Stephanie Bostwick, Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, Training the Next Generation of Clean Energy Experts

This series of interviews spotlights scientists working across the country to implement the U.S. Department of Energy’s massive efforts to transition the country to clean energy, and improve equity and address climate injustice along the way. The Federation’s clean energy workforce report discusses the challenges and opportunities associated with ramping up this dynamic, in-demand workforce. These interviews have been edited for length and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DOE.

An aerospace engineer and educator by trade, Stephanie Bostwick has spent her career building connections between clean energy, the communities that need it, and the future clean energy experts of the world. Now at the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, she supports Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) as they develop the future workforce and  build out clean energy projects.

Teaching Clean Energy

After years of working in the aerospace industry, Stephanie switched over to teaching – first at Lake Washington Institute of Technology and later at Northwest Indian College. At these community colleges, Stephanie helped build engineering curricula that focused explicitly on clean energy – introducing solar and other technologies to “try and get students moving in a direction that would support the future that this country is moving in.” “Now that we’re focused on [clean energy], we’re trying to train people and encourage them to go down that path so they could do something that supports their communities.”

The transition made sense for other reasons too. Stephanie is a member of Blackfeet Nation and continues to work with Tribal communities like the Lummi Nation. She saw communities around her moving towards clean energy. Her students were more interested in jobs where they would not only make a good living, but make a difference in their communities as well. At the time, the Lummi Nation was exploring solar energy projects and looking to build up a solar workforce. Having educational resources that aligned with these needs helped prepare students for a changing world. 

The National Renewable Energy Lab and DOE 

As Stephanie grew these programs as a faculty member, she also participated in several fellowships that strengthened her subject matter expertise in clean energy: solar power systems, microgrids, and more. These opportunities gave her the tools and knowledge to champion clean energy at her institutions and in her community. “It’s been exciting to learn a whole new field and be able to explain it to folks at a level that helps them engage with it as well.”

One of these fellowships, the Visiting Faculty Program, brought her to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, where after the fellowship she stayed permanently to support Tribes with technical assistance on clean energy projects.

Now on detail to the DOE’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, she supports TCUs. “My role involves doing outreach to all the TCUs, letting them know that we have funding, and then figuring out what technical assistance they might need and connecting them with our engineers.” In addition, she provides support with curriculum development for clean energy programs, as well as for energy resilient infrastructure on physical campuses. 

The Tribal communities she works with face many barriers to a renewable energy transition. “One of the larger issues is transmission and distribution lines that aren’t suitable for adding a significant amount of renewable energy to. [Tribes] need transmission infrastructure – we need to back up and figure out this issue.” There’s also some hesitation about clean energy solutions that might not work in more rural areas with extreme weather – heavy snowpack in the winter, and very hot summers. There are concerns about how useful electric vehicles could be in areas where the closest hospital is hours away, for example. 

But despite these concerns, Stephanie says, there’s a lot of interest in and enthusiasm for renewable energy solutions. That’s part of why she loves her job: “The awesome thing is that folks are really interested in a conversion to clean energy and what they can do to support the Tribe. It’s really fun to go out there and see that people want to move in that direction.” 

One of the most rewarding parts of her role so far has been to see progress on her old projects. When she was a faculty member at Northwest Indian College, the Lummi Nation was focused on conducting solar microgrid feasibility studies and starting to look for people to fill out a local solar workforce. In her current role, she has been able to support the Lummi Nation and the TCUs she works with in applying for and receiving funding for building out those microgrids. In just a few years, what seemed like an uphill battle is already underway to becoming a reality. 

“While it’s felt slow, it’s only been a few years and it’s been really exciting to watch how we have been able to incorporate the training and make these big things happen that seemed so distant back when we received our first grant.”

Stephanie wants to look beyond supporting Tribes on specific projects and funding opportunities and help them build capacity long-term. Her office is currently working on initiatives to do just that – in order to hand the reins of energy planning and development over to the communities themselves. “The goal is to make sure that Tribes have that internal knowledge so that in the future, they’re able to do all that on their own and not have to rely on others. Sovereignty implies that, but there are still complications. It’s exciting to move in that direction.”

Ultimately, the goal for many Tribal communities is to be able to generate their own power and distribute it to other communities – to sell the energy they generate. There are still hurdles, but Stephanie’s office helps supply Tribes with tools to get there. 

One of the special things about her position is that she’s able to work and live in the communities she serves – the remote flexibilities of DOE offer more than just personal benefits. “For me, staying in the community that I’m in and integrated into and being able to continue to do my work at the college is really important to me.”

In addition to her role at DOE, Stephanie supports students in more personal ways as well – taking Zoom calls with mentees to offer advice on aerospace careers or just help with their calculus homework. The ability to merge personal and professional pursuits in support of the clean energy transition is gratifying, even if there is still so much more to do.

“It’s exciting to have the resources and knowledge and be able to share that with the TCUs and hopefully get them on the cutting edge. It’s still an uphill battle, but it’s a very worthy battle.”

Finding True North: How Community Navigator Programs Can Forward Distributional Justice

State, local, and Tribal governments still face major capacity issues when it comes to accessing federal funding opportunities – even with the sheer amount of programs started since the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) were passed. Communities need more technical assistance if implementation of those bills is going to reach its full potential, but federal agencies charged with distributing funding can’t offer the amount needed to get resources to where they need to go quickly, effectively, and equitably. 

Community navigator programs offer a potential solution. Navigators are local and regional experts with a deep understanding of the climate and clean energy challenges and opportunities in their area. These navigators can be trained in federal funding requirements, clean energy technologies, permitting processes, and more – allowing them to share that knowledge with their communities and boost capacity. 

Federal agencies like the Department of Energy (DOE) should invest in standing up these programs by collecting feedback on specific capacity needs from regional partners and attaching them to existing technical assistance funding. These programs can look different, but agencies should consider specific goals and desired outcomes, identify appropriate regional and local partners, and explore additional flexible funding opportunities to get them off the ground. 

Community navigator programs can provide much-needed capacity combined with deep place-based knowledge to create local champions with expertise in accessing federal funding – relieving agencies of technical assistance burdens and smoothing grant-writing processes for local and state partners. Agencies should quickly take advantage of these programs to implement funding more effectively. 

