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Is Biden’s Climate Law Actually Working?

Inside episode three of Shift Key.

President Biden.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

A year and a half ago, President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, the biggest climate law in American history — and arguably in world history. The law will spend an estimated $500 billion in grants and tax credits to incentivize people and businesses to switch from burning fossil fuels to using cleaner, zero-carbon technologies.

That’s the goal, at least. But is the IRA actually working? Now, 18 months after its passage, we’re starting to be able to answer that question. A new report from a coalition of major energy analysts — including MIT, the Rhodium Group, and our cohost Jesse Jenkins’ lab at Princeton — looks at data from the power and transportation sectors and concludes that yes, the law is starting to decarbonize the American economy.

But it isn’t working in the way many people might expect, because while electric vehicles are on track to meet the IRA’s climate goals, the power sector is not.

That’s the opposite of what you might think from reading the popular press, which has bemoaned an alleged slowdown in new EV sales. But the new report finds that the transportation sector actually came in at the upper end of what modelers expected to see this year. About 9.2% of new cars sold last year in the United States were zero-emissions vehicles; after the IRA passed, modelers had expected EVs to come in anywhere from 8.1 to 9.4% of sales.

But the power sector is lagging behind what modelers had expected to see. While the three groups had projected that 46 to 79 gigawatts of new zero-carbon power would come online last year, only 32.3 gigawatts of new capacity actually did. That is primarily due to a drop in new onshore wind projects, which fell below the installation levels achieved in 2020 and 2021. While solar and batteries continued to go gangbusters, exceeding previous records, they could not make up for the drop in wind. That means that the power sector is not on track to cut emissions 40% by 2030, as compared to 2005 levels, as the bill’s supporters have hoped.

Jesse Jenkins, an energy systems expert and professor at Princeton University, and I dive into the details on the latest episode of Shift Key.

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Here is an excerpt from our conversation:

Robinson Meyer: First, let's do the moment of truth. Let’s just first get into the data. So in the power sector, what do we see?

Jesse Jenkins: What we see in the electricity sector is a new record set for zero carbon electricity generation and storage capacity additions. So that's new power plant and battery storage construction.

In aggregate, we saw over 32,000 megawatts or 32 gigawatts of new zero carbon generation and storage added to the U.S. grid in 2023. That's about a 32% increase from the rate in 2022. And it edges out a previous record that we saw in 2021 of about 31.6 gigawatts. So good news is we're setting new record growth rates in total in terms of wind and solar and battery additions.

Unfortunately, that does fall on the lower end of what we were projecting in most of the modeling results. We were looking for, on average, about 46 to 79 gigawatts, so call it 40 to 80 gigawatts on average of additions in 2023 and 2024. We fell short of the low end of that range at 32.3 gigawatts. So unless the pace accelerates substantially in 2024, we're probably going to fall a bit behind schedule in terms of capacity additions.

Meyer: And do we have a sense of what's driving that? Because I think that's a very surprising finding, that we're behind schedule in the power sector, where I think people feel pretty good generally about the pace of decarbonization. Or I think where the common wisdom, at least, is that the pace of decarbonization is like proceeding apace. What's driving this underperformance of the model?

Jenkins: So it's really the difference between solar and wind additions.

The solar sector added about 18.4 gigawatts of capacity in 2023. That's up massively from just about 11 gigawatts in 2022. It's about double what we had seen in 2020, which was kind of our reference when we were doing our modeling as we started the REPEAT project in 2021. And so that's looking encouraging and in fact is running ahead of schedule with the average pace of additions that we saw in REPEAT project results.
Batteries are growing way faster than we expected.

And that helps really make the most of those solar capacity additions because solar and batteries are kind of like peanut butter and jelly, they go together quite well. And that's because solar has this nice, regular daily fluctuation, right? From the sun rising and setting. And that pairs really well with batteries, which today in a way lithium ion batteries are best suited for, you know, only a few hours of storage. So they'll charge for three or four hours in the middle of the day when we've got an abundance of sun. And then they'll discharge in the evening to help meet the evening peak of demand when everybody's coming home from work.

The batteries basically helped shift the solar output from the middle of the day to hit that evening peak. And that's, that's really helpful. Where things are running behind schedule is really in the wind sector, where we only built about half of the peak rate, actually less than half that we've seen historically in 2023. Additions of wind power in 2023 were only about 6.3 gigawatts, and that's down from nearly 15 gigawatts in each of 2020 and 2021.

So that's a step backwards at a time when we should be smashing new record growth rates across all of these sectors. And that's giving me the biggest concern as we look at in the next couple of years.

Meyer
: And that's, I mean, last show we talked about offshore wind and the troubles in offshore wind and how it seems like some big offshore wind projects that we thought might be coming online in the middle of this decade might not be coming online till the end of the decade. But when we talk about wind underperforming in terms of the whole country over the past year, we're really still talking about onshore wind. This is like big turbines in the middle of the Great Plains, not big turbines off the coast of New York, New Jersey, right?

Jenkins
: That's right. Yeah, I think I don't think we had any significant offshore wind capacity additions coming in 2024. You know, most of that we were expecting would come in between 2026 and 2030 or 2035. So this is really a story about onshore wind, where if we look at the economics of onshore wind across the country, there's a tremendous number of sites that look very economic given the incentives provided by the Inflation Reduction Act.

And unfortunately, we're just not building out at the pace that would be economically justified. And that is really an indicator that there are a substantial number of other non-economic frictions or barriers to deployment of wind in particular at the pace that we want to see.

The full transcript is here.

This episode of Shift Key is sponsored by Advanced Energy United, KORE Power, and Yale …

Advanced Energy United educates, engages, and advocates for policies that allow our member companies to compete to power our economy with 100% clean energy, working with decision makers and energy market regulators to achieve this goal. Together, we are united in our mission to accelerate the transition to 100% clean energy in America. Learn more at advancedenergyunited.org/heatmap

KORE Power provides the commercial, industrial, and utility markets with functional solutions that advance the clean energy transition worldwide. KORE Power's technology and manufacturing capabilities provide direct access to next generation battery cells, energy storage systems that scale to grid+, EV power & infrastructure, and intuitive asset management to unlock energy strategies across a myriad of applications. Explore more at korepower.com — the future of clean energy is here.

Build your skills in policy, finance, and clean technology at Yale. Yale’s Financing and Deploying Clean Energy certificate program is a 10-month online certificate program that trains and connects clean energy professionals to catalyze an equitable transition to a clean economy. Connect with Yale’s expertise, grow your professional network, and deepen your impact. Learn more at cbey.yale.edu/certificate.

Music for Shift Key is by Adam Kromelow.

Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology. Read More

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