When it comes to President Joe Biden’s landmark efforts on climate and energy issues, it has been said success will hinge on his talented group of advisers and finding consensus on policies that can win the approval of Congress.
Apparently, it also will feature a healthy dose of baseball metaphors. As an article in the Wall Street Journal noted, the Biden administration is stocked with climate “all-stars,” which is tantamount to having Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Willie Mays on the same team.
Many of the president’s so-called climate all-stars are alumni of the Obama administration who joined the Biden team at an inflection point for climate change.
Biden’s top foreign and domestic climate aides, John Kerry and Gina McCarthy, both accepted less prestigious positions than they had as secretary of state and Environmental Protection Agency administrator, respectively, to work on carbon reduction.
The White House team also includes Jane Lubchenco, a well-known marine scientist at Oregon State University and former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Biden administration is not only getting noticed for its many high-powered resumes, but for how attention to climate is permeating all levels of government.
“The Biden Cabinet is focused on climate from Transportation to Energy to the State Department,” says Chaz Teplin of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a clean-energy think tank. “This is something that hasn’t been the case before.”
The Biden administration’s “all-of-government” approach to climate change makes it easier to avoid the pitfalls of a Senate filibuster.
“With their approach, they don’t have to hit a home run with a 1,000-page climate bill to get things done,” says Marty Kanner, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist who represents public power clients before Congress. “They can hit a bunch of singles and still move the needle on climate.”
Nonetheless, the administration is arguably swinging for the fences.
In April, Biden pledged to slash U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases in at least half by 2030. One approach to meet that pledge is a clean energy standard that requires electric utilities to shift toward lower-emission power sources.
“The United States has set a goal to reach 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035, which can be achieved through multiple cost-effective pathways, each resulting in meaningful emissions reductions in this decade,” a White House fact sheet states.
Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association—which represents more than 900 electric cooperatives nationwide—is not convinced multiple pathways exist to meet this target.
“‘Zero carbon by 2035’—we think that’s an overly ambitious goal,” Matheson says.
America’s electric cooperatives lowered their carbon emissions by 18% between 2005 and 2019, but Matheson believes the president’s target is aspirational, at best.
“We’re having trouble seeing how we get there,” he says. “Where’s the technology today that can allow that to happen, to get all the way to zero?”
The cost of renewable energy may have plummeted, but according to Arne Olson, senior partner at the energy consulting firm E3—Energy and Environmental Economics—getting to zero is still a steep climb. Despite advances in technology, “The cost of achieving the last percentage points of carbon emission reduction becomes very, very high,” Olson says.
Undeniably, the focus will be on new technologies that can bridge this gap, but the Biden administration is also relying on some stalwarts that have a new level of appreciation. A critical resource in the Pacific Northwest—hydropower—has often taken a backseat when it comes to renewable energy sources.
Under President Barack Obama, the push for renewables was largely focused on wind and solar. Under the Biden administration, hydropower seems to be making a comeback.
That is confirmed by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm in her policy statement, “Deploying the Clean Energy Revolution.”
“Whether it’s solar, hydropower, carbon capture or batteries, the clean energy technologies of the future are going to bring you affordable, reliable power and protect our planet in the future,” Granholm wrote.
John Hairston, administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration—which markets electricity from 31 federal hydro projects in the Northwest—believes hydropower is a critical component of the administration’s clean energy goals.
“Part of the equation is ensuring resource adequacy—that is, having enough generation to meet peak demand in the region as it continues to reduce fossil fuels and add cleaner, intermittent power resources,” Hairston wrote in an article for The Seattle Times.
While Granholm and Hairston believe hydropower will be part of the clean energy future, Republican Congressman Mike Simpson of Idaho has generated considerable attention—and controversy—with his $33 billion plan to “end the salmon wars” and breach the four lower Snake River dams in Eastern Washington.
Simpson’s proposal—which is not presented in legislative form—envisions replacing the 1,000 average megawatts the dams produce with other renewable, non-carbon-emitting sources and energy storage.
Despite the national attention, regional reaction has been measured. Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer announced his support for the proposal, while U.S. Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rogers of Washington have spearheaded the opposition.
Notwithstanding its climate all-star team and sweeping emission goals, the Biden administration already has been buffeted by events it cannot control. Winter storms in February battered Texas and the western United States, exposing the fragility of an aging electrical grid and pummeling many of the areas devastated by 2020 wildfires.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, has pressed the Biden administration to work with him on his Disaster Safe Power Grid Act.
“Last year, wildfires hit Oregon like a wrecking ball, and winter storms left thousands of Oregonians without power,” Wyden told David Turk of the U.S. Department of Energy during his confirmation hearing. “I have legislation to make utility lines more resistant to these major weather events—undergrounding and clearing away brush so expense is not borne by rural ratepayers.”
A major challenge for the Biden administration will be implementing its ambitious climate programs by loading renewable resources onto the grid without incurring electric reliability issues that left Texas and other states in the dark this winter. If they can, Biden could claim a landmark legislative achievement that is as rare as, say, the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series.