Challenge

BIL/IRA implementation is well under way, with countless programs being stood up at record speed by federal agencies. Of course, the sheer size of the packages means that there is still quite a bit of funding on the table at DOE that risks not being distributed effectively or equitably in the allotted time frame. While the agency is making huge strides to roll out its resources—which include state-level block grants, loan guarantee programs, and tax rebates—it has limited capacity to fully understand the unique needs of individual cities and communities and to support each location effectively in accessing funding opportunities and implementing related programs. 

Subnational actors own the burden of distributing and applying for funding. States, cities, and communities want to support distribution, but they are not equally prepared to access federal funding quickly. They lack what officials call absorptive capacity, the ability to apply for, distribute, and implement funding packages. Agencies don’t have comprehensive knowledge of barriers to implementation across the hundreds of thousands of communities and can’t provide individualized technical assistance that is needed. 

Two recent research projects identified several keys ways that cities, state governments, and technical assistance organizations need support from federal agencies:

While this research focuses on several BIL/IRA agencies, the Department of Energy in particular distributed hundreds of billions of dollars to communities over the past few years. DOE faces an additional challenge: up until 2020, the agency was mainly focused on conducting basic science research. With the advent of BIL, IRA, and the CHIPS and Science Act, it had to adjust quickly to conduct more deployment and loan guarantee activities. 

In order to meet community needs, DOE needs help – and at its core, this problem is one of talent and capacity. Since the passage of BIL, DOE has increased its hiring and bolstered its offices through the Clean Energy Corps

Yet even if DOE could hire faster and more effectively, the sheer scope of the problem outweighs any number of federal employees. Candidates need not only certain skills but also knowledge specific to each community. To fully meet the needs of the localities and individuals it aims to reach, DOE would need to develop thorough community competency for the entire country. With over 29,000 defined communities in the United States – with about half being classified as ‘low capacity’ – it’s simply impossible to hire enough people or identify and overcome the barriers each one faces in the short amount of time allotted to implementation of BIL/IRA. Government needs outside support in order to distribute funds quickly and equitably.

Opportunity

DOE, the rest of the federal government, and the national labs are keen to provide significant technical assistance for their programs. DOE’s Office of State and Community Energy Programs has put considerable time and energy into expanding its community support efforts, including the recently stood up Office of Community Engagement and the Community Energy Fellows program. 

National labs have been engaging communities for a long time – the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) conducts trainings and information sessions, answers questions, and connects communities with regional and federal resources. Colorado and Alaska, for example, were well-positioned to take advantage of federal funding when BIL/IRA were released as a result of federal training opportunities from the NREL, DOE, and other institutions, as well as local and regional coordinated approaches to preparing. Their absorptive capacity has helped them successfully access opportunities – but only because communities, cities, and Tribal governments in those regions have spent the last decade preparing for clean energy opportunities. 

While this type of long-term technical assistance and training is necessary, there are resources available right now that are at risk of not being used if states, cities, and communities can’t develop capacity quickly. As DOE continues to flex its deployment and demonstration muscles, the agency needs to invest in community engagement and regional capacity to ensure long-term success across the country. 

A key way that DOE can help meet the needs of states and cities that are implementing funding is by standing up community navigator programs. These programs take many forms, but broadly, they leverage the expertise of individuals or organizations within a state or community that can act as guides to the barriers and opportunities within that place. 

Community navigators themselves have several benefits. They can act as a catalytic resource by delivering quality technical assistance where federal agencies may not have capacity. In DOE’s case, this could help communities understand funding opportunities and requirements, identify appropriate funding opportunities, explore new clean energy technologies that might meet the needs of the community, and actually complete applications for funding quickly and accurately. They understand regional assets and available capital and have strong existing relationships. Further, community navigators can help build networks – connecting community-based organizations, start-ups, and subnational government agencies based on focus areas. 

The DOE and other agencies with BIL/IRA mandates should design programs to leverage these navigators in order to better support state and local organizations with implementation. Programs that leverage community navigators will increase the efficiency of federal technical assistance resources, stretching them further, and will help build capacity within subnational organizations to sustain climate and clean energy initiatives longer term.

These programs can target a range of issues. In the past, they have been used to support access to individual benefits, but expanding their scope could lead to broader results for communities. Training community organizations, and by extension individuals, on how to engage with federal funding and assess capital, development, and infrastructure improvement opportunities in their own regions can help federal agencies take a more holistic approach to implementation and supporting communities. Applying for funding takes work, and navigators can help – but they can also support the rollout of proposed programs once funding is awarded and ensure the projects are seen through their life cycles. For example, understanding broader federal guidance on funding opportunities like the Office of Management and Budget’s proposed revisions to the Uniform Grants Guidance can give navigators and communities additional tools for monitoring and evaluation and administrative capacity. 

Benefits of these programs aren’t limited to funding opportunities and program implementation – they can help smooth permitting processes as well. Navigators can act as ready-made champions for and experts on clean energy technologies and potential community concerns. In some communities, distrust of clean energy sources, companies, and government officials can slow permitting, especially for emerging technologies that are subject to misinformation or lack of wider recognition. Supporting community champions that understand the technologies, can advocate on their behalf, and can facilitate relationship building between developers and community members can reduce opposition to clean energy projects. 

Further, community navigator programs could help alleviate cost-recovery concerns from permitting teams. Permitting staff within agencies understand that communities need support, especially in the pre-application period, but in the interest of being good stewards of taxpayer dollars they are often reluctant to invest in applications that may not turn into projects. 

Overall, these programs have major potential for expanding the technical assistance resources of federal agencies and the capacity of state and local governments and community-based organizations. Federal agencies with a BIL/IRA mandate should design and stand up these programs alongside the rollout of funding opportunities.

Plan of Action

With the Biden Administration’s focus on community engagement and climate and energy justice, agencies have a window of opportunity in which to expand these programs. In order to effectively expand community navigator programs, offices should: 

Build community navigator programs into existing technical assistance budgets.

Offices at agencies and subcomponents with BIL/IRA funding like the Department of Energy, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have expanded their technical assistance programs alongside introducing new initiatives from that same funding. Community navigator programs are primarily models for providing technical assistance – and can use programmatic funding. Offices should assess funding capabilities and explore flexible funding mechanisms like the ones below. 

