What the Infrastructure Deal Means (and What it Doesn’t)

The Build Back Better Act (BBBA) has game-changing, future-altering implications for clean energy. But when Senator Joe Manchin publicly pulled his support for the bill in late December, it created a lot of uncertainty about whether those progressive climate initiatives will ever materialize.

This leaves climate advocates scrutinizing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (better known as the “Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal”) for more hope than it likely contains. Signed into law on November 15, 2021, this $1.2T package — one part of the larger Build Back Better Plan (of which the BBBA is also a part) — includes billions of dollars dedicated to transportation, water and energy infrastructure, which will activate several significant steps toward rolling back climate change.

But what, exactly? What does this mean for the average citizen? And, what does it mean for the renewables industry — and organizations that are looking to harness solar energy and other renewables?

Infrastructure deal meaning and renewable energy impact

The climate-related benefits of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal will be delivered across eight broad categories:

1. Public Transit

The Deal will invest $66B to provide “healthy, sustainable transportation options … by modernizing and expanding transit and rail networks.” Thousands of transit vehicles throughout the U.S. — including buses, trolleys and subways — will be replaced with clean, zero emission vehicles.

2. Electric Vehicle (EV) Infrastructure

$7.5B will be invested to build out the first-ever national network of EV chargers across the country. The goal is to accelerate the adoption of EVs by providing “convenient charging [in communities] where people live, work, and shop,” as well as by facilitating long-distance travel.

3. Clean School Buses

Thousands of electric school buses will be made available nationwide, including in rural communities, to help school districts buy affordable, clean, American-made, zero emission vehicles — to “replace the yellow school bus fleet for America’s children.”

4. Port & Airport Infrastructure

A combined $42B will go toward port and airport infrastructure, to “address repair and maintenance backlogs, reduce congestion and emissions near ports and airports, and drive electrification and other low-carbon technologies.”

5. Resilience

More than $50B will be invested to increase our infrastructure’s resilience to the impacts of climate change and cyber-attacks — including protection against droughts, heat and floods. Further provisions will be made to weatherize homes, as well.

6. Clean Drinking Water

$55B will be dedicated to cleaning the water supply. This includes eliminating the nation’s lead service lines as well as dangerous chemical PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl). Currently, up to 10M American households and 400,000 schools/childcare centers lack access to safe drinking water.

For citizens of the U.S. and the planet, this is all really good news. But if you’re a solar developer — or an energy/sustainability leader looking to harness renewables for your organization — this final item should grab your attention:

8. Clean Energy Transmission

The Deal includes the largest investment in clean energy transmission and the electric grid in American history. According to the White House: “It upgrades our power infrastructure, including by building thousands of miles of new, resilient transmission lines to facilitate the expansion of renewable energy.”

Why is this important?

Transmission lines in the U.S. are largely regional. With the growing dependency on renewable energies like solar and wind, utilities need to move electrons quickly over long distances to match supply with demand and reduce the risk of blackouts. But the current regional lines don’t have the capacity to do that without high rates of loss.

So, this provision in the bill represents a functional pivot — i.e., transforming those transmission lines to be physically capable of delivering a multitude of energy sources wherever they’re needed.

But, it also represents a statutory pivot.

Up to now, states had a lot of control over their power lines and their respective portion of a regional grid.* But language in the new bill clarifies the authority of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and grants the Department of Energy (DOE) the ability to overturn state objections — and designate national transmission corridors for clean electricity projects.

“This clarifies the scope of preemptive authority available to FERC,” said Justin Gundlach, a senior attorney at New York University School of Law’s Institute for Policy Integrity. “[I]t is a meaningful policy change.”

The federal government is making a statement that nothing will get in the way of a booming renewable energy revolution.

*Back in 2009, a federal appeals court ruling found the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) lacked the authority to overturn state regulators’ rejection of power lines planned in DOE sanctioned corridors. This made the building of new, modern transmission lines extremely difficult for more than a decade.

The path to grid decarbonization has been eased.

For new solar development, this means that permitting — especially when interstate transmission is involved — should become a lot easier. It also means that many existing power lines will evolve to be more resilient to external threats, and more capable of moving electricity longer distances with mitigated loss.

This portion of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal makes a statement. The federal government is assuming control, and laying down a significant investment, to ensure that neither legal action at the state level nor physical limitations of legacy technology get in the way of a booming renewable energy market.

That said, according to World Resources Institute, “the nation’s aging transmission and distribution system needs a significant overhaul” — with high-voltage transmission increasing in the U.S. by 60% in the next decade, at a price tag much higher than the $65B allocated under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal.

This leaves many concerned that if the much more climate-ambitious BBBA never passes, not enough will be done to help us reach a net-zero energy future by 2050.

So for now, we’ll wait to see if the other shoe will, in fact, drop. Can the Senate work out a scenario that gets the BBBA — or some rebranded version of it — passed? That’s the all-important and urgent question.

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