How President Biden Can Clean Up the Power Sector

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President-elect Biden has laid out the boldest climate commitments of any president. He has rightly marked the climate crisis as one of the four “great battles of our time,” alongside the pandemic, economic recovery, and racial justice. Clean energy and climate change are crucial to millions of Americans.

Cleaning up the power sector is a central goal of Biden’s climate plan, which sets the target of achieving a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035. Electric power is one of the largest sources of climate-changing pollution (just behind transportation). And a cleaned-up, expanded electric sector—replacing dirty fuels in our vehicles and buildings—is key to meeting the nation’s overall climate goals.

That’s why President-elect Biden sees clean power as key to new jobs and economic growth: “Transforming the U.S. electricity sector—and electrifying an increasing share of the economy—represents the biggest job creation and economic opportunity engine of the 21st century.”

The climate plan for all agencies and sectors requires three essential ingredients: standards, investment and equity. Here are five actions Biden can take to clean up the power sector:   

Reboot a Suite of Strong, Multipollutant Standards on Power Plants

As president, Biden can accomplish a lot using laws already on the books. The Environmental Protection Agency needs to set standards that aggressively cut carbon pollution from new and existing power plants under section 111 of the Clean Air Act. That includes withdrawing the do-nothing “Affordable Clean Energy” rule, which was intended to prop up dirty old coal plants, and issuing a new standard that puts the power sector on the path to meeting the new president’s 2035 target. NRDC analysis shows that a new clean power standard could cut carbon pollution by at least 60 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, for less than the original Clean Power Plan was expected to cost—and in the bargain save as many as 5,200 more lives each year by cutting soot and smog pollution.

At the same time, Biden will likely also direct EPA to strengthen key public health standards: updating National Ambient Air Quality Standards for fine particles and ozone, strengthening toxic air pollution standards, strengthening cross-state air pollution rules to better curb the transport of dangerous pollution downwind, and reinvigorating policies to use best available science and to account for cumulative risks.

Taken together, this suite of power sector standards would better protect communities most burdened by pollution, cut hundreds of thousands of cases of asthma, heart disease, lung cancer, and preterm births, and confront the climate crisis at the same time. In addition, Biden has promised to create a Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool and to mandate new monitoring in communities near fossil-fueled power plants and other polluting sources. This air quality data should be used to prioritize emission reductions and enforcement in the communities that need it most—many that are communities of color and low-income communities on the frontlines of pollution, who deserve protection from further harm.

Promote Clean Energy Through DOE, FERC and DOI Actions

Biden is also expected to work through the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to promote wind and solar power, energy efficiency, and energy storage, and modernize the grid. FERC needs to remove preferences and protections for dirty power plants and pipelines, jumpstart planning for a clean energy power grid, and embrace meaningful public participation, all of which must address longstanding equity concerns.

Biden will also likely direct the Interior Department to scale down fossil-fuel leasing and ramp up clean power generation on our public lands and waters, while protecting our most treasured places and endangered species. He’ll also likely direct all agencies to harness the federal government’s enormous buying power to scale up clean energy.   

Work with Congress to Invest in Clean Energy

President Biden will work with the next Congress to build clean energy into the recovery, infrastructure, and other must-pass legislation. He’ll push to fund clean energy R&D at DOE and other agencies to further bring down the rapidly declining costs of clean energy technologies, and he’ll press to extend and expand tax incentives that help communities, companies, and individuals deploy those technologies and create thousands of good-paying jobs.

Target 40% of Clean Energy Investment to Protect Disadvantaged Communities

Biden has committed to targeting 40 percent of clean energy investments—including deployment of clean energy and energy efficiency—toward disadvantaged communities. Biden’s environmental justice plan incorporates aspects of several environmental justice bills introduced in recent years.  

Work with Congress to Pass a Clean Energy Standard

Biden has also called for Congress to pass a clean energy standard that would steadily ramp up the percentage of clean electricity utilities must deliver to their customers. Like new EPA standards, a clean energy standard would reduce soot and smog pollution, saving up to 7,200 lives each year, according to NRDC analysis.

The cost of inaction on the climate crisis becomes clearer every year. Nine of the 10 hottest years on record fell in the past decade. This year brought record wildfires and in the West and devastating hurricanes and tropical storms in the South. The pandemic has exposed how pollution worsens COVID risks, especially for already overburdened communities. 

No wonder that climate change emerged this year as a top-tier public concern and voting issue for millions of Americans, especially young people who turned out in record numbers. President-elect Biden has centered climate change as one of the four extraordinary crises America must meet, along with defeating the pandemic, rebuilding our economy, and achieving racial justice. 

We can, and must, meet this challenge.

About the Authors

David Doniger

Senior Strategic Director, Climate & Clean Energy Program

Ben Longstreth

Senior Attorney & Deputy Director, Federal Policy Group, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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