Some existing programs are attached to large block grant funding, like DOE’s Community Energy Programs attached to the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program. This is a useful practice as the funding source has broad goals and is relatively large and regionally nonspecific.

Collect feedback from regional partners on specific challenges and capacity needs to appropriately tailor community navigator programs. 

Before setting up a program, offices should convene local and regional partners to assess major challenges in communities and better design a program. Feedback collection can take the form of journey mapping, listening sessions, convenings, or other structures. These meetings should rely on partners’ expertise and understanding of the opportunities specific to their communities.

For example, if there’s sufficient capacity for grant-writing but a lack of expertise in specific clean energy technologies that a region is interested in, that would inform the goals, curricula, and partners of a particular program. It also would help determine where the program should sit: if it’s targeted at developing clean energy expertise in order to overcome permitting hurdles, it might fit better at the BLM or be a good candidate for a partnership between a DOE office and BLM. 

Partner with other federal agencies to develop more holistic programs. 

The goals of these programs often speak to the mission of several agencies – for example, the goal of just and equitable technical assistance has already led to the Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers program, a collaboration between EPA and DOE. By combining resources, agencies and offices can even further expand the capacity of a region and increase accessibility to more federal funding opportunities. 

A good example of offices collaborating on these programs is below, with the Arctic Energy Ambassadors, funded by the Office of State and Community Energy Programs (SCEP) and the Arctic Energy Office. 

Roadmap for Success

There are several initial considerations for building out a program, including solidifying the program’s goals, ensuring available funding sources and mechanisms, and identifying regional and local partners to ensure it is sustainable and effective. Community navigator programs should: 

Identify a need and outline clear goals for the program. 

Offices should clearly understand the goals of a program. This should go without saying, but given the inconsistency in needs, capacity, and readiness across different communities, it’s key to develop a program that has defined what success looks like for the participants and region. For example, community navigator programs could specifically work to help a region navigate permitting processes; develop several projects of a singular clean energy technology; or understand how to apply for federal grants effectively. Just one of those goals could underpin an entire program. 

Ideally, community navigator programs would offer a more holistic approach – working with regional organizations or training participants who understand the challenges and opportunities within their region to identify and assess federal funding opportunities and work together to develop projects from start to finish. But agencies just setting up programs should start with a more directed approach and seek to understand what would be most helpful for an area. 

Source and secure available funding, including considerations for flexible mechanisms.

There are a number of available models using different funding and structural mechanisms. Part of the benefit of these programs is that they don’t rely solely on hiring new technical assistance staff, and offices can use programmatic funds more flexibly to work with partners. Rather than hiring staff to work directly for an agency, offices can work with local and regional organizations to administer programs, train other individuals and organizations, and augment local and community capacity. 

Further, offices should aim to work across the agency and identify opportunities to pool resources. The IRA provided a significant amount of funding for technical assistance across the agency – for example, the State Energy Program funding at SCEP, the Energy Improvements in Rural and Remote Areas funding at the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations (OCED), and the Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers program from a Department of Transportation/Department of Energy partnership could all be used to fund these programs or award funding to organizations that could administer programs. 

Community navigator programs could also be good candidates for entities like FESI, the DOE’s newly authorized Foundation for Energy Security and Innovation. Although FESI must be set up by DOE, once formally established it becomes a 501(c)(3) organization and can combine congressionally appropriated funding with philanthropic or private investments, making it a more flexible tool for collaborative projects. FESI is a good tool for the partnerships described above – it could hold funding from various sources and support partners overseeing programs while convening with their federal counterparts. 

Finally, DOE is also exploring the expanded use of Partnership Intermediary Agreements (PIAs), public-private partnership tools that are explicitly targeted at nontraditional partners. As the DOE continues to announce and distribute BIL/IRA funds, these agreements could be used to administer community navigator programs.

Build relationships and partner with appropriate local and regional stakeholders.

Funding shouldn’t be the only consideration. Agency offices need to ensure they identify appropriate local and regional partners, both for administration and funding. Partners should be their own form of community navigators – they should understand the region’s clean energy ecosystem and the unique needs of the communities within. In different places, the reach and existence of these partners may vary – not every locality will have a dedicated nonprofit or institution supporting clean energy development, environmental justice, or workforce, for example. In those cases, there could be regional or county-level partners that have broader scope and more capacity and would be more effective federal partners. Partner organizations should not only understand community needs but have a baseline level of experience in working with the federal government in order to effectively function as the link between the two entities. Finding the right balance of community understanding and experience with federal funding is key. 

This is not foolproof. NREL’s ‘Community to Clean Energy (C2C) Peer Learning Cohorts’ can help local champions share challenges and best practices across states and communities and are useful tools for enhancing local capacity. But this program faces similar challenges as other technical assistance programs: participants engage with federal institutions that provide training and technical expertise that may not directly speak to local experience. It may be more effective to train a local or regional organization with a deeper understanding of the specific challenges and opportunities of a place and greater immediate buy-in from the community. It’s challenging for NREL as well to identify the best candidates in communities across the country without that in-depth knowledge of a region. 

Additional federal technical assistance support is sorely needed if BIL/IRA funds are to be distributed equitably and quickly. Federal agencies are moving faster than ever before but don’t have the capacity to assess state and local needs. Developing models for state and local partners can help agencies get funding out the door and where it needs to go to support communities moving towards a clean energy transition.

Case Study: DOE’s Arctic Energy Ambassadors 

DOE’s Arctic Energy Office (AEO) has been training state level champions for years but recently introduced the Arctic Energy Ambassadors program, using community navigators to expand clean energy project development. 

The program, announced in late October 2023, will support regional champions of clean energy with training and resources to help expand their impact in their communities and across Alaska. The ambassadors’ ultimate goal is clean energy project development: helping local practitioners access federal resources, identify appropriate funding opportunities, and address their communities’ specific clean energy challenges. 

The Arctic Energy Office is leading the program with help from several federal and subnational organizations. DOE’s Office of State and Community Engagement and Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy are also providing funding. 

On the ground, the Denali Commission will oversee distribution of funding, and the Alaska Municipal League will administer the program. The combination of comparative advantages is what will hopefully make this program successful. The Denali Commission, in addition to receiving congressionally appropriated funding, can receive funds from other nonfederal sources in service of its mission. This could help the Commission sustain the ambassadors over the longer term and use funds more flexibly. The Commission also has closer relationships with state-level and Tribal governments and can provide insight into regional clean energy needs. 

