After effectively clinching the Democratic presidential primary, Joe Biden's campaign began work with Senator Bernie Sanders in May to create a “unity task force.” The group hoped to propose policies that appeal to moderates and progressives alike, uniting Democrats ahead of the 2020 election.
The task force’s climate-change mitigation recommendations, out this week, push further than any policy proposed in previous general election platforms. They call for carbon-free power production by 2035, net-zero emissions for new buildings by 2030 and accelerated adoption of zero-emission vehicles. The authors frame the national climate response as a matter of equity for communities that have suffered disproportionately from pollution and climate impacts, as well as a form of economic rebuilding after the coronavirus pandemic.
The climate task force brought together Democrats from across the political spectrum to hash out a shared vision for action on climate change. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, who led the Obama administration’s negotiations at the Paris climate summit, co-chaired along with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution. Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of the youth activist group Sunrise Movement, also participated.
The input from progressive climate activists successfully pushed the platform toward faster decarbonization than Biden had previously envisioned.
The result would allocate an unprecedented amount of federal support to reshaping a low-carbon economy, should a Biden administration take power next year. But the plan still looks to industry to do most of the work of installing and operating clean power plants.
Here’s how some of the ambitious new goals compare to what the clean energy industry has accomplished so far.
Zero-carbon grid by 2035
Eight states have already committed to eliminating carbon from their electrical systems, including the economic powerhouses of California and New York. In the last couple of years, most of the largest utility companies have also pledged to eliminate carbon from their operations.
But these commitments almost always pick a deadline of 2045 or 2050. The Biden-Sanders taskforce pushes up the timeline by 10 or 15 years.
It’s worth noting that the platform affirms “technology-neutral standards for clean energy and energy efficiency.” That’s a break from requiring renewables only, which would limit the tools available. This also means that the country needn’t ditch the carbon-free nuclear power that delivers one-fifth of annual electricity production right now. The Sanders campaign called nuclear a “false solution” that it wanted to do away with, but keeping that resource in the mix makes the carbon-free overhaul less difficult.
A recent study from the University of California, Berkeley sheds light on the overall feasibility of this timeline. When researchers updated their models with the latest cost projections, they found that the U.S. could achieve a reliable 90-percent-carbon-free grid by 2035 and that wholesale prices would actually decrease by 13 percent.
That leaves some room to push harder.
Reaching 90 percent clean requires doubling the highest historical yearly wind and solar deployment through the 2020s and tripling it in the 2030s, explained Sonia Aggarwal, VP at Energy Innovation, who researched the policies needed to achieve the scenarios in the Berkeley study.
“If we accelerate that deployment rate just a bit — say, triple the historical best deployment for solar and wind in the 2020s, make sure not to retire any existing nuclear as long as it stays safe, and pour some funding into [research and development] focused on the last 10 percent — it’s certainly feasible that we would have solutions for the last 10 percent within the next decade, putting us on track to achieve 100 percent by 2035,” she said.
As Aggarwal noted, that last 10 percent is the big question mark. The grid needs to work 24/7, so a system of cheap wind and solar needs complementary resources to deliver power on demand.
Options on the table include long-duration energy storage, advanced nuclear reactors, super-deep geothermal and emissions-free gas power. None of them have achieved widespread commercial success, but there hasn’t been much demand for them yet, either. Investors are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into developing these technologies as the market opportunities become clearer.
“If history is any indication, we will be surprised by how fast technology moves, and we will see more options open up to solve the last 10 percent the sooner we get moving on the first 90 percent,” Aggarwal said.
Eight million solar roofs
The report calls for installing “eight million solar roofs and community solar energy systems” within five years. The wording leaves room on whether that could mean 8 million new installations or 8 million cumulative.
The U.S. hit 2 million solar installations in May 2019, and since then residential installations alone have passed that threshold. Based on current conditions, the solar analysts at Wood Mackenzie estimate a cumulative total of approximately 4.6 million residential solar systems installed by 2025. That projection includes assumptions about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumer spending in the ensuing economic recession and the stepdown of the federal solar Investment Tax Credit.
The target also includes community solar, but that doesn’t add much: The U.S. had installed 1,623 community solar projects through Q1 2020, according to WoodMac’s count.
“The U.S. would need substantial policy supports to achieve this goal, because under current conditions we are over 3 million shy of reaching that goal — if the goal is to mean cumulative installations and not additional,” said senior analyst Austin Perea.
The solar industry is pushing Congress to extend the Investment Tax Credit, and Democrats added that to their infrastructure bill in June. But even bold assumptions about residential solar growth with a prolonged ITC aren’t enough to hit 8 million systems in 2025.
“If you wanted one policy to help achieve this goal, the easiest would absolutely be a national rooftop solar mandate,” Perea noted. “The U.S. could absolutely hit these goals by 2025 with the passage of a national rooftop solar mandate implemented within the next few years."
California enacted a solar mandate for new homes this year. Advocates are pushing at least 10 other states to pass similar rules.
Increase zero-emission vehicles
Compared to the aggressive clean power goal and net-zero emission building codes by 2030, the task force set humbler objectives for the transportation sector. It does not phase out emissions from vehicles overall but tackles public-sector fleets with specific targets.
The national school bus fleet, which comprises 500,000 vehicles, will have to transition to zero-emission vehicles within five years. Local, state and federal fleets will transition as well, though on an unspecified timeline. The federal government will partner with local governments to invest in 500,000 public charging stations and in public transportation.
A WoodMac report from last fall predicted 40,000 heavy-duty electric vehicles will hit the roads in Europe and the U.S. by 2025. In other words, business as usual would get nowhere near 500,000 school buses in the U.S. alone.
That said, electric vehicles are already competitive in the bus market.
They still cost more upfront, but the cost of batteries falls every year. Lifetime costs are often lower than diesel buses, due to decreased fuel and maintenance costs. Virginia utility Dominion Energy is studying the use of electric school bus batteries as a grid asset, to help defray the cost of converting. And there’s a strong public-health case to be made around eliminating air pollution for the children the buses carry.
It’s not clear from the plan's wording if the 500,000 charger installations have to happen in five years, as the bus fleet conversion would. A Department of Energy database lists just 25,804 public charging stations in the U.S. currently.
That means there’s plenty of work to be done, but the small number of installations completed is not necessarily reflective of future potential. New investment is flowing to the sector, and startups are forming to tackle different challenges associated with charging infrastructure and business models. Utilities across the country, such as Dominion, have also taken an interest in this new type of grid investment.