7 Lessons from the First Year of Biden’s Climate Law
The Inflation Reduction Act is already transforming America. But is it enough?
In the late spring, a scene happened that might have once — even a few years ago — seemed unimaginable.
Senator Joe Manchin and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm visited the town of Weirton, West Virginia, to celebrate the groundbreaking of a new factory for the company Form Energy. The factory will produce a new type of iron battery that could eventually store huge amounts of electricity on the grid, allowing solar and wind energy to be saved up and dispatched when needed.
Manchin was clear about why everyone was gathered in Weirton. “Today’s groundbreaking is a direct result of the Inflation Reduction Act, and this type of investment, in a community that has felt the impact of the downturn in American manufacturing, is an example of the IRA bill working as we intended,” he said.
It’s been nearly a year since the Inflation Reduction Act, President Joe Biden’s flagship climate law, passed. The law is successful. It is transforming the American energy system. And the Biden administration is implementing it as fast as it can: Since the law passed, the Treasury Department has published nearly three dozen pieces of complicated rules explaining how the IRA’s billions in subsidies can actually be used.
But is the IRA successful enough? The pace and scale of the climate challenge remains daunting. A recent report from the Rhodium Group, an energy-research firm, found that the United States would only meet its Paris Agreement goal of cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030 with more aggressive federal and state policy.
Here are some broad observations about how the IRA — and the broader project of American decarbonization — is going:
The power sector is changing. We don’t know if it’s changing fast enough.
Politically, environmentally, no matter how you look at it: The power sector is the thumping heart of the I.R.A. Because engineers know how to generate electricity without producing carbon pollution — using wind turbines, solar panels, nuclear plants, and more — the sector is central to the law’s implicit plan to decarbonize the American economy, which requires, first, building as much zero-carbon electricity infrastructure as possible, while, second, shifting as much of the rest of the economy to using electricity — as opposed to oil, gas, or coal — as possible.
The electricity industry is also the site of perhaps the law’s most powerful climate policy — and its only policy tied to a national emissions-cutting goal. The law will indefinitely subsidize new zero-carbon electricity until greenhouse-gas pollution from the American power sector falls 75% below its 2022 levels. That means these tax credits could remain in effect until the 2060s, according to an analysis from the research firm Wood MacKenzie.
This was a first for American environmental law, and it remains poorly understood by the public. Even some experts claim that the electricity credits will phase out in 2032 with the I.R.A.’s other subsidies — when, in fact, 2032 is the earliest possible year that they could end.
Which is all to say that it’s early days for understanding the I.R.A.’s effect on the power sector. The data is provisional.
Yet the data is … good. Better than I expected when I started writing this article. The overwhelming majority of new electricity generation built nationwide this year — some 83% — will be wind, solar, or battery storage, according to federal data. Although that mostly reflects projects planned before the IRA was passed, it’s still a giant leap over previous years, and it suggests that the law might be giving clean electricity a boost at the margin:
The solar industry, in particular, is surging. The industry just had its best first quarter ever, with rooftop installations booming and some big utility-scale solar farms finally coming online.
But solar can’t power the entire grid, and other renewables are having more trouble. I’m particularly worried about offshore wind. To build a new offshore-wind project, companies bid for tracts of the ocean floor in a government-run auction. Yet many of those bids failed to account for 2021 and 2022’s rapid inflation, and some developers are now on the hook for projects that don’t pencil out. Most outside analysts now believe that the Biden administration will fall short of its goal to build 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030.
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Electric-vehicle and battery manufacturing are booming.
The boom in electric vehicle and battery manufacturing is clearly the I.R.A.’s brightest spot. (The two industries are one and the same: If you have a giant battery, you’re probably going to put it in an EV; and about a third of every EV’s value comes from the battery.)
Since the IRA passed, 52 new mining or manufacturing projects have been announced, representing $56 billion in new investment, according to a tracker run by Jay Turner, a Wellesley College professor. If you zoom out to all of Biden’s term, then more than $100 billion in EV investment has been announced, which will create more than 75,000 jobs, according to the Department of Energy.
It remains to be seen, however, whether this investment will produce the kind of durable, unionized voter base that the Biden administration hopes to form. So far, much of this investment has flowed to the Sunbelt — and in particular, to a burgeoning zone of investment from North Carolina to Alabama nicknamed the “Battery Belt.” These states are right-to-work states with a low cost-of-living, like much of the states that have absorbed manufacturing investment since the 1980s.
This might make Republicans think twice about undermining the IRA, but it might also be a missed opportunity.
Permitting reform is over for now.