The Alaska Municipal League (AML) brings additional value as a partner; its role in supporting local governments across Alaska gives it a strong sense of community strengths and needs. AML will recruit, assess, and identify the 12 ambassadors and coordinate program logistics and travel for programming. Identifying the right candidates for the program requires in-depth knowledge of Alaskan communities, including more rural and remote ones. 

For its own part, the AEO will provide the content and technical expertise for the program. DOE continues to host an incredible wealth of subject matter knowledge on cutting-edge clean energy technologies, and its leadership in this area combined with the local understanding and administration by AML and Denali Commission will help the Arctic Energy Ambassadors succeed in the years to come. 

In all, strong local and regional partners, diverse funding sources and flexible mechanisms for delivering it, and clear goals for community navigator programs are key for successful administration. The Arctic Energy Ambassadors represents one model that other agencies can look to for success. 

Case study: SCEP’s Community Energy Fellows Program

DOE’s State and Community Energy Programs office has been working tirelessly to implement BIL and IRA, and last year as part of those efforts it introduced the Community Energy Fellows Program (CEFP). 

This program aims to support local and Tribal governments with their projects funded by the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants. CEFP matches midcareer energy professionals with host organizations to provide support and technical assistance on projects as well as learn more about how clean energy development happens. 

Because the program has a much broader scope than the Arctic Energy Fellows, it solicits and assesses host institutions as well as Fellows. This allows SCEP to more effectively match the two based on issue areas, expertise, and specific skillsets. This structure allows for multiple community navigators – the host institution understands the needs of its community and the Fellow brings expertise in federal programs and clean energy development. Both parties gain from the fellowship. 

In addition, SCEP has added another resource: Clean Energy Coaches, who provide another layer of expertise to the host institution and the Fellow. These coaches will help develop the Fellows’ skills as they work to support the host institution and community. 

Some of the awards are already being rolled out, with a second call for host institutions and Fellows out now. Communities in southern Maine participating in the program are optimistic about the support that navigators will provide – and their project leads have a keen sense of the challenges in their communities. 

As the program continues to grow, it can provide a great opportunity for other agencies and offices to learn from its success.

Laying the Foundation for the Low-Carbon Cement and Concrete Industry

This report is part of a series on underinvested clean energy technologies, the challenges they face, and how the Department of Energy can use its Other Transaction Authority to implement programs custom tailored to those challenges.

Cement and concrete production is one of the hardest industries to decarbonize. Solutions for low-emissions cement and concrete are much less mature than those for other green technologies like solar and wind energy and electric vehicles. Nevertheless, over the past few years, young companies have achieved significant milestones in piloting their technologies and certifying their performance and emissions reductions. In order to finance new manufacturing facilities and scale promising solutions, companies will need to demonstrate consistent demand for their products at a financially sustainable price. Demand support from the Department of Energy (DOE) can help companies meet this requirement and unlock private financing for commercial-scale projects. Using its Other Transactions Authority, DOE could design a demand-support program involving double-sided auctions, contracts for difference, or price and volume guarantees. To fund such a program using existing funds, the DOE could incorporate it into the Industrial Demonstrations Program. However, additional funding from Congress would allow the DOE to implement a more robust program. Through such an initiative, the government would accelerate the adoption of low-emissions cement and concrete, providing emissions reductions benefits across the country while setting the United States up for success in the future clean industrial economy.

Besides water, concrete is the most consumed material in the world. It is the material of choice for construction thanks to its durability, versatility, and affordability. As of 2022, the cement and concrete sector accounted for nine percent of global carbon emissions. The vast majority of the embodied emissions of concrete come from the production of Portland cement. Cement production emits carbon through the burning of fossil fuels to heat kilns (40% of emissions) and the chemical process of turning limestone and clay into cement using that heat (60% of emissions). Electrifying production facilities and making them more energy efficient can help decarbonize the former but not the latter, which requires deeper innovation.

Current solutions on the market substitute a portion of the cement used in concrete mixtures with Supplementary Cementitious Materials (SCMs) like fly ash, slag, or unprocessed limestone, reducing the embodied emissions of the resulting concrete. But these SCMs cannot replace all of the cement in concrete, and currently there is an insufficient supply of readily usable fly ash and slag for wider adoption across the industry.

The next generation of ultra-low-carbon, carbon-neutral, and even carbon-negative solutions seeks to develop alternative feedstocks and processes for producing cement or cementitious materials that can replace cement entirely and to capture carbon in aggregates and wet concrete. The DOE reports that testing and scaling these new technologies is crucial to fully eliminate emissions from concrete by 2050. Bringing these new technologies to the market will not only help the United States meet its climate goals but also promote U.S. leadership in manufacturing. 

A number of companies have established pilot facilities or are in the process of constructing them. These companies have successfully produced near-carbon-neutral and even carbon-negative concrete. Building off of these milestones, companies will need to secure financing to build full-scale commercial facilities and increase their manufacturing capacity. 

A key requirement for accessing both private-sector and government financing for new facilities is that companies obtain long-term offtake agreements, which assure financiers that there will be a steady source of revenue once the facility is built. But the boom-and-bust nature of the construction industry discourages construction companies and intermediaries from entering into long-term financial commitments in case there won’t be a project to use the materials for. Cement, aggregates, and other concrete inputs also take up significant volume, so it would be difficult and costly for potential offtakers to store excess amounts during construction lulls. For these reasons, construction contractors procure concrete on an as-needed, project-specific basis. 

Adding to the complexity, structural features of the cement and concrete market increase the difficulty of securing long-term offtake agreements:

Luckily, private construction is not the only customer for concrete. The U.S. government (federal, state, and local combined) accounts for roughly 50% of all concrete procurement in the country. Used correctly, the government’s purchasing power can be a powerful lever for spurring the adoption of decarbonized cement and concrete. However, the government faces similar barriers as the private sector against entering into long-term offtake agreements. Government procurement of concrete goes through multiple intermediaries and operates on an as-needed, project-specific basis: government agencies like the General Services Administration (GSA) enter into agreements with construction contractors for specific projects, and then the contractors or their subcontractors make the ultimate purchasing decisions for concrete.

