Inside Clean Energy: Four Things Biden Can Do for Clean Energy Without Congress

From offshore wind to efficiency standards, a new administration will have a host of opportunities to advance an emissions-reducing energy agenda.

Nov 12, 2020
President-elect Joe Biden speaks to the media while flanked by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, at the Queen Theater after receiving a briefing from the transition Covid-19 advisory board on Nov. 9, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Credit: Joe Raedle/Gett

President-elect Joe Biden speaks to the media while flanked by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, at the Queen Theater after receiving a briefing from the transition Covid-19 advisory board on Nov. 9, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Inside Clean Energy

After nearly four years with a president who talks about wind turbines causing cancer and complains about low-flow showerheads, clean energy businesses and advocates say they are elated about President-elect Joe Biden.

But with a closely divided Senate, the incoming president is likely to have little room to pass legislation.

So I asked some experts for examples of steps a Biden administration might take related to clean energy that do not require Congressional approval. Here are four they singled out: 

1. Make Progress on Offshore Wind Permits. 

The Vineyard Wind 1 project, at 800 megawatts, is supposed to be the country's first, super-sized offshore wind project, to be located off of Massachusetts. But instead of construction starting last year, as developers had hoped, the project has been put on hold because federal regulators decided they needed more time to review the environmental implications.

The slow process with Vineyard Wind 1 has led to a logjam for other projects along the East Coast that are waiting for clearance to take the next step.

Liz Burdock, CEO of the Business Network for Offshore Wind, told me that a Biden administration could unlock a promising source of clean energy and stimulate new jobs by putting in place leadership at the Department of the Interior that will ensure timely reviews of offshore wind permit applications.

"The industry was on a rapid pace and then the Vineyard decision was delayed and that slowed everything down," she said. "If things had been on track, then 2020 would have been a breakthrough year."

Some observers have questioned why the Trump administration is conducting such a slow-moving and thorough review of offshore wind at the same time that it has worked to expedite approvals of fossil fuel projects.

The delays are concerning, because offshore wind is an important part of how East Coast states intend to meet goals for cutting carbon emissions, with 30 gigawatts of projects in some stage of development.

We could get some news about Vineyard Wind 1 this week, with the Interior Department Bureau of Ocean Energy Management facing a deadline Friday to publish the final environmental impact statement for the project. 

2. Let California (and Other States) Take Actions to Reduce Vehicle Emissions.

When the Trump administration took steps to roll back rules on tailpipe emissions, California leaders said they would continue to impose their own, stricter standards. The Trump administration then took action to revoke the state's power to set its own standards, a conflict that now is in federal court.

Then, in September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order that bans the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles, starting in 2035. The Trump administration bristled at the move and said California was again overstepping its bounds.

A Biden administration could change this situation by dropping challenges of California's authority and granting waivers to other states that take similar actions.

The effects could extend beyond California, as other states would be more likely to look at ways to make the transition away from gasoline vehicles, said Robbie Orvis, director of energy policy design at the think tank Energy Innovation.

"Any state that's looking at getting anywhere near net zero by mid-century, that will by definition require electrifying the vehicle fleet," he said. "And you have to get started on that sooner rather than later because people own their vehicles for a long time."

3. Get Back to Improving Energy Efficiency Standards.

One of President Trump's stranger fixations is his aversion to energy efficiency. He has spoken about how he opposes the Obama administration's move away from incandescent light bulbs and how water-efficient technologies like low-flow shower heads hurt his ability to keep his hair "perfect."

The administration has taken actions to slow or reverse rules that require companies to make their products more efficient. A Biden administration could get back on the track of the Obama administration and look to energy efficiency as a way to save consumers' money and reduce demand for electricity and water.

"We know that most efficiency measures are cost savings," Orvis said.

Energy efficiency is usually invisible, with customers benefiting from appliances and other products that use less electricity, and it doesn't need to be partisan.

4. Appoint a FERC Chair Who Supports Clean Energy.

I wrote last week about the Trump administration abruptly demoting Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Neil Chatterjee, a Republican who had recently taken actions that supported a carbon tax and expanded markets for renewable energy.

The new chairman is James Danly, a Republican who opposed those actions. Chatterjee remains a member of the board.

A Biden administration could immediately change the tone at FERC by appointing its own chairman, most likely Richard Glick, who is the panel's only Democrat.

Republicans would still hold a 2 to 1 majority, but Glick would have the ability to set the agenda and direct staff. Two appointees to the board, a Republican and Democrat, are awaiting Senate confirmation. The next open seat after that would be when Chatterjee's term ends next June.

