Commuters in California will be familiar with radio ads that ask them to ration electricity when they get home from work. The campaign begs consumers to power down between 4 pm and 9 pm, when renewable energy generation dips and utilities struggle to power the grid. While most Americans don’t have to think twice about when they run their dishwasher, Joe Biden’s renewable energy agenda could make that a thing of the past. Without reforming federal regulations that hold back the construction of renewable energy generation, Biden’s policies will leave consumers in the dark.
It’s little surprise that consumers in California are begged to keep the lights off, given the state’s fragile-by-design electricity industry. Sacramento’s commitment to cutting carbon emissions has seen a decrease in fossil fuel electricity generation. Unfortunately, not enough renewable capacity has been built to fill the gap, forcing utilities to purchase power from interstate generators.
This renewable house of cards famously came tumbling down in August last year. A heatwave sapped excess electricity from neighboring states and Californians were subject to rolling blackouts, or ‘greenouts’ as they were termed. For Californian consumers who were stuck inside due to lockdown regulations, the combination of a scorching hot spell, no air conditioning, and wildfire smoke poisoning the breeze was an almost fire and brimstone experience.
Despite the demonstrated hazard of not replacing power generation as it is taken offline, the Biden-Harris administration risks dragging the rest of America down Dante’s renewable inferno. The White House has vowed to make the nation’s electricity 100% carbon-free by 2035. To reach that target, Biden wants to implement a clean energy standard that would force utilities to source 80% their electricity from carbon neutral sources by 2030.
The practical problem with these ambitious targets is that it is seemingly easier to pressure a coal plant into retirement than it is to rapidly build a solar or wind farm. This is, in part, because federal environmental regulations are so outdated that they end up hindering renewable projects.
The 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), for example, mandates that federal agencies consider the human and ecological effects of their decisions. This includes issuing permits or grants and, to satisfy NEPA, an environmental impact statement (EIS) is often required. While NEPA provides an important opportunity to consider a project’s environmental effects, the process has become a convenient pathway for litigious activists to come out of the woodwork and fight infrastructural development.
These parochial interests have made lengthy mazes out of otherwise common-sense environmental impact statements. In recent years, it has taken on average between 3 and 5 years to complete an EIS. Moreover, a 2020 report from the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality found that the average length of a final EIS between 2013 and 2018 was 667 pages, with appendices running an additional 1,042 pages. Although not all environmental impact statements will be as arduous, these figures demonstrate how drawn-out and petty the process can become.
Without streamlining the EIS process, the Biden-Harris administration’s renewable ambitions will likely face avoidable setbacks. In March, the White House lined up several cabinet secretaries to congratulate their own ‘bold actions’ in support of the offshore wind industry. A press release touted that up to 10 wind-related environmental reviews could be initiated at some undefined time later this year.
Fortunately absent was HHS secretary, Xavier Becerra, who previously led the knee-jerk fight against Trump-era efforts to speed up the EIS rigmarole. If Becerra and co. have their way, it is likely that construction on these wind projects won’t begin until the middle of this decade. When Biden’s offshore plans eventually meet the NEPA iceberg, questions should be posed directly across the mahogany table of the Cabinet Room.
A majority of Americans think that the federal government isn’t doing enough to address climate change. Meanwhile, the Biden-Harris administration’s chief climate emissary John Kerry says that quality of life doesn’t have to be sacrificed to cut emissions. However, without addressing the byzantine EIS process under NEPA, Americans will be left with less climate action and less reliable access to electricity. As quickly as the fleet of carbon-intensive plants are retired, Joe Biden needs to roll out clean energy before the rolling blackouts kick in.