The Federal Buy Clean Initiative, enacted in 2021 by the Biden Administration, is starting to address the procurement challenge for low-carbon cement and concrete. Among the initiative’s programs is the allocation of $4.5 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) for the GSA and the Department of Transportation (DOT) to use lower-carbon construction materials. Under the initiative, the GSA is piloting directly procuring low-embodied-carbon materials for federal construction projects. To qualify as low-embodied-carbon concrete under the GSA’s interim requirements, concrete mixtures only have to achieve a roughly 25–50% reduction in carbon content,1 depending on the compressive strength. The requirement may be even less if no concrete meeting this standard is available near the project site. Since the bar is only slightly below traditional concrete, young companies developing the solutions to fully decarbonize concrete will have trouble competing in terms of price against companies producing more well-established but higher-emission solutions like fly ash, slag, and limestone concrete mixtures to secure procurement contracts. Moreover, the just-in-time and project-specific nature of these procurement contracts means they still don’t address juvenile companies’ need for long-term price and customer security in order to scale up.

The ideal solution for this is a demand-support program. The DOE Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations (OCED) is developing a demand-support program for the Hydrogen Hubs initiative, setting aside $1 billion for demand-support to accompany the $7 billion in direct funding to regional Hydrogen Hubs. In its request for proposals, OCED says that the hydrogen demand-support program will address the “fundamental mismatch in [the market] between producers, who need long-term certainty of high-volume demand in order to secure financing to build a project, and buyers, who often prefer to buy on a short-term basis at more modest volumes, especially for products that have yet to be produced at scale and [are] expected to see cost decreases.” 

A demand-support program could do the same for low-carbon cement and concrete, addressing the market challenges that grants alone cannot. OCED is reviewing applications for the $6.3 billion Industrial Demonstrations Program. Similar to the Hydrogen Hubs, OCED could consider setting aside $500 million to $1 billion of the program funds to implement demand-support programs for the two highest-emitting heavy industries, low-carbon cement/concrete and steel, at $250 million to $500 million each.

Additional funding from Congress would allow DOE to implement a more robust demand-support program. Federal investment in industrial decarbonization grew from $1.5 billion in FY21 to over $10 billion in FY23, thanks largely to new funding from BIL and IRA. However, the sector remains underfunded relative to its emissions, contributing 23% of the country’s emissions while receiving less than 12% of Federal climate innovation funding. A promising piece of legislation that was recently introduced is The Concrete and Asphalt Innovation Act of 2023, which would, among other things, direct the DOE to establish a program of research, development, demonstration, and commercial application of low-emissions cement, concrete, asphalt binder, and asphalt mixture. This would include a demonstration initiative authorized at $200 million and the production of a five-year strategic plan to identify new programs and resources needed to carry out the mission. If the legislation is passed, the DOE could propose a demand-support program in its strategic plan and request funding from Congress to set it up, though the faster route would be for Congress to add a section to the Act directly establishing a demand-support program within DOE and authorizing funding for it before passing the Act.

BIL and IRA gave DOE an expanded mandate to support innovative technologies from early-stage research through commercialization. In order to do so, DOE must be just as innovative in its use of its available authorities and resources. Tackling the challenge of bringing technologies from pilot to commercialization requires DOE to look beyond traditional grant, loan, and procurement mechanisms. Previously, we have identified the DOE’s Other Transaction Authority (OTA) as an underleveraged tool for accelerating clean energy technologies. 

OTA is defined in legislation as the authority to enter into transactions that are not government grants or contracts in order to advance an agency’s mission. This negative definition provides DOE with significant freedom to design and implement flexible financial agreements that can be tailored to address the unique challenges that different technologies face. DOE plans to use OTA to implement the hydrogen demand-support program, and it could also be used for a demand-support program for low-carbon cement and concrete. The DOE’s new Guide to Other Transactions provides official guidance on how DOE personnel can use the flexibilities provided by OTA. 

Before setting up a demand-support program, DOE first needs to define what a low-carbon cement or concrete product is and the value it provides in emissions avoided. This is not straightforward due to (1) the heterogeneity of solutions, which prevents apples-to-apples comparisons in price, and (2) variations in the amount of avoided emissions that different solutions can provide. To address the first issue, for products that are not ready-mix concrete, the DOE should calculate the cost of a unit of concrete made using the product, based on a standardized mix ratio of a specific compressive strength and market prices for the other components of the concrete mix. To address the second issue, the DOE should then divide the calculated price per unit of concrete (e.g., $/m3) by the amount of CO2 emissions avoided per unit of concrete compared to the NRCMA’s industry average (e.g., kg/m3) to determine the effective price per unit of CO2 emissions avoided. The DOE can then fairly compare bids from different projects using this metric. Such an approach would result in the government providing demand support for the products that are most cost-effective at reducing carbon emissions, rather than solely the cheapest.

Furthermore, the DOE should put an upper limit on the amount of embodied carbon that the concrete product or concrete made with the product must meet in order to qualify as “low carbon.” We suggest that the DOE use the limits established by the First Movers Coalition, an international corporate advanced market commitment for concrete and other hard-to-abate industries organized by the World Economic Forum. The limits were developed through conversations with incumbent suppliers, start-ups, nonprofits, and intergovernmental organizations on what would be achievable by 2030. The limits were designed to help move the needle towards commercializing solutions that enable full decarbonization.

Companies that participate in a DOE demand-support program should be required after one or two years of operations to confirm that their product meets these limits through an Environmental Product Declaration.2 Using carbon offsets to reach that limit should not be allowed, since the goal is to spur the innovation and scaling of technologies that can eventually fully decarbonize the cement and concrete industry.

Below are some ideas for how DOE can set up a demand-support program for low-carbon cement and concrete.

Double-Sided Auction 

Double-sided auctions are designed to support the development of production capacity for green technologies and products and the creation of a market by providing long-term price certainty to suppliers and facilitating the sale of their products to buyers. As the name suggests, a double-sided auction consists of two phases: First, the government or an intermediary organization holds a reverse auction for long-term purchase agreements (e.g., 10 years) for the product from suppliers, who are incentivized to bid the lowest possible price in order to win. Next, the government conducts annual auctions of short-term sales agreements to buyers of the product. Once sales agreements are finalized, the product is delivered directly from the supplier to the buyer, with the government acting as a transparent intermediary. The government thus serves as a market maker by coordinating the purchase and sale of the product from producers to buyers. Government funding covers the difference between the original purchase price and the final sale price, reducing the impact of the green premium for buyers and sellers. 

