West News Wire: Gov. Eric Holcomb and other Republican officeholders led a rousing cheering section at the groundbreaking in October for what will become the nation’s largest solar farm, sprawling over 13,000 acres of farmland outside of South Bend, Ind.
The solar panels alone will cover an area the size of three Central Parks in New York City, creating a monument to clean energy in a county that voted 3 to 1 for Donald Trump over Joe Biden in the 2020 election.
Money and jobs were the focus of the applause. The $1.5 billion Mammoth Solar project will initially employ 500 people and could generate years of tax revenue in the future. At the time, Starke County Commissioner Mark Gourley exclaimed, “This energy that we harvest here in Starke County is going to enrich lives throughout the county.”
But Republican zeal for the solar project in northern Indiana stands in sharp contrast to the national party, which is united in its opposition to President Biden’s energy agenda. That was cast in sharp relief Sunday, after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced he would join 50 Senate Republicans to oppose Biden’s $1.7 trillion social spending plan — including $320 billion in tax incentives to further boost the prospects for clean energy and to address climate change.
Manchin’s declaration and resolute Republican opposition may have ended a nearly six-month White House push to find the votes to pass the centerpiece of Biden’s “Build Back Better” policy agenda.
Yet discussions around the scope of energy financing in the Democratic bill have fallen squarely in the path of a decades long debate about the government’s role in energy innovation. How much does deployment of low-carbon power and cutting-edge energy innovation have to rely on federal support to get off the ground?
“This debate has been going on for a long time,” said Ernest Moniz, Energy secretary under former President Obama. As a rough characterization, he said, the GOP has opposed federal support meant to speed up the deployment of carbon-free energy sources that compete with fossil fuels. The thinking behind that is clear, Moniz said: “’The private sector will take care of it.’”
On Sunday, in an interview on the Fox News Channel, Manchin pointed to the ramping up of renewable energy investment by the private sector in explaining his decision to reject federal support and investment.
“The energy transition my colleagues seek is already well underway in the United States of America,” Manchin said. “In the last two years, as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and with bipartisan support, we have invested billions of dollars into clean energy technologies so we can continue to lead the world in reducing emissions through innovation.”
That view aligns Manchin with GOP leaders who endorse federal spending on energy research but are locked in opposition to long-term federal policy and financial incentives for clean energy.
The White House yesterday rejected the notion that Biden’s goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 is in jeopardy.
“There are multiple paths to reaching the president’s climate goals,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters yesterday. The White House is still pressing for a compromise on the “Build Back Better” plan and a vote in Congress, she said.
The Republican view on injecting billions of dollars into clean energy was summed up by Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte after he pulled his state out of the U.S. Climate Alliance in July, parting company with two dozen other state governors who have pledged to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement.
A former software entrepreneur who sold his Bozeman, Mont., technology startup to Oracle Corp for $1.8 billion a decade ago, Gianforte hitches his policy to invention and markets.
“To help the state, the country and the world, we’ve got to focus on American innovation and ingenuity,” Gianforte told the Montana Free Press in August, echoing what has been a cornerstone of his party’s economic doctrine since technology entered politics. “We shouldn’t be picking winners and losers.”
But Moniz counters that the argument to just let the market work ignores the urgency of the climate challenge.
“Every year, it becomes more and more clear that we just don’t have time,” Moniz said. “We need to get these technologies deployed.”
Democrats also have said that federal support was critical for technology advances such as the first utility-scale solar projects larger than 100 megawatts, which were supported by Department of Energy funds.
Moniz and energy historian Dan Yergin, vice chair of IHS Markit, led a study of innovation’s impact on clean energy in 2019, funded by Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy group.
It warned that the often-cited “Valley of Death” — the failure of potential technology breakthroughs to survive to commercialization — is particular deep for the U.S. power grid.
“Energy is a highly capitalized commodity business, with complex supply chains and established customer bases, providing essential services at all levels of society. These features lead to systems with considerable inertia, focus on reliability and safety, aversion to risk, extensive regulation, and complex politics,” according to the study.
“The Build Back Better Act is our best chance to set the country on a new path towards a brighter future,” Hershman said following Manchin’s announcement. The tax incentives “will grow clean energy deployment, support domestic manufacturing, and create hundreds of thousands of American jobs. The future of our country depends on it.”
Next year, his company will add lithium storage batteries to every new utility-scale solar project it builds, he said.
Caroline Golin, Google’s global lead for energy policy and market development, said in an interview that it’s not enough simply to count the number of solar farms Americans build.
She believes that the size of the clean energy market, or how much is being purchased, is more important.
The Clean Energy Buyers Association, which includes Google and about 300 other companies, has publicly committed to expand clean energy purchases to include the next generation of technologies that will be required to achieve a carbon-free economy by 2050.
“All policymakers need to do is invest in innovation and let markets do their jobs,” Golin said. “The truth is that the second half isn’t going to happen.”