Initiatives at the top of America’s climate and energy agenda
President Biden has vowed to take serious action on climate change. During the president’s first State of the Union, he put the need for expanded clean energy tax credits and investments front and center, with the aim to “cut energy costs for families an average of $500 a year by combating climate change.” Creating good jobs for millions of Americans, and modernizing roads, airports and waterways across the U.S. to withstand the impacts from climate change is a focus of the administration.
It’s no coincidence that climate-focused legislation is a top priority, as the world’s leading scientists recently issued a report warning of the rapidly closing window to avoid additional, severe risks from climate change. To use Biden’s words, we’ve entered the “decisive decade” to address climate change and the time for small-scale initiatives is long gone. As the details of energy and climate legislation are being ironed out, here are the initiatives that stand to offer the greatest impact against climate change:
The Biden administration has ramped up clean energy investments on a national scale, including readying offshore areas to harness power from wind, approving new solar projects on public lands and passing the bipartisan infrastructure law to build thousands of miles of transmission lines that deliver clean energy. But, this federal movement alone may not secure the sustainable, equitable, clean energy future that is desired.
The increase of wind, solar, transmission and other clean energy projects can help create high-quality jobs and cleaner, cheaper energy access nationwide. Current proposals allocate about $300 billion for clean energy tax credits, spanning across clean electricity, electric vehicles, clean buildings, energy manufacturing and more sectors. But, this does not address the full complement of infrastructure changes needed to accelerate clean energy in the U.S. An ICF Climate Center analysis has shown that the scale of capital expenditure investment in utility-scale renewables and storage capacity is between $1.2 trillion to $1.6 trillion to meet the goal of 100 percent carbon-free power by 2035. If energy and climate legislation is passed at this scale, federal funding and tax credits could boost clean energy opportunities, and also could motivate public and private entities to increase clean energy investments in their own operations, furthering the impact of aligning on nationwide climate goals.
Electric vehicle adoption
The transportation sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. By increasing investments in EVs, when drawing electricity from clean energy, the transportation sector will be better positioned to minimize its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions output on a rapid scale.
In early February, federal transportation and energy officials took the first steps of building out a nationwide EV charging network by prioritizing $615 million in grants to states that prepare and submit their deployment plans for a late September approval. This is just a starting point for the world of opportunity for EV adoption in the transportation sector. In 2021, global clean energy action and innovation investments totaled to $920 billion, according to a recent study. The majority of investments were within the transportation industry — a 77 percent boost from the year before. If current trends continue, which includes car manufacturer commitments to EV fleets, EVs and charging infrastructure will be the leading clean energy investments in 2022.
Alongside federal funding, a combination of government-led education and outreach, incentive programs, as well as ensuring equitable access to EVs and fast charging will be important to promote increased adoption. Increased access to electric transportation has benefits across the board to reduce GHG emissions, improve public health, and leverage clean energy sources. As the federal government eyes building more reliable charging infrastructure across the country, additional support for EVs at the local level is needed to help bring technology and its benefits to disadvantaged and low-income communities that rely on public transportation.
From grid failures due to winter storms in Texas to East Coast flooding damages from Hurricane Ida, it’s clear the current state of our infrastructure is not sufficient to address current and future threats from weather extremes. Extreme weather is on a path to increase its impact on infrastructure — annual flooding costs in the U.S. could increase to $40.6 billion by 2050, according to a new report from Nature Climate Change. That’s a 26 percent increase in costs as a result of climate change, and these costs will likely be borne disproportionately by disadvantaged communities.
Through the recent bipartisan infrastructure law, and other authorities, the federal government plays a critical role in funding infrastructure upgrades, particularly in underserved communities where the effects are felt the hardest and the population is particularly vulnerable. Utilities are also an invaluable component to the country’s energy infrastructure.
Climate change increasingly leaves utilities, and our communities, vulnerable to power outages during or immediately after extreme weather events. Today, U.S. electric utilities face a looming resilience gap of $500 billion in needed investments to harden systems and address current threats from weather extremes. This gap is driven by multiple sources of investment costs — outside of general operations and maintenance costs — across utilities aimed at protecting infrastructure and assets against climate-related hazards.
These areas are starting points for investments and additional sectors can have great impacts against climate change, including clean energy, infrastructure resilience and adaptation.
Deb Harris is ICF consulting firm’s senior director of climate planning as well as a ICF Climate Center senior fellow.
Peter Schultz is ICF’s vice president for climate adaptation and resilience as well as a ICF Climate Center senior fellow.
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