While the federal government has not yet implemented a double-sided auction program, OCED is considering setting up the hydrogen demand-support measure as a “market maker” that provides a “ready purchaser/seller for clean hydrogen.” Such a market maker program could be implemented most efficiently through double-sided auctions.

Germany was the first to conceive of and develop the double-sided auction scheme. The H2Global initiative was established in 2021 to support the development of production capacity for green hydrogen and its derivative products. The program is implemented by Hintco, an intermediary company, which is currently evaluating bids for its first auction for the purchase of green ammonia, methanol, and e-fuels, with final contracts expected to be announced as soon as this month. Products will start to be delivered by the end of 2024.

A double-sided auction scheme for low-carbon cement and concrete would address producers’ need for long-term offtake agreements while matching buyers’ short-term procurement needs. The auctions would also help develop transparent market prices for low-carbon cement and concrete products.

(Source: H2Global)

A double-sided auction scheme for low-carbon cement and concrete would address producers’ need for long-term offtake agreements while matching buyers’ short-term procurement needs. The auctions would also help develop transparent market prices for low-carbon cement and concrete products. 

All bids for purchase agreements should include detailed technical specifications and/or certifications for the product, the desired price per unit, and a robust, third-party life-cycle assessment of the amount of embodied carbon per unit of concrete made with the product, at different compressive strengths. Additionally, bids of ready-mix concrete should include the location(s) of their production facility or facilities, and bids of cement and other concrete inputs should include information on the locations of ready-mix concrete facilities capable of producing concrete using their products. The DOE should then select bids through a pure reverse auction using the calculated effective price per unit of CO2 emissions avoided. To account for regional fragmentation, the DOE could conduct separate auctions for each region of the country.

A double-sided auction presents similar benefits to the low-carbon cement and concrete industry as an advance market commitment would. However, the addition of an efficient, built-in system for the government to then sell that cement or concrete allotment to a buyer means that the government is not obligated to use the cement or concrete itself. This is important because the logistics of matching cement or concrete production to a suitable government construction project can be difficult due to regional fragmentation, and the DOE is not a major procurer of cement and concrete.3 Instead, under this scheme, federal, state, or local agencies working on a construction project or their contractors could check the double-sided auction program each year to see if there is a product offering in their region that matches their project needs and sustainability goals for that year, and if so, submit a bid to procure it. In fact, this should be encouraged as a part of the Federal Buy Clean Initiative, since the government is such an important consumer of cement and concrete products.

Contracts for Difference

Contracts for difference (CfD, or sometimes called two-way CfD) programs aim to provide price certainty for green technology projects and close the gap between the price that producers need and the price that buyers are willing to offer. CfD have been used by the United Kingdom and France primarily to support the development of large-scale renewable energy projects. However, CfD can also be used to support the development of production capacity for other green technologies. OCED is considering CfD (also known as pay-for-difference contracts) for its hydrogen demand-support program. 

CfD are long-term contracts signed between the government or a government-sponsored entity and companies looking to expand production capacity for a green product.4 The contract guarantees that once the production facility comes online, the government will ensure a steady price by paying suppliers the difference between the market price for which they are able to sell their product and a predetermined “strike price.” On the other hand, if the market price rises above the strike price, the supplier will pay the difference back to the government. This prevents the public from funding any potential windfall profits.

A CfD program could provide a source of demand certainty for low-carbon cement and concrete companies looking to finance the construction of pilot- and commercial-scale manufacturing plants or the retrofitting of existing plants. The selection of recipients and strike prices should be determined through annual reverse auctions. In a typical reverse auction for CfD, the government sets a cap on the maximum number of units of product and the max strike price they’re willing to accept. Each project candidate then places a sealed bid for a unit price and the amount of product they plan to produce. The bids are ranked by unit price, and projects are accepted from low to high unit price until either the max total capacity or max strike price is reached. The last project accepted sets the strike price for all accepted projects. The strike price is adjusted annually for inflation but otherwise fixed over the course of the contract. Compared to traditional subsidy programs, a CfD program can be much more cost-efficient thanks to the reverse auction process. The UK’s CfD program has seen the strike price fall with each successive round of auctions.

Applying this to the low-carbon cement and concrete industry requires some adjustments, since there are a variety of products for decarbonizing cement and concrete. As discussed prior, the DOE should compare project bids according to the effective price per unit CO2 abated when the product is used to make concrete. The DOE should also set a cap on the maximum volume of CO2 it wishes to abate and the maximum effective price per unit of CO2 abated that it is willing to pay. Bids can then be accepted from low to high price until one of those caps is hit. Instead of establishing a single strike price, the DOE should use the accepted project’s bid price as the strike price to account for the variation in types of products.

Backstop Price Guarantee 

A CfD program could be designed as a backstop price guarantee if one removes the requirement that suppliers pay the government back when market prices rise above the strike price. In this case, the DOE would set a lower maximum strike price for CO2 abatement, knowing that suppliers will be willing to bid lower strike prices, since there is now the opportunity for unrestricted profits above the strike price. The DOE would then only pay in the worst-case scenario when the market price falls below the strike price, which would operate as an effective price floor.

Backstop Volume Guarantee

Alternatively, the DOE could address demand uncertainty by providing a volume guarantee. In this case, the DOE could conduct a reverse auction for volume guarantee agreements with manufacturers, wherein the DOE would commit to purchasing any units of product short of the volume guarantee that the company is unable to sell each year for a certain price, and the company would commit to a ceiling on the price they will charge buyers.5 Using OTA, the DOE could implement such a program in collaboration with DOT or GSA, wherein DOE would purchase the materials and DOT or GSA would use the materials for their construction needs.

Rather than directly managing a demand-support program, the DOE should enter into an OT agreement with an external nonprofit entity to administer the contracts.6 The nonprofit entity would then hold auctions and select, manage, and fulfill the contracts. DOE is currently in the process of doing this for the hydrogen demand-support program. 

