The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Biden signed into law last November is a down payment to modernize the electric grid in the United States, but it’s only a piece of what’s needed. The country needs a grid that is faster, more resilient and helps it meet its emissions reduction goals. As we enter 2022, it’s time for Congress to act and build a modern grid, based on renewable energy.
Some people question whether the U.S. can accelerate renewable energy deployment at the pace needed to fight the climate crisis. As energy experts who have spent our careers focused on the deployment of clean, renewable energy, we’ve heard these doubts before. But the last two decades have shown us that it's possible to rise to meet the challenge.
Twenty years ago, we each leapt into the emerging sustainable energy field. In 2001, Michael founded a clean energy company, Invenergy, out of a small Chicago office. The company set an early target to install 500 megawatts of renewable energy in five years and to date has developed over 25,000 megawatts of wind, solar and battery storage plants around the world.
That same year, Jennifer launched a program at WRI to jumpstart corporate demand for renewable electricity, with a goal of delivering 1,000 megawatts of clean energy by 2010. The 10 companies that originally joined the partnership helped galvanize an entire movement. Since 2001, corporate buyers have secured nearly 45,000 megawatts cumulatively.
Altogether the renewable energy industry has matured from providing enough renewable energy to power 12 million homes and employing about 169,000 workers in 2010 to powering over 44 million homes and providing roughly half a million direct jobs today.
Even so, progress on renewables is not nearly fast enough to fully bend the curve on carbon emissions, and energy demand continues to surge. Renewables still make up a relatively modest share — about 20% — of the country's overall electricity generation mix. To meet carbon reduction goals, the U.S. must at least double or even triple the current rate of new renewable energy installations over the next decade. We know this can be done, but the country needs to scale up the technology and infrastructure to make this happen now.
As wind and solar become a larger share of the nation’s power supply, government policy must support investments in critical infrastructure to move electricity from the country’s windiest and sunniest regions to the small towns and big cities where the bulk of electricity is consumed. Just as the U.S. invested in interstate highways to transport goods and pipelines to carry fuel over 60 years ago, the country should invest in long-distance, high-capacity transmission lines today. This infrastructure will move zero-carbon electrons to power our increasingly electrified economy, while making the grid more reliable.
It's also important to modernize the electricity grid to store more wind and solar energy so it’s available when it’s needed most. Battery storage is growing at record rates, but these deployments should be accelerated to bring more renewable energy to the grid. Additionally, it's necessary to commercialize the next generation of energy storage technologies that can operate for longer durations — increasing from days to weeks. This is critical to ensure that the energy supply is not disrupted, as seen in recent events like Hurricane Ida and last winter’s Texas freeze.
And it must be made easier to mobilize financial resources for clean energy and transmission investments to bring these projects to scale. Tax credits have helped support the growth of clean energy, leading to cheaper electricity prices for consumers across the country.
But many current tax credit policies are inefficient and end up generating substantial fees for the institutions that redeem the credits. These policies should be simplified so that credits go directly to project owners to maximize what gets repaid to taxpayers through lower energy costs. In addition, tax credits for battery storage and grid transmission are needed. These important changes are vital to deploying more clean energy, battery storage and transmission infrastructure faster, more efficiently, and more reliably.
Modernizing the grid and shifting to clean energy can deliver a massive boost to the U.S. economy, especially in rural areas. Every $1 million invested in positive climate measures would produce $1.5 million in added value for rural economies. And WRI research has found that every $1 million spent on clean energy in the U.S. generates more than twice as many jobs as the same amount invested in fossil fuels.
The country shouldn't back away from great challenges. It's essential to aim big and get to work.
Modernizing the country’s grid to accommodate more renewable energy and increase reliability will send an important message to the world — the U.S. will lead the next generation of energy innovation and rise to the climate challenge. Transforming the U.S. electricity system will provide a massive jobs and economic boon, as it positions the U.S. for global energy leadership into the future.
Michael Polsky is the Founder and CEO of Invenergy and a member of World Resources Institute’s Global Board of Directors.