The Biden administration aims to transform the United States into a 100% clean energy economy by 2050. We take a look at what this means for the renewables sector.
“At this moment of profound crisis, we have the opportunity to build a more resilient, sustainable economy – one that will put the United States on an irreversible path to achieve net-zero emissions, economy-wide” – President Joe Biden.
Upon taking office on January 20, President Joe Biden immediately got to work on his campaign pledge to shift the US towards a green future. Signing a series of executive orders, he ordered federal agencies to procure carbon-free energy, drive the development of clean energy technologies, and speed up clean energy generation and transmission projects. His administration wants to eliminate pollution from fossil fuel in the power sector by 2035 and from the wider US economy by 2050 and intends to spend US$2tn over four years to make that happen.
The climate plan proposed by Biden is set to result in significant changes in energy policy in the US. Here’s what to expect.
NO MORE ASSISTANCE TO FOSSIL FUEL DEVELOPMENT
The heavily fossil fuel powered grid generates 28% of US emissions, and the new president seeks to get this to zero, fast, by pausing oil and gas leasing on federal land and targeting subsidies for those industries as well as establishing aggressive methane pollution limits for new and existing oil and gas operations, which will likely drive up costs for already marginal US oil and gas drilling operations.
PRICING CARBON OUT OF THE MARKET
In a written statement to Senate Finance Committee members’ questions, Janet Yellen, President Biden’s nominee to run the Treasury Department, said: “We cannot solve the climate crisis without effective carbon pricing. The president supports an enforcement mechanism that requires polluters to bear the full cost of the carbon pollution they are emitting.” A national carbon tax is expected to be implemented within the US, creating a direct negative impact on corporate polluters’ bottom line, and resulting in clean renewable energy becoming more competitive than traditional fuels.
A RETHINK OF TRADE POLICY
In 2018, the Trump administration imposed a four-year, 30% tariff on imported solar panels, which prevented the deployment of 10.5 gigawatts of solar that would otherwise have been built, according to analysis from the Solar Energy Industries Association, the industry’s largest trade group. It has called upon President Biden to remove these tariffs, to help bring down prices in order to achieve its goal of providing 20% of US electricity by 2030, up from just 3% currently. While the new US administration is yet to make a move in this regard, pressure from US industry bodies is growing, and it’s likely that President Joe Biden will look to review the solar import tariffs in short order.
NEW INCENTIVES FOR RENEWABLE ENERGY
Extensions to existing tax credits for renewable energy are expected as the US government seeks to make its plan operational. As part of former President Trump’s Taxpayer Certainty and Disaster Tax Relief Act of 2020, the expiry of the production tax credit (PTC) for wind and certain other renewable energy technologies was pushed out a further year, to the end of 2021, while the phasing down of the investment tax credit (ITC), which is applicable to solar and certain other renewable energy projects, was frozen for two years.
As these credits remain vital for the development of the renewable energy industry and the continued potential for growth in the US as it seeks to recover from the economic impact of the pandemic, further fiscal incentives can be expected, with the potential for refundable credits being able to be leveraged in financing structures for renewable energy investments.
THE NUMBERS ADD UP…
Beyond policy implications, the practicalities of greening the grid of the world’s largest economy in just 15 years make this no mean feat: developers of renewable capacity will have to triple their installation pace from 2020’s rate immediately in order to hit Biden’s goal, according to a study from the University of California at Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.
However, the researchers found that the continued decrease in the price of both solar and wind energy will mean that removing around 90% of the grid’s emissions by 2035 would lower wholesale electricity prices 10%, while improved battery storage will ensure the reliability of the US’ new, cleaner grid. In effect, President Biden’s plan is both financially and economically viable.
… FOR AN IMMINENT ENVIRONMENTAL INFRASTRUCTURE BOOM
Beyond academic research, capital market activity also indicates that positive sentiment is building behind President Biden’s plan. In the week before the president’s inauguration, alternative energy funds saw an inflow of US$4bn, according to Lipper data, as investors bet on a bright outlook for renewable energy firms. To put this into perspective, for the full year 2020, total inflows were just US$17.1bn.
The scope and reach of the new administration’s clean energy agenda is certainly ambitious, but we believe that it demonstrates an alignment between the government and growing numbers of influential, globally recognized US companies, who have committed to 100% renewable power as part of the RE100 initiative. These companies, which include Apple, American Express, Facebook, General Motors, and Google, have already signed PPAs for renewable energy in numerous countries, inspiring many others to follow suit.
Until now, however, the US was cited by RE100 members as a “challenging market” for corporate sourcing due to “a lack of leadership by the federal government”. With the Biden administration’s new climate policy, this is likely to change, and we expect to see a surge in demand from corporations across numerous industry verticals – from retail to manufacturing, heavy industry, and beyond.
It isn’t only corporate America that supports the energy transition: 90% of Americans, regardless of political beliefs, support solar, according to research done by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).
The Biden administration’s climate and energy goals are bold, but the American Clean Power Association (ACP), a newly formed trade group, has stated that the renewable power industry is ready to help the country meet them, and at Atlas Renewable Energy, we are adding our voice to that of our colleagues in the US.
Since 2017, we have developed, built, and operated large-scale renewable energy projects that have enabled the energy transition across Latin America. We were the first to implement a solar private PPA in Chile some eight years ago, and we’ve since continued to advance the adoption of renewable energy by large energy consumers. With one of the largest solar asset bases in the region, we signed a record 660MW in corporate PPAs in 2020, making us Latin America’s top developer in the region by contracted volume, according to Bloomberg. We’re already a trusted partner for US multinationals like Dow and Anglo American, and we look forward to supporting a growing number of companies to lower their CO2 emissions for a greener future across the region.