A nonprofit entity could provide two main benefits. First, the logistics of implementing such a program would not be trivial, given the number of different suppliers, intermediaries, and offtakers involved. An external entity would have an easier and faster time hiring staff with the necessary expertise compared to the federal hiring process and limited budget for program direction that the DOE has to contend with. Second, the entity’s independent nature would make it easier to gain lasting bipartisan support for the demand-support program, since the entity would not be directly associated with any one administration.

The green premium for near-zero-carbon cement and concrete products is steep, and demand-support programs like the ones proposed in this report should not be considered a cure-all for the industry, since it may be difficult to secure a large enough budget for any one such program to fully address the green premium across the industry. Rather, demand-support programs can complement the multiple existing funding authorities within the DOE by closing the residual gap between emerging technologies and conventional alternatives after other programs have helped to lower the green premium. 

The DOE’s Loan Programs Office (LPO) received a significant increase in their lending authorities from the IRA and has the ability to provide loans or loan guarantees to innovative clean cement facilities, resulting in cheaper capital financing and providing an effective subsidy. In addition, the IRA and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided substantial new funding for the demonstration of industrial decarbonization technologies through OCED. 

Policies like these can be chained together. For example, a clean cement start-up could simultaneously apply to OCED for funding to demonstrate their technology at scale and a loan or loan guarantee from LPO after due diligence on their business plan. Together, these two programs drive down the cost of the green premium and derisk the companies that successfully receive their support, leaving a much more modest price premium that a mechanism like a double-sided auction could affordably cover with less risk. 

Successfully chaining policies like this requires deep coordination across DOE offices. OCED and LPO would need to work in lockstep in conducting technical evaluations and due diligence of projects that apply to both and prioritize funding of projects that meet both offices’ criteria for success. The best projects should be offered both demonstration funding from OCED and conditional commitments from LPO, which would provide companies with the confidence that they will receive follow-on funding if the demonstration is successful and other conditions are met, while posing no added risk to LPO since companies will need to meet their conditions first before receiving funds. The assessments should also consider whether the project would be a strong candidate for receiving demand support through a double-sided auction, CfD program, or price/volume guarantee, which would help further derisk the loan/loan guarantee and justify the demonstration funding. 

Candidates for receiving support from all three public funding instruments would of course need to be especially rigorously evaluated, since the fiscal risk and potential political backlash of such a project failing is also much greater. If successful, such coordination would ensure that the combination of these programs substantially moves the needle on bringing emerging technologies in green cement and concrete to commercial scale. 

Demand support can help address the key barrier that low-carbon cement and concrete companies face in scaling their technologies and financing commercial-scale manufacturing facilities. Whichever approach the DOE chooses to take, the agency should keep in mind (1) the importance of setting an ambitious standard for what qualifies as low-carbon cement and concrete and comparing proposals using a metric that accounts for the range of different product types and embodied emissions, (2) the complex implementation logistics, and (3) the benefits of coordinating a demand-support program with the agency’s demonstration and loan programs. Implemented successfully, such a program would crowd in private investment, accelerate commercialization, and lay the foundation for the clean industrial economy in the United States.

Breaking Ground on Next-Generation Geothermal Energy

This report is part one of a series on underinvested clean energy technologies, the challenges they face, and how the Department of Energy can use its Other Transaction Authority to implement programs custom tailored to those challenges.

The United States has been gifted with an abundance of clean, firm geothermal energy lying below our feet – tens of thousands of times more than the country has in untapped fossil fuels. Geothermal technology is entering a new era, with innovative approaches on their way to commercialization that will unlock access to more types of geothermal resources. However, the development of commercial-scale geothermal projects is an expensive affair, and the U.S. government has severely underinvested in this technology. The Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law concentrated clean energy investments in solar and wind, which are great near-term solutions for decarbonization, but neglected to invest sufficiently in solutions like geothermal energy, which are necessary to reach full decarbonization in the long term. With new funding from Congress or potentially the creative (re)allocation of existing funding, the Department of Energy (DOE) could take a number of different approaches to accelerating progress in next-generation geothermal energy, from leasing agency land for project development to providing milestone payments for the costly drilling phases of development.

As the United States power grid transitions towards clean energy, the increasing mix of intermittent renewable energy sources like solar and wind must be balanced by sources of clean firm power that are available around the clock in order to ensure grid reliability and reduce the need to overbuild solar, wind, and battery capacity. Geothermal power is a leading contender for addressing this issue. 

Conventional geothermal (also known as hydrothermal) power plants tap into existing hot underground aquifers and circulate the hot water to the surface to generate electricity. Thanks to an abundance of geothermal resources close to the earth’s surface in the western part of the country, the United States currently leads the world in geothermal power generation. Conventional geothermal power plants are typically located near geysers and steam vents, which indicate the presence of hydrothermal resources belowground. However, these hydrothermal sites represent just a small fraction of the total untapped geothermal potential beneath our feet — more than the potential of fossil fuel and nuclear fuel reserves combined.

Next-generation geothermal technologies, such as enhanced geothermal systems (EGS), closed-loop or advanced geothermal systems (AGS), and other novel designs, promise to allow access to a wider range of geothermal resources. Some designs can potentially also serve double duty as long-duration energy storage. Rather than tapping into existing hydrothermal reservoirs underground, these technologies drill into hot dry rock, engineer independent reservoirs using either hydraulic stimulation or extensive horizontal drilling, and then introduce new fluids to bring geothermal energy to the surface. These new technologies have benefited from advances in the oil and gas industry, resulting in lower drilling costs and higher success rates. Furthermore, some companies have been developing designs for retrofitting abandoned oil and gas wells to convert them into geothermal power plants. The commonalities between these two sectors present an opportunity not only to leverage the existing workforce, engineering expertise, and supply chain from the oil and gas industry to grow the geothermal industry but also to support a just transition such that current workers employed by the oil and gas industry have an opportunity to help build our clean energy future. 

