SOTU: Biden links clean energy policy to ‘tens of thousands’ of jobs

By Brian Dabbs, Heather Richards, Jason Plautz | 03/08/2024 06:54 AM EST

The president made big promises about what his climate and energy agenda could deliver in a speech crafted to boost his reelection bid.

President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address in the House chamber at the U.S. Capitol March 7, 2024.

President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address Thursday in the House chamber at the Capitol. Francis Chung/POLITICO

President Joe Biden tied his climate policies to domestic manufacturing growth and union jobs in the final State of the Union address of his first term.

“I’m taking the most significant action ever on climate in the history of the world,” he said Thursday night to a House chamber that featured heckles from Republicans and chants of “four more years” from Democratic allies. “I’m cutting our carbon emissions in half by 2030.”

The president delivered a sprawling speech designed to ratchet up support for his reelection bid amid flagging poll numbers. He pushed a 25 percent minimum tax for billionaires, funding for Ukraine’s fight against the invading Russian army and reductions in prescription drug costs. Biden also jousted with Republicans like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (who yelled from the audience) on immigration and border funding.


Biden spent comparatively little time talking about his climate policies, even as polls show that most Americans know little about the administration’s historic investment in clean energy. Some congressional Democrats had urged Biden to highlight his climate and energy wins Thursday night in the face of a reelection campaign against former President Donald Trump.

Biden promised big, however, on what his energy policies would deliver. The Inflation Reduction Act, he said, is fueling “tens of thousands of clean energy jobs,” pointing to plans to produce electric vehicles at a shuttered plant in Illinois and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers projects on EV charging stations.

He pointed to his efforts to create a Climate Corps of young people working on clean energy projects, pledging to increase their numbers to 60,000 this decade. He said his policies have helped spur billions of dollars in private sector investments in clean energy and advanced manufacturing.

“I see a future where we save the planet from the climate crisis,” he said.

But experts say the U.S. still has a ways to go to cut planet-warming emissions at levels in line with international climate goals.

The Biden administration has made decarbonizing the power sector a major part of its climate agenda, with the goal of achieving a zero-carbon grid by 2035. And while the IRA — Biden’s signature climate law — has significantly boosted the country’s renewable power, it won’t be enough to meet the 2035 target, according to an analysis last year from Princeton University researchers.

The U.S. is also producing a record amount of oil and gas, prompting criticism from climate activists who want the administration to more aggressively target the fossil fuels driving climate change. Biden’s backing of ConocoPhillips’ Willow project, an $8 billion oil drilling plan in Alaska, also angered environmentalists.

Meanwhile, Biden’s plans to limit pollution from power plants and vehicles — the stick to the IRA’s carrot — has come under attack from fossil fuel groups.

The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, an industry association, is running ads criticizing the administration’s plans to regulate tailpipe emissions. Ahead of the speech Thursday, American Gas Association President Karen Harbert called on Biden to lift “the blockade against new LNG export approvals,” a reference to the Department of Energy’s recent pause of approvals for new LNG export permits.

“We urge President Biden to abandon the partisan decisions that are jeopardizing American energy advantage — from freezing U.S. liquefied natural gas permits to imposing de facto bans on the cars Americans drive every day,” Mike Sommers, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement.

Biden’s next steps on energy and climate policy will be a juggling act, underscoring the challenges in transitioning away from fossil fuels, experts said.

The president’s record “reveals both the strengths and the weaknesses of the United States when it comes to formulating a reasonable approach to energy and climate,” said Joseph Majkut, director of the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“On the one hand, we’re making enormous investments into clean energy, working to diversify supply chains and create low carbon innovations that are really necessary for net zero. At the same time, we appear to be over promising on what we could deliver on emissions reductions,” he said.

Renewables growth

Even so, leaders in the renewable sector say many of Biden’s policies have made a difference.

The country added 32,400 megawatts of new solar generating capacity in 2023, a 51 percent increase from 2022, according to data released Wednesday by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and consulting group Wood Mackenzie. Solar also accounted for more than 50 percent of the new electricity generation added to the grid in 2023, an annual record.

“Pro-business, pro-growth clean energy laws passed under this administration have done more for domestic solar manufacturing than any program or policy in U.S. history,” said SEIA President Abigail Ross Hopper in a statement Thursday. “We have the laws in place we need to break free from our reliance on imports and build a strong, American-made energy future that helps us breathe cleaner air and lead healthier lives.”

