Joe Biden’s long-anticipated climate plan landed this week, and it contained big promises designed to please some of the presumptive Democratic nominee for president’s key constituencies. After four years of borderline denialism and regulatory rollbacks on climate by the Trump administration, the plan seemed to excite environmental advocates past the point of reality checks.
First, let’s parse the politics of the plan. It calls for $2 trillion of spending over the next four years on areas such as energy efficiency and mass transit, up from the $1.7 trillion Biden pledged to climate issues as a primary candidate. It also calls for a move to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035, a change from his original net-zero goal of 2050. That new, rushed timetable is a direct assimilation of ideas from the progressive wing of his party. The youth-led Sunrise Movement and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who ran against Biden for the nomination on a climate platform, quickly gave enthusiastic endorsements.
Biden’s plan also has a big social justice component, promising to use 40% of the spending commitment on accountability and infrastructure in low-income and vulnerable communities. Those measures are likely aimed at shoring up Biden’s bona fides with younger Black voters, who polls show are less committed to his candidacy than their elders.
Presidential platforms shouldn’t be judged as policy. Still, those looking at the Biden climate plan from a more technical perspective have raised serious questions about its feasibility. Biden’s goal of clean electricity by 2035, for instance, surpasses even those of the most ambitious states, such as California and New York.
Jesse Jenkins, an energy systems engineering professor, helps lead Princeton University’s Net-Zero America Project, which has been researching the infrastructure changes needed for a future free from fossil-fuel electricity. To meet Biden’s clean electricity goal and keep up with new demand from electric vehicles and heating, based on Jenkins’s estimates, the U.S. would have to build 4 billion megawatt-hours of new clean electricity generation over the next 15 years. That’s about 2.5 times the country’s current clean energy capacity (including nuclear and hydroelectric) and roughly equal to all electric generation in the country today.
Even with ample funding, this would be very difficult. The current process for building new power plants is long, bureaucratic, and capital-intensive. It can take years to site a solar or wind plant and get community approval. “We need to accelerate that process,” Jenkins says, or Biden’s proposed timeline won’t work.
Then there’s the challenge of finding a fuel source that can produce energy even when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Currently natural gas, coal, and nuclear do that. Batteries now have the capacity to replace so-called natural gas peaker plants, which function for just a few hours a day during periods of high demand. But that won’t suffice for round-the-clock, full-year, consistent power generation.
Science and technology push us ever forward, though, and efficiency improvements could go a long way toward making possible much of what Biden proposes. The plan assigns $400 billion for research and development and procurement over the next four years. To put that in perspective, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis included $90 billion for renewable energy and other climate-friendly businesses—and that’s now regarded as the biggest climate legislation ever passed in the U.S.
The $400 billion on its own is a gigantic proposal. To get to 100% clean electricity in the next 15 years, however, the U.S. would almost certainly need it.