Over the past few years, a number of next-generation geothermal companies have had successful pilot demonstrations, and some are now developing commercial-scale projects. As a result of these successes and the growing demand for clean firm power, power purchase agreements (PPAs) for an unprecedented 1GW of geothermal power have been signed with utilities, community choice aggregators (CCAs), and commercial customers in the United States in 2022 and 2023 combined. In 2023, PPAs for next-generation geothermal projects surpassed those for conventional geothermal projects in terms of capacity. While this is promising, barriers remain to the development of commercial-scale geothermal projects. To meet its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, the United States will need to invest in overcoming these barriers for next-generation geothermal energy now, lest the technology fail to scale to the level necessary for a fully decarbonized grid. 

Meanwhile, conventional hydrothermal still has a role to play in the clean energy transition. The United States needs all the clean firm power that it can get, whether that comes from conventional or next-generation geothermal, in order to retire baseload coal and natural gas plants. The construction of conventional hydrothermal power plants is less expensive and cheaper to finance, since it’s a tried and tested technology, and there are still plenty of untapped hydrothermal resources in the western part of the country.

Funding is the biggest barrier to commercial development of next-generation geothermal projects. There are two types of private financing: equity financing or debt financing. Equity financing is more risk tolerant and is typically the source of funding for start-ups as they move from the R&D to demonstration phases of their technology. But because equity financing has a dilutive effect on the company, when it comes to the construction of commercial-scale projects, debt financing is preferred. However, first-of-a-kind commercial projects are almost always precluded from accessing debt financing. It is commonly understood within industry that private lenders will not take on technology risk, meaning that technologies must be at a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of 9, where they have been proven to operate at commercial scale, and government lenders like the DOE Loan Programs Office (LPO) generally will not take on any risk that private lenders won’t. Manifestations of technology risk in next-generation geothermal include the possibility of underproduction, which would impact the plant’s profitability, or that capacity will decline faster than expected, reducing the plant’s operating lifetime. Moving next-generation technologies from the current TRL-7 level to TRL-9 will be key to establishing the reliability of these emerging technologies and unlocking debt financing for future commercial-scale projects. 

Underproduction will likely remain a risk, though to a lesser extent, for next-generation projects even after technologies reach TRL-9. This is because uncertainty in the exploration and subsurface characterization process makes it possible for developers to overestimate the temperature gradient and thus the production capacity of a project. Hydrothermal projects also share this risk: the factors determining the production capacity for hydrothermal projects include not only the temperature gradient but also the flow rate and enthalpy of the natural reservoir. In the worst-case scenario, drilling can result in a dry hole that produces no hot fluids at all. This becomes a financial issue if the project is unable to generate as much revenue as expected due to underproduction or additional wells must be drilled to compensate, driving up the total project cost. Thus, underproduction is a risk shared by both next-generation and conventional geothermal projects. Research into improvements to the accuracy and cost of geothermal exploration and subsurface characterization can help mitigate this risk but may not eliminate it entirely, since there is a risk-cost trade-off in how much time is spent on exploration and subsurface characterization.

Another challenge for both next-generation and conventional geothermal projects is that they are more expensive to develop than solar or wind projects. Drilling requires significant upfront capital expenditures, making up about half of the total capital costs of developing a geothermal project, if not more. For example, in EGS projects, the first few wells can cost around $10 million each, while conventional hydrothermal wells, which are shallower, can cost around $3–7 million each. While conventional hydrothermal plants only consist of two to six wells on average, designs for commercial EGS projects can require several times that amount of wells. Luckily, EGS projects benefit from the fact that wells can be drilled identically, so projects expect to move down the learning curve as they drill more wells, resulting in faster and cheaper drilling. Initial data from commercial-scale projects currently being developed suggest that the learning curves may be even steeper than expected. Nevertheless, this will need to be proven at scale across different locations. Some companies have managed to forgo expensive drilling costs by focusing on developing technologies that can be installed within idle hydrothermal wells or abandoned oil and gas wells to convert them into productive geothermal wells.

Beyond funding, geothermal projects need to obtain land where there are suitable geothermal resources and permits for each stage of project development. The best geothermal resources in the United States are concentrated in the West, where the federal government owns most of the land. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages a lot of that land, in addition to all subsurface resources on federal land. However, there is inconsistency in how the BLM leases its land, depending on the state. While Nevada BLM has been very consistent about holding regular lease sales each year, California BLM has not held a lease sale since 2016. Adding to the complexity is the fact that although BLM manages all subsurface resources on federal land, surface land may sometimes be managed by a different agency, in which case both agencies will need to be involved in the leasing and permitting process.

Last, next-generation geothermal companies face a green premium on electricity produced using their technology, though the green premium does not appear to be as significant of a challenge for next-generation geothermal as it is for other green technologies. In states with high renewables penetration, utilities and their regulators are beginning to recognize the extra value that clean firm power provides in terms of grid reliability. For example, the California Public Utility Commission has issued an order for utilities to procure 1 GW of clean, firm power by 2026, motivating a wave of new demand from utilities and community choice aggregators. As a result of this demand and California’s high electricity prices in general, geothermal projects have successfully signed a flurry of PPAs over the past year. These have included projects located in Nevada and Utah that can transmit electricity to California customers. In most other western states, however, electricity prices are much lower, so utility companies can be reluctant to sign PPAs for next-generation geothermal projects if they aren’t required to, due to the high cost and technology risk. As a result, next-generation geothermal projects in those states have turned to commercial customers, like those operating data centers, who are willing to pay more to meet their sustainability goals. 

The federal government is beginning to recognize the important role of next-generation geothermal power for the clean energy transition. For the first time in 2023, geothermal energy became eligible for the renewable energy investment and production tax credits, thanks to technology-neutral language introduced in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Within the DOE, the agency launched the Enhanced Geothermal Shot in 2022, led by the Geothermal Technologies Office (GTO), to reduce the cost of EGS by 90% to $45/MWh by 2035 and make geothermal widely available. In 2020, the Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE), a dedicated underground field laboratory for EGS research, drilling, and technology testing established by GTO in 2014, drilled their first well using new approaches and tools the lab had developed. This year, GTO announced funding for seven EGS pilot demonstrations from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), for which GTO is currently reviewing the first round of applications. GTO also awarded the Geothermal Energy from Oil and gas Demonstrated Engineering (GEODE) grant to a consortium formed by Project Innerspace, the Society of Petroleum Engineering International, and Geothermal Rising, with over 100 partner entities, to transfer best practices from the oil and gas industry to geothermal, support demonstrations and deployments, identify