When Joe Biden was running for President in his ultimately successful 2020 campaign, he was largely touted as having one of the most climate focused platforms in history. After being Vice President to Obama’s already then unprecedented commitment to green endeavors and support of clean energy, Biden sought to take that even further as the lead on the ticket. Biden promised record-setting investment in clean energy, prioritization of environmental justice, and establishment of the United States as a global climate leader.
While he’s only midway through his first year in the Oval Office, Biden has looked to make good on a number of campaign pledges, including those related to energy and the climate. In particular, a landmark commitment he made this past spring was setting the deadline for the utility sector to reach 100% zero carbon generation. In an official White House statement from April 2022, the release noted:
The United States has set a goal to reach 100 percent carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035, which can be achieved through multiple cost-effective pathways each resulting in meaningful emissions reductions in this decade.
For national and international climate target setting, the common deadline has long been 2050, tied to the goal of limiting temperature rises beyond a certain level by midcentury. Occasionally, that target would include intermediate tangible goal perhaps by 2040, but President Biden showed he meant business by accelerating his goal for the U.S. energy sector specifically to be 2035.
Since that declaration, this 2035 target has predictably become a lighting rod, both of support from advocates lauding the ambition and of criticism from opponents arguing it’s too aggressive and extreme and is setting the sector up for failure. That debate has heated up as the Biden Administration has signaled its intent to put these requirements into law.
To get a sense of what that debate looks like, let’s take a look at some key players on each side.
Yes, We Can—Support for Biden’s 2035 Deadline
A report from the Energy and Policy Institute (EPI) evaluated these 2035 goals by President Biden and compared them with the current state of utility commitments, coming up with two key messages. First, this new goal is more ambitious than the existing pathway that utilities had currently set for themselves, as the majority of major utilities across the United States had been targeting 2040 or 2050 for carbon neutrality. So, the Biden pledge isn’t just posturing or taking credit for what was already set in motion, but rather it’s a true signal sent that acceleration beyond what utilities are choosing to do on their own is necessary. Second, EPI found that the 2035 goal is in fact achievable, noting that moving away from natural gas and accelerating coal retirements is key. Even more optimistically, EPI noted that missing the 2035 deadline would potentially only mean slightly missing it, and the progress to get to that ‘almost’ success would still put the sector on the clean energy pathway at an acceptable rate.
These sentiments have been echoed by experts in climate policy like Leah Stokes of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Utilizing a clean electricity standard, she notes, could readily get the United States on the pathway to reach 80% clean power by 2030, a ramp up from the current rate of 2 percentage points added to the clean energy grid each year up to 5 percentage points, but one that would be attainable with the assistance of federal funding towards grid modernization and buildout. From there, getting to the 2035 goal of 100% clean energy (when factoring in technologies like carbon capture, high voltage transmission, small modular nuclear) would be well within reach. Not only that, but Stokes notes that “once we have that clean power, we can use it to power our transportation sector, our buildings and parts of heavy industry and cap emissions upwards of 70% to 80% economywide.” The 2035 carbon-free utility goal is just a step towards wider decarbonization, the type of domino effect that must be harnessed.
Let’s Get Real—Pushback on the 2035 Timeline
Of course, Biden’s goals don’t win unanimous confidence and support. Travis Kavulla is the Vice President of Regulatory Affairs at NRG Energy, a major U.S. utility headquartered in Houston serving 2.9 million customers across 10 states and the District of Columbia, and he came out with serious skepticism of the Biden timeline. On an online panel that was covering the topic of clean energy legislation, Kavulla bluntly noted that “I am skeptical of it, to be honest with you,” noting that the rate of clean energy technology advancement and implementation indicates 80% decarbonization is more realistic and achievable with technology available today. That last 20% would be more complicated and quite expensive, so artificially setting the 100% deadline is simply setting up the utilities for inevitable failure and is overlooking other areas where climate focus is better spent: transportation, agriculture, and elsewhere. But if 100% carbon free utilities become legally mandated, Kavulla notes that it will only be done alongside a significant hit to customers with unnecessarily higher energy costs, unintended consequences of preventing further electrification of cars and buildings, and with inevitable new grid reliability concerns.
Utilities are also concerned with what a 2035 carbon-free power deadline might mean for their operations if they’re pushed faster than they think is feasible. Emily Fisher, a senior VP of clean energy at the Edison Electric Institute (an association representing all U.S. investor owned utilities), noted that the 2035 goal undoubtedly requires reliance on technology that simply doesn’t exist yet: long-duration energy storage, advanced nuclear generation, cost-effective carbon capture, and more. Those technologies are in the pipeline and they’re aspiration ally being worked on because they absolutely can and will revolutionize the power sector when made available, but if goals are set today assuming those technologies will come online by a given date, then when delays in their development come (as they have for pretty much all energy-related moonshot projects) the utilities are being set up for failure and will be penalized unjustly, diverting attention and resources away from what is achievable otherwise. At the very least, Fisher’s argument goes, legislation that turns the 2035 goal into a requirement must come with some utility protections, such as allowing them to earn bankable credits for over achieving early on in the process, allowing for applications to extend deadlines should technology be slower than expected, or other legislative flexibility tools.
What’s It Mean?
A common challenge with climate-related pledges and policies comes in the form of accountability. Action on climate is a problem that’s inherently global in nature, so there’s only so much a national figure head can do. Further, the timeframe in which action is taken and results are needed are decades in the future. Even with President Biden looking at the nearer-term 2035 rather than further out 2040 or 2050 and beyond, the results of this pledge and its associated actions will still not be felt until long after most of those in office now have seen their terms come to an end.
So, as with climate policies before it, the jury won’t be out for quite some time and targets will be reevaluated as the years go on. The real impact of this specific action will be hard to measure, and successful measurement won’t be done for years. But in the meantime, looking into the reaction and insights from industry leaders—both supportive of and outspoken against the policy—provide the best view we can get into the path forward. Hopefully, conversations among the smartest and most influential among the sector will continue and whatever path is chosen, it’s done with the future of the grid, the climate, and the customers in mind.
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