Nearly half of all the solar capacity currently on the grid has been installed in just three years under Biden. That figure was no doubt helped by tax credits and other incentives extended under the IRA, even as high interest rates made large projects more expensive to build.

Industry observers say there’s more the White House can do in the remaining months of Biden’s first term to get even more solar on the grid.

Pol Lezcano, a solar analyst for BloombergNEF, said in an email that the administration “has not done enough to lower component prices for U.S. solar projects,” including by not removing tariffs on solar component imports. A temporary pause on tariffs for solar panels imported from four Southeast Asian countries is set to expire in June, which could raise prices even further.

Solar developers in the U.S. are paying just over 30 cents per watt on solar modules in the first quarter of the year, said Lezcano, compared to a global market price of just 11 cents per watt. The tariff policy, he added, means a record of “mixed success” for Biden, even though the administration “has had most of the right ideas to further boost solar deployments.”

Developers also face barriers in the permitting and interconnection process, which may lay outside of the administration’s control. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is working on policy that could clear up delays in getting large-scale solar projects on to the grid, and the Bureau of Land Management recently proposed updates to a plan that would expand the federal lands eligible for commercial-scale solar.

But plenty of policy — especially for smaller-scale installations in communities or on rooftops — lies with local and state regulators or regional transmission operators, out of the direct hands of the White House.

Like solar, the wind industry has hit ups and downs in recent years, thanks to high inflation and supply chain challenges. Offshore wind has been particular hard hit, leading to broken power contracts with states and two canceled wind farms off the coast of New Jersey.

That has undermined Biden’s goal of reaching 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030 — a target industry is no longer expected to meet. But the IRA’s expanded tax credits helped buffer some of the industry’s headwinds, and the Biden administration is now permitting offshore wind farms faster than when it took office. Just two projects were approved by Biden in 2021, compared to four in 2023.

Stephanie McClellan, executive director of the offshore wind industry group Turn Forward, said the strongest action the administration can take for offshore wind is to keep up its permitting pace, echoing the Biden’s director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management at a recent industry event in Washington.

“The way that we build an industry is by building projects,” McClellan said. “So, those projects need to be permitted.”

Onshore wind also is facing hurdles. A recent analysis from a group of research firms found the U.S. grid added 6.3 gigawatts of net summer capacity for wind energy last year — down from a peak of 14.6 GW on new wind capacity in 2020.

“That is a worrying trend,” Anand Gopal, executive director of policy research at Energy Innovation: Policy and Technology, one of the groups involved in the analysis, told E&E News in February.

LNG and hydrogen wild cards

Outside of the power sector, the administration’s push to shift away from fossil fuels is creating tricky politics.

Take the Treasury Department’s upcoming guidance on how hydrogen producers can claim a new tax credit in the IRA. The Biden administration sees hydrogen as key to its climate agenda, potentially decarbonizing sectors of the economy that are otherwise hard to get off fossil fuels — like heavy industry.

But the hydrogen industry is calling a draft version of the guidance “overly restrictive” because it would require hydrogen made from electricity to use new clean energy. Environmentalists, meanwhile, say the guidance should be strengthened to ensure the fuel is truly “green” and produced with clean energy.

Potential emissions reductions in the industrial sector are also difficult to model.

“It is, I think, a real challenge right now — trying to make accurate forecasts on this front,” said John Bistline, program manager of the Energy Systems and Climate Analysis Group at the Electric Power Research Institute. “Technologies that are changing really quickly are ones where it is really difficult to make projections about where they’ll head in five to 10 years, let alone multiple decades from now.”

The fight over liquefied natural gas, meanwhile, is a mixed bag for the Biden administration that’s created domestic tensions and international opportunities, said Majkut with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Even with the administration’s pause on new LNG export approvals, export of the gas is likely to expand, experts note. That could anger climate-conscious voters further.

“The continued growth of energy exports, particularly LNG and oil, are going to create both political challenges and opportunities for engagement with allies and friends around the world,” Majkut said.

Gas operations can leak or flare methane, which has many times more warming potential in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide over the short term.

Biden has pushed for regulatory changes to control emissions, like EPA’s recently advanced methane rules, but the regulatory approach is time intensive, Majkut noted.

Other levers to ultimately cut emissions, like building infrastructure needed for an energy transition, have been snarled in political bickering, he said.

“From an overall portfolio, you see both real strengths of the U.S. when it comes to our energy and climate,” Majkut said. “But [Biden faces] real challenges formulating stronger policies around climate change.”

This story also appears in Climatewire.