"The FERC has opportunities to be a really powerful force for good, both fiscal and regulatory good and sustainability good, and potentially even social justice," said Daniel Kammen, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. "I think the FERC office has been underutilized in the past to enable clean energy commerce and I think now that renewables are so inexpensive that that world is wide open."

FirstEnergy Aims to Go Net-Zero, but Details Are Scarce

FirstEnergy is the latest large U.S. utility to pledge it will reach net-zero emissions by 2050, but the company's plan is light on details.

Ohio-based FirstEnergy said this week that it will reduce emissions by 30 percent from 2019 levels by 2030, and "achieve carbon neutrality" by 2050. The company is following many other large U.S. utilities that also have made net-zero pledges.

One of the big asterisks is that FirstEnergy doesn't own many power plants, having spun off most of its plants into a separate company now called Energy Harbor. FirstEnergy's commitments don't apply to Energy Harbor.

But FirstEnergy does still retain four power plants, two that run on coal in West Virginia, plus one hydroelectric plant each in New Jersey and Virginia.

FirstEnergy Carbon Plan

The biggest thing FirstEnergy could do to reduce its carbon emissions is to close the two West Virginia coal plants. With this new plan, the company says it will close the plants by 2050 or earlier, as part of "a thoughtful transition."

By leaving decades worth of wiggle room, FirstEnergy is saying little about what the transition will actually look like. The difference between closing the plants in, say, 2035, versus 2050, is huge in terms of emissions that contribute to climate change.

I asked FirstEnergy for more details. Spokeswoman Tricia Ingraham told me that the company will reduce emissions at the coal plants by choosing not to operate them during times when electricity market prices are low. This implies the plants will be idle during most of the spring and fall months when demand is lowest.

She said reducing the frequency with which the plants operate is an important part of meeting the goal of cutting emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

"While we haven't announced a retirement date for our coal fleet, we will ensure that our West Virginia customers, communities and the environment are thoroughly considered in our decisions as we prepare for the transition away from coal-fired generation and work toward our goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050," Ingraham said.

I realize that it's politically difficult for a utility that operates in West Virginia's coal country to announce a move away from coal. And, since the two coal plants are fully regulated, they are shielded from market forces and will continue to earn a profit for as long as they operate.

I also realize that FirstEnergy is going through some turmoil right now, with the recent firing of its CEO for his role in an Ohio bribery scandal, and lots of other changes at the executive level.

But this plan looks like a company doing very little, while still being able to say it's doing something.

Talen Energy Takes a Big Step Away from Coal in the Mid-Atlantic

Some of the country's largest owners of power plants are not utilities, and those companies face some intense pressure to close coal-fired plants because of competition from less expensive power sources like natural gas and renewables.

That helps to explain why Talen Energy announced a timetable this week to close the coal-fired power plants that it wholly owns, part of a shift in corporate strategy to focus on low-emissions power sources.

Texas-based Talen has about 14,000 megawatts of capacity across 21 locations, which is a lot, even though the company is not a household name the way many utilities are. Talen says it will stop burning coal by 2025 at the Montour plant in Pennsylvania and the Brandon Shores and H.A. Wagner plants in Maryland. The three plants have a combined capacity of about 3,600 megawatts. This is in addition to the company's 2018 announcement that it was going to stop burning coal by 2028 at the Brunner Island plant in Pennsylvania, with a capacity of 1,411 megawatts.

Emissions spew from a large stack at the coal fired Brandon Shores Power Plant, on March 9, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Emissions spew from a large stack at the coal fired Brandon Shores Power Plant, on March 9, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The announcement also included investments in renewable energy projects.

While Talen will stop burning coal at the four plants, it is planning to switch them to natural gas. The change would lead to much lower carbon emissions, but is a far cry from going to net-zero emissions.

Still, environmental groups are calling this a win. The Sierra Club was part of negotiations that led to Talen's decision.

"We applaud Talen's decision to join the ranks of leading power companies across the country in retiring climate-disrupting coal plants," said Mark Kresowik, a deputy regional director for the Sierra Club, in a statement. "This decision, and the company's growing investment in developing solar and electricity storage at these sites, should be supported by decision-makers and investors alike."

I wrote in October about the largest non-utility owner of power plants, Vistra Energy, closing most of its coal plants and adopting a plan to get to net-zero emissions by 2050. This week's announcement by Talen shows that these kinds of companies—often called "independent power producers"—are responding to a market in which coal power is often too expensive to compete.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the Sierra Club's position on Talen's plan to switch some power plants to natural gas. The environmental group did not agree to this shift.

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