President Joe Biden signed a sprawling set of executive orders on Wednesday ordering federal agencies to procure carbon-free energy and electric vehicles, spur commercialization of clean energy technologies, accelerate clean energy generation and transmission projects and ensure that disadvantaged communities get a fair share of the ensuing economic and environmental benefits.
Wednesday’s executive orders are the latest step in the Biden-Harris administration’s aggressive early actions seeking to combat climate change and reverse Trump administration policies seen as harming that goal. Their overarching aim is to “center the climate crisis” in U.S. foreign policy and national security, and to create a “whole-of-government approach” to shifting the country from reliance on fossil fuels to sources of low- or no-carbon energy, according to a White House fact sheet.
Wednesday’s orders provide some early indications of how Biden will seek to use the spending power of the federal government to bolster his pledges to cut electricity-sector carbon emissions to zero by 2035 and achieve a carbon-free U.S. economy by 2050.
Achieving this policy will require legislation that Democrats may struggle to pass in a U.S. Senate where the party holds the slenderest of majorities. Though Biden does have the power to direct federal agencies on his own, much of the spending that may come with those directives will rely on congressional approval. Wednesday’s orders center on directing federal agencies to shift existing spending in ways that will support a transition to clean energy.
Federal procurement and R&D support
One order "directs the federal agencies to procure carbon pollution-free electricity and clean, zero-emission vehicles to create good-paying, union jobs and stimulate clean energy industries." This could be a first step to align federal policy with Biden’s campaign pledge to reorient federal energy purchases around clean power resources and spend $400 billion on federal procurement of renewables, batteries and electric vehicles.
The federal government spent $18.37 billion on energy in fiscal year 2019, according to Department of Energy data. That's a significant if not overwhelming target market for clean energy developers.
"As the nation’s largest energy consumer, the federal government’s procurement priorities have a critical role to play in meeting the administration’s goal of decarbonizing the power sector by 2035," Gregory Wetstone, CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, said in a statement.
The federal government also spent about $4.4 billion on its vehicle fleet in 2019, according to General Services Administration data, setting a rough estimate of the potential value of Biden’s goal to electric vehicle makers and equipment vendors. Under the administration's target, federal agencies would buy U.S.-made EVs to replace the roughly 645,000 vehicles it now owns.
"The transportation sector is the largest domestic source of carbon emissions," Tom Kuhn, president of U.S. investor-owned utility trade group Edison Electric Institute, said in a statement. "By accelerating transportation electrification and increasing the number of electric vehicles in the federal fleet and on U.S. roads, we can leverage the already ongoing emission reductions in the power sector to meet economy-wide carbon reduction goals."
Beyond being a market for existing clean energy technologies, “government procurement has played a critical role in driving early commercialization and maturation of a whole range of technologies,” Jesse Jenkins, assistant professor at Princeton University and co-author of a December report on U.S. decarbonization pathways, said in a Wednesday interview.
The federal spending and COVID-19 pandemic relief bill passed by Congress in December contained about $35 billion in energy research and development. Wednesday’s executive orders also direct federal agencies to “identify new opportunities to spur innovation, commercialization, and deployment of clean energy technologies and infrastructure.”
This directive could help satisfy corporate demands for more aggressive clean energy commercialization efforts from the Energy Department and Department of Defense, two agencies that have been central to bringing technologies from batteries and biofuels to advanced grid control systems from lab tests to real-world application.
Climate resilience, clean energy and grid infrastructure
Wednesday’s executive order also “directs each federal agency to develop a plan to increase the resilience of its facilities and operations to the impacts of climate change,” which could boost the development of microgrids and backup power systems, as well as designing and planning new building and retrofits to withstand the extreme weather caused by global warming, Jenkins said.
More prosaic technologies could also benefit, he noted. For example, if federal facilities were to “focus on creating an early and important market for efficient heat pumps and more efficient space and water heating, that would advance a key part of the net-zero toolkit.”
Clean-energy groups also lauded Wednesday’s order to federal agencies to “accelerate clean energy and transmission projects under federal siting and permitting processes." This directive aligns with the Biden-Harris administration's pledges to streamline wind and solar projects on federal lands. It could also apply to the complicated task of reforming federal transmission policies that critics say have stymied the development of high-voltage grids needed to integrate the unprecedented growth in renewables that the administration’s decarbonization goals will require.
“Deploying federal purchasing power to accelerate the electrification of transportation and the development of clean energy will create good-paying jobs and economic growth in every corner of America,” Jeff Dennis, managing director and general counsel at national business group Advanced Energy Economy, said in a statement.
Environmental justice and fossil fuels
At the same time, Wednesday’s orders set policies geared to ensure that disadvantaged communities harmed by climate change and fossil fuel pollution are helped, not harmed, by the federal government’s actions, Jenkins noted.
Those include creating a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council and a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council to address “current and historical environmental injustices,” as well as a “Justice40 Initiative” that will seek to ensure that 40 percent of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments go to disadvantaged communities.
“These were some pretty key asks from environmental justice and social justice groups,” he said, adding, “we can’t address what we don’t measure.” As a result, Wednesday’s executive order will create a Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool, building off of EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool, to collect and provide the data to support these mandates.
“Justice for disadvantaged communities and welcoming legacy energy workers into the clean power workforce are vital aspects of the success of the clean energy transition,” Heather Zichal, CEO of the American Clean Power Association, said in a prepared statement.
To coordinate the “whole-of-government” approach, Wednesday’s orders officially create the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, led by former EPA Administrator and current National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy and Deputy Advisor Ali Zaidi, former New York state deputy secretary for energy and environment.
“What you can see is that this is not a separate climate agenda distinct from all the other priorities of the administration,” Jenkins said. “It is interwoven through their economic recovery plan, their foreign policy…and racial and environmental justice plan, which is important.”
Wednesday’s executive orders are the latest step in the Biden-Harris administration’s aggressive early actions seeking to combat climate change. On his first day in office, Biden signed orders to rejoin the international Paris Agreement and rescind federal permits for the Keystone XL pipeline project and other oil and gas infrastructure projects.
Fossil fuels will see more restrictions under Wednesday’s executive orders, which call for a temporary pause on new oil and gas leasing on public lands and a review of existing leases in light of their carbon emissions impact. That move has drawn intense criticism from those industries and from states where they’re an important source of jobs and economic activity.