Clean energy industry readies for Biden emissions pledge

An interview with Heather Zichal, chief executive of the American Clean Power Association

The Biden Administration has a goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030. Above, the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project. Photo: Dominion Energy.

(George Barker is a journalism/CS major at Northeastern University. He’s worked for the Harvard Business Review and as campus and sports editor for The Huntington News.)

BOSTON (Callaway Climate Insights) — The Biden Administration is widely expected to call for a target of at least a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 when the president hosts his virtual Leaders Summit on Climate this week with 40 global leaders.

The reduction target will be announced in the form of a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement of 2015, based on a 2005 baseline. 

Regardless of the target, Heather Zichal, CEO of the newly formed American Clean Power Association (ACP), a trade group which represents the entire renewable energy sphere in the U.S., is confident her industry can deliver on Biden’s goals.

“As an industry, we’re just ready to roll up our sleeves and help and tackle the dual goals of the Biden administration, which are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create new economic opportunity,” she said. “I think it’ll be important to send a message to the world [that] the U.S. is not only back in the game, we’re trying to lead a coalition of the willing. “But I think it’s also important to know to get those deep emission cuts, it will require additional tools and authority and funding from the federal government.”

Those additional tools are expected to come from Biden’s Build Back Better package, an “all-of-government” approach. The proposal includes the American Jobs Plan, which calls for 100% clean electricity by 2035, investment tax credits to incentivize new high voltage transmission infrastructure, tax credits for clean energy generation, and storage as well as use of federal purchasing power on clean electricity. 

“I think they view their plans as the things they are going to use in the international community to defend this new more ambitious target,” said Zichal, whose experience prior to heading ACP includes work as Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change under former President Barack Obama. She was also legislative director under former Secretary of State, now Special Climate Envoy, John Kerry when he was a senator and executive director of the Blue Prosperity Coalition, a network of governments, nonprofits and scientists that promotes sustainable ocean economy planning. 

Nobody knows yet exactly how the government will best promote clean energy, as the infrastructure plan has a long way to go to get through Congress. Zichal said she’s optimistic that industry priorities such as tax credits and clean energy investment credits, particularly for energy storage and transmission, will be part of the deal. One thing to watch, Zichal said, is what happens with the country’s clean energy standard. 

“In addition to the tax policies and the transmission and siting issues that are so important for industry, having a clean energy standard in place that provides that long term certainty and predictability is really important,” Zichal said.

Zichal pointed to offshore wind as one of the boons for widespread support of clean energy in the U.S., and with the Biden Administration’s goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030, the industry has plenty to be hopeful about

“If you just factor in this 30-gigawatt target by 2030, our estimates show you’re going to create 83,000 American jobs and add $25 billion in annual investment into our economy by the end of this decade.

And because there are so many moving pieces to offshore wind, you've also got direct connection to ports, you’ve got direct connection to vessels,” Zichal said. “If we can get a number of projects permitted and in the queue, you’re going to see companies coming to the United States and manufacturing those core components here, so they can easily get to our coasts. Going back to what we’ve learned with onshore wind, 43 states currently have different pieces of the wind picture puzzle, and think about that [multiplied by] 10 basically when you’re looking at offshore wind.”

ACP began operations Jan. 1 of this year, but Zichal said there is “no other trade association with our depth and breadth, and that covers all of clean energy technologies.” Having been on the other side of policy, Zichal finds it exciting that there is now a single voice to call upon for clean energy policy, and ACP already claims major electricity players like American Electric Power (AEP), General Electric Renewable Energy (GE), Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Ørsted (DOGEF), Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy (GCTAF) and Google (GOOGL) as members, bringing voices from across the electricity equation to the picture. 

Zichal’s interest in the environment and sustainability is rooted in her grandfather’s farm in northeast Iowa, where “his entire focus of philosophy of farming was: ‘We’ve got to be able to protect our natural resources to pass our farm on for future generations.’” She was inspiring by watching him practice farming that way, and realized she could make a career out of that passion, initially focusing on conservation. 

“I will always wake up every day worried about climate change and whether or not we’re deploying enough clean energy, so it just was an early, natural thing for me,” Zichal said.