Each week, we’re compiling the most relevant news stories from diverse sources online, connecting the latest environmental and energy economics research to global current events, real-time public discourse, and policy decisions. Here are some questions we’re asking and addressing with our research chops this week:
How can the Biden administration ensure that its ambitious environmental agenda culminates in effective and enduring policy?
Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States this week, and he began his term by fulfilling some of his climate-related campaign promises. On his very first day, Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement, revoked a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, and ordered federal agencies to begin reviewing the environmental rules implemented during the previous administration. These orders are the beginnings of what will likely be a long process of reversing four years of Trump’s regulatory rollbacks, and they make clear that environmental policy will remain a priority for an administration that’s populated by climate-focused top officials, from John Kerry to Deb Haaland. Biden also plans to take more executive actions, including to elevate climate change in national security decisionmaking and re-charter the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Gina McCarthy, the first White House National Climate Advisor, signaled too that the administration will pursue “a broad executive order” oriented around union jobs and environmental justice.
Notably, President Biden has not yet set out how his administration will approach some other energy and environmental issues, such as the benefit-cost analysis process and mitigating the legal risk that accompanies major climate policies. Our recent blog series, which has included articles released weekly in the lead-up to Inauguration Day, reflects on these key issues and more, which will confront the Biden administration in its early days. In a new blog post this week, RFF University Fellow Carolyn Kousky outlines policies that the Biden administration could pursue to build climate resilience and make recovery from natural disasters easier. In previous blog posts, RFF Senior Fellow Alan Krupnick offers starting points for improving how the net effects of regulations are assessed, while RFF Senior Fellow Dallas Burtraw compares whether a regulatory or legislative approach would be preferable for avoiding judicial backlash. For more, keep an eye out for the upcoming issue of Resources magazine, which will feature further reflections on how the new administration might tackle the next steps in US environmental policy.
Related research and commentary:
Utility debts are surging due to the COVID-fueled economic recession. What more can the federal government do to help households struggling to pay high energy bills?
Household energy use has soared due to COVID-19, forcing families to pay more on average in energy bills. With job losses mounting and electricity demand expected to rise over the coming months, increasing numbers of households are unable to pay. Unpaid utility bills could swell to $40 billion by March of this year. Relief varies across the country; some states have used federal stimulus funds to help residents pay their bills, but formal bans on utilities cutting off power are in place in only nine states and the District of Columbia, and many Americans have lost power as a result. Late last year, Congress provided $3.7 billion to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps families pay their energy bills, and reauthorized the Weatherization Assistance Program, which helps low-income families make their homes more energy efficient. But advocates worry that the scope of the problem requires a more far-reaching solution, such as a federal moratorium on utility shutoffs.
While some households are struggling to pay this year’s utility bills, many Americans—and people of color, in particular—have struggled with a high energy burden for years. On a new episode of the Resources Radio podcast, University of Michigan Assistant Professor Tony Reames explores the origins of energy poverty and proposes solutions for policymakers. Even though white households consume more energy overall, people of color are more likely to live in less energy-efficient homes and thus pay much more to heat their homes per square foot. Reames points to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the Weatherization Assistance Program as helpful, but contends that the federal government still lacks a long-term strategy for addressing energy poverty. “We continue to focus on appropriating funds to this problem, but not really tracking whether we’re reducing it,” Reames says. “There's no real annual mechanism for us to say: Who’s in energy poverty? How many people are we taking out of energy poverty?”
Related research and commentary:
Governments around the world are developing policies aimed at boosting hydrogen as an alternative fuel source. What applications for “green” hydrogen are viable, and how does green hydrogen compare to other clean energy sources?
Demand for “green” hydrogen—which is produced from water electrolysis using renewable or nuclear power—surged in 2020 and could rise again this year. While 90 megawatts of new hydrogen electrolyzers were constructed last year, Bloomberg New Energy Foundation estimates that 240 megawatts of new projects could be completed in 2021 alone. Much of the renewed interest in decarbonized hydrogen has resulted from environmental commitments made by many of the world’s leading economies; the European Union’s pledge to deploy 40 gigawatts of electrolyzers within its own borders and another 40 gigawatts in neighboring countries by the end of the decade has proven especially influential. While the United States lacks a similarly clear commitment to hydrogen, the landscape could shift under the Biden administration: his campaign promised (though without many specifics) that green hydrogen will cost no more than conventional hydrogen by 2030. And Democratic success in this month’s Senate runoff elections in Georgia has raised hopes for a major clean energy package, which could boost hydrogen fuels.
RFF’s Jay Bartlett and Alan Krupnick explore viable applications for green hydrogen in a new blog post, part of an ongoing series that expounds on a recent report and evaluates how decarbonized hydrogen compares to other options for reducing emissions. They discuss the three most beneficial applications for green hydrogen: long-term storage, combustion heating, and feedstock for industrial processes. While the costs of producing green hydrogen remain substantial, Krupnick and Bartlett emphasize that it can be stored over long durations more cheaply than common alternatives and provide more uniform heat for industrial processes than electric heating. Moreover, green hydrogen can be used as a cleaner alternative to high-carbon hydrogen in oil refining and ammonia production, the predominant uses for hydrogen today. For more about the potential of decarbonized hydrogen in a low-emissions economy, stay tuned for future blog posts that compare how green hydrogen reduces industrial and power sector emissions relative to blue hydrogen and carbon capture, utilization, and storage.
Related research and commentary:
- Blog: The Potential of Hydrogen for Decarbonization: Evaluating Zero-Carbon “Green” Hydrogen Against Renewable and Nuclear Power
- Report: Decarbonized Hydrogen in the US Power and Industrial Sectors: Identifying and Incentivizing Opportunities to Lower Emissions
- Blog: The Potential of Hydrogen for Decarbonization: Evaluating Low-Carbon “Blue” Hydrogen Against End-Use CCUS