Inflation Reduction Act: Deploy, deploy, deploy!

Now that Democrats in Congress have approved a sizable national investment to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, the ball has landed in civil society’s court to ensure the billions of dollars in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) are well and rapidly spent.

President Biden’s signature on the bill is the starting gun for Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm’s three-word strategy to combat global warming: Deploy, Deploy, Deploy. We have said for years that we have the tools to combat climate change but lacked the political will. Much depends on the upcoming midterms and next presidential election, but maybe our political will is growing.

The combined clean-energy investments in the IRA and the earlier Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act approach a half-trillion dollars. There is plenty of work to do with this money. For example, we can make it easier and less expensive for homeowners and businesses to install rooftop solar systems. The so-called “soft costs” — permitting, installation, property taxes, sales taxes, etc. — now comprise 65 percent of a system’s cost, according to the Department of Energy (DOE).

If communities want to make sure some of the new federal money creates jobs and boosts their economies, they should be willing to help reduce soft costs.

Activists can encourage them to expedite permitting and inspections, exempt solar systems from property and sales taxes, as well as assign someone on city staff to give home and business owners objective information about issues like the impact of solar systems on property values and insurance or how to go about selecting a solar company.

As DOE points out, people interested in solar need localized help because “there isn’t a single process or system to get solar customers online because there are many jurisdictions, utilities, and differing state and local laws involved.”

Active rather than passive renewable energy deployment can squeeze whatever is left of the potential for economies of scale to bring soft costs down for solar, wind, heat pumps and other renewable energy technologies.

Importantly, the IRA includes $18 billion for four conservation programs that can stimulate agriculture’s contribution to carbon capture and sequestration by improving soil fertility, using cover crops, minimizing tillage, employing rotational grazing to keep grasslands healthy, adding biochar and pulverized rock to fields, and so on. Technical outreach organizations like the Agriculture Extension Service have an important role ensuring the IRA funds demonstrate agriculture’s important role in mitigating global warming.

However, recent research concludes that natural carbon sinks cannot substitute for preventing greenhouse gas emissions in the first place. America’s plan should be to decrease emissions and increase carbon capture simultaneously. The question is how much CO2 elimination and CO2 capture can be done by clean natural resources and healthy ecosystems rather than by technology. The general answer is that technology should supplement nature rather than the other way around. Especially when life-cycle costs and co-benefits are considered, energy from sunlight and wind is less expensive than fossil fuels while nature’s carbon sinks are much less expensive than the technologies under development to capture and sequester carbon.

For example, consider two carbon-capture technologies still under development, both generally considered necessary to stabilize the climate: carbon capture and sequestration at power plants and factories (CCS) as well as direct air capture (DAC). Both are energy intensive and expensive to build and operate. Both involve regulatory issues, public acceptance, infrastructure needs, liability, ownership and other complications.

CCS is expected to significantly increase the consumer price of electricity, unless the government requires taxpayers to subsidize it.  

DAC is in the prototype phase. Nineteen DAC installations are said to be operating around the world today, removing CO2 at between $250 and $600 a ton. DOE hopes to bring that down to $100. But if DAC were commercialized, who would pay for it? Two energy experts — Morey Wolfson, a former energy adviser to two Colorado governors, and Kevin Trenberth at the National Center for Atmospheric Research — have calculated the cost.  

DAC’s mission would be to bring the atmospheric concentration of carbon down from its current level, which is approaching 420 parts per million (ppm). About 350 ppm is considered safe. One ppm of CO2 by volume is about 7.8 billion metric tons.

At $100 a metric ton, removing one ppm from the atmosphere would cost $780 billion. If we stopped CO2 pollution today, getting back to 350 ppm would cost nearly $55 trillion. Unfortunately, we are still dumping CO2 into the atmosphere, and there are substantial pressures to emit more. The world population is growing, billions of poor aspire to middle-class status, less developed nations want progress; meanwhile, human activities are depleting wetlands, soils and forests.

Timing is an issue. The World Resources Institute estimates it will take at least 30 years before DAC can remove “meaningful” amounts of carbon. Meanwhile, research, pilot projects and tax incentives will cost billions of dollars over the next decade.

These are examples of why our priority should be to put nature to work full-time.

The IRA and infrastructure bills alone will not take care of America’s contribution to the global mission to stabilize the climate. But, they are a welcome crack in the political dam that has blocked federal leadership against climate change for 30 years. We still need to blow the dam wide open.

William S. Becker is a former U.S. Department of Energy central regional director who administered energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies programs, and he also served as special assistant to the department’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is also executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House.

Tags Biden Climate change Fossil fuels Inflation Reduction Act Jennifer Granholm Renewable energy
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