How realistic is Biden's net zero by 2035 target for the US?

Even if "build back better" bill is passed, transmission remains a major hurdle for energy transition, analysts say

Panellists at American Clean Power Association conference discuss what it will take for the US to reach net zero by 2035

Wind and solar installations in the United States will need to almost double in size from their current levels to reach President Joe Biden’s goal of a net zero grid by 2035. 

This is according to Ethan Zindler, head of Americas at BloombergNEF (BNEF). He spoke yesterday (7 December) at the American Clean Power Association’s Cleanpower 2021 conference in Salt Lake City. 

BNEF forecasts installations of both wind and solar power in the US to reach record levels in this year, he told a session entitled "the clean energy future: a net zero grid within reach".

Xizhou Zhou, vice president in the climate and sustainability group at IHS Markit, told the same session that the current 70GW of wind and solar installed annually in the US would have to ramp up to about 100GW a year to get to net zero in 2035. Transmission will probably need to double in size to get to net zero, he added. 

Policy that strongly supports US wind power is on the horizon. 

The $1.7 trillion Build Back Better (BBB) bill, passed recently by the House of Representatives and about to be debated in the Senate, provides “unprecedented” support for wind power, solar and energy storage, noted Zindler. The bill would grant ten-year extensions to the main subsidies for wind power, the production and investment tax credits. Both are due to be phased out. 

Importantly, the bill would make the credits refundable, so project owners need not rely on a tax equity provider, Zhou said. 

Zindler cited BNEF research suggesting if the bill  passes in its current form, the levelised cost of energy (LCoE) for new US wind would be 30% lower than otherwise would be expected by 2030. The cost of onshore wind would in fact be below the 2021-2030 market price of electricity in the US’s 13-state PJM transmission region.

The PJM region includes all or parts of Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.

On whether BBB could help to double wind and solar installations, Zindler said: “It depends upon how much of a hair cut Joe Manchin gives it.” Moderate Democrat Manchin is chair of the Senate Energy Committee. 

Manchin has already pressured the White House to drop a provision in the bill to encourage utilities to transition to more clean energy – and fine them if they do not. The senator, who represents West Virginia, a major coal-producing state, is generally sceptical of the climate elements of BBB, saying that fossil fuels should not be disadvantaged. 

During the conference session, Michael Conti, vice president of the renewable power group at major investor Goldman Sachs, pointed to lack of grid access for renewable power plants as a major impediment to reaching net zero by 2035. 

“Interconnection is one of the biggest structural risks that needs to be addressed through policy,” he told attendees. 

Because of the variability of renewables, much storage is needed, but it is easier said than done, he said.  We are still on the upside of the cost curve for storage, and availability of equipment is limited as is interconnection to the grid. 

Ed Crooks, vice-chair for the Americas at Wood Mackenzie emphasised that the US Congress in November passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which included $2.5 billion for a transmission facilitation programme. “Arguably, it should be many times that,” he said, echoing comments by clean energy advocates.

The US’s grid is widely viewed by experts as ageing and balkanised. Panel moderator, Holly Carias, Avangrid Renewables’ vice president of origination, recalled that when talking about the infrastructure bill, Crooks in a November blog had quoted economist JK Galbraith’s 1950s description of the US as having “an atmosphere of private opulence and public squalor”.