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Biden Faces Difficult Task Of Freeing Power Sector From Fossil Fuels


President Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure proposal aims to shift the U.S. away from the use of fossil fuels. Scientists say that needs to happen fast in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. For the power sector, Biden's ultimate goal is to make it free of greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2035. NPR's Jeff Brady reports on just how difficult that's going to be.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Biden's infrastructure proposal would use hundreds of billions of dollars and government power to transform how energy is delivered and used in the U.S. Grid planning experts say it's a good start, but zeroing out greenhouse gases from the power sector won't be easy. Jaquelin Cochran with the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado recently studied how Los Angeles could switch to all wind and solar with batteries as backup power.

JAQUELIN COCHRAN: We had over 100 million computer simulations to look at different pathways to 100% renewable energy.

BRADY: And that's just for LA. There are so many variables her team had to consider. Take electric vehicles. There's the question of how many utility customers will buy EVs, when they'll buy them, and where will they recharge, at home or work? Cochran says her team found it's difficult to keep in all-renewable grid affordable and reliable.

COCHRAN: How does that grid stay on during that November week when it's not very windy and it's not very sunny and your batteries are depleting day by day?

BRADY: Cochran says getting to 90% renewable energy was pretty straightforward. But that last 10% is really hard because wind and solar are more variable than power plants that run all the time. Biden's proposal makes room for nuclear and hydropower, which could make getting to 100% carbon-free power easier. And some energy modelers figured that last 10% will be easier to fill when new technologies are developed. Joy Ditto heads the American Public Power Association, which represents municipally owned electric utilities. She's uncomfortable with that.

JOY DITTO: I work with people who are actually keeping the lights on every day. They're the engineers who are telling me that that technology doesn't exist, and how do we plan for something that doesn't yet exist?

BRADY: Biden's proposal includes tens of billions of dollars for research and development, but sometimes even new technologies or new ways of doing things run up against old rules. That's what's happening for a company called Direct Connect. It wants to bury two wine bottle-sized transmission lines along railroad tracks from north central Iowa to the Chicago area.

TREY WARD: It can be replicated all over the country because railroads go everywhere, just like the transmission system.

BRADY: CEO Trey Ward says his project avoids lengthy battles with landowners who don't want big towers and overhead lines on their property. He was happy to see his business model in Biden's infrastructure proposal. But for now, he's battling with an East Coast grid operator, which is figuring out how to incorporate his unique project.

WARD: It's going to take the grid operator longer to study our project than it will take to build this entire $2 1/2 billion project.

BRADY: The Biden proposal would set up a grid deployment authority at the Energy Department to encourage more projects like this. But beyond the technology and policy problems, Biden's huge infrastructure plan faces another challenge - to become reality, it has to get through Congress first. Jeff Brady, NPR News.


Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.