that the Biden proposal would include nuclear and hydropower, which are not typically part of state renewable portfolio standards. “A policy that treats all carbon-free sources equally is likely to perform much better,” he said.