In order to cheaply decarbonize its grid, America needs better power lines. Building long-range, interregional electricity transmission will allow the country to funnel clean energy to where it’s needed most. According to a team led by Jesse Jenkins, a Princeton engineering professor, 80% of the IRA’s carbon-reduction benefits could be lost if the United States doesn’t quicken the pace of new transmission construction. (Other models are less worried.)
Yet the effort to build more power lines — and the broader campaign to reform some rules governing permitting and land use, especially the National Environmental Policy Act — is probably over, at least in this Congress. Republican lawmakers figured out that Democrats are desperate for transmission reform, and they were prepared to make the party pay a high price for it — too high a price for much of the caucus. The bipartisan deal to raise the debt-ceiling also contained many of the moderate permitting reforms that Democrats might have accepted as part of a broader bargain over transmission.
Democrats are now stuck hoping that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, will make smaller, more technocratic improvements to the transmission process when they take a majority of the commission’s seats early next year.
We still don’t have any sense of whether the I.R.A.’s ticky-tacky sections will work.
The biggest programs in the IRA target mature technologies, like solar, wind, and EVs. But the law is full of unheralded programs meant to encourage the development of early-stage climate technologies, such as sustainable aviation fuel. By encouraging technological progress, these programs could abate hundreds of millions of tons of carbon a year in the decades after 2030. They may prove especially important at reducing emissions outside the United States, according to a new analysis from Rhodium Group.
Which is to say that they could be — from a world-historic perspective — some of the law’s most important policies. But for now, few of these programs have been implemented, and we don’t really know how they’re going to go.
Some of them may also be devilishly hard to set up. My colleague Emily Pontecorvo has reported on the difficulty of setting up the tax credits for green hydrogen, which are some of the law’s most generous. If successful, the credits could give the U.S. a major new industry to tackle the decarbonization challenge; if unsuccessful, they could screw up the American electricity system.
Consumers largely haven’t seen the results of the IRA yet.
Right now, most of the law’s consumer-facing tax credits are continuations of old policies — such as the longstanding subsidy to install rooftop solar — rather than something new. Perhaps the most expansive subsidy that consumers have seen so far is the new $7,500 tax credit for leasing an electric vehicle.
But many more programs will eventually come, including the IRA’s rebates for heat pumps, induction stoves, and electric water heaters. Those programs, some of which must be administered by state offices, have largely yet to be set up. (Even so — and in keeping with other encouraging trends — heat pump sales outpaced furnace sales in the U.S. for the first time last year.)
The government — particularly the Department of Energy — is getting better at industrial policy.
The Department of Energy is an agency transformed. The IRA held out the opportunity that the agency could metamorphose from an R&D-focused nuclear-weapons storehouse into the federal government’s dynamo of decarbonization. The Biden administration — and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm — has seized that opportunity.
As I wrote earlier this year, the agency has stepped into the role of being America’s bureau of industrial policy, replete with its own in-house bank. It has published some of the most detailed and sophisticated federal industrial plans that I’ve ever seen.
And it is getting admirably specific about each of the technologies in its portfolio. In a recent report on the nascent hydrogen industry, for instance, the department said that companies might not build out enough infrastructure because they can’t count on future demand for clean hydrogen. (It’s impossible for firms to invest in making hydrogen if they can’t be sure anyone is going to buy it.) Then, earlier this week, the agency announced a new $1 billion program to buy hydrogen itself, thus providing that demand-side certainty that producers need.
American decarbonization is a race between growth and fixed capital.
Let’s return to renewables. The United States is striving — but will likely fail — to build 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030. It is building a couple dozen gigawatts of new solar capacity every year. That may seem like a lot: One gigawatt of electricity is enough to power about 825,000 homes.
But annual power demand in the United States is closer to 4,000 gigawatts — and it’s on track to grow as we electrify more and more of the economy. While decarbonizing the grid isn’t as simple as switching one energy source for another, still, it would take more than a century to build 4,000 gigawatts of renewables electricity at our current rate.
It’s a similar story in electric cars. The growth is good: EV sales rose 50% year over year in the first half of 2023. But the challenge is daunting: Electric vehicles made up only 7% of all new car sales in the U.S. during the same period, and decarbonizing the car fleet will eventually require making virtually all new car sales EVs, and then — over the next decade — replacing the 275 million private vehicles on the road.
And that’s the story of the IRA — from renewables to EVs, geothermal to nuclear energy. The trends have never been better. The government has never tried to change the energy system so quickly or so thoroughly. That, by itself, is progress: For decades, the great obstacle of climate change was that the government wasn’t trying to solve it at all.
But decarbonization will require replacing hundreds of millions of machines that exist in the world — and doing it fast enough that we avoid dealing catastrophic damage to the climate system. The IRA is about to take on that challenge head-on. Now we find out if it’s up to the task.
The real work, in other words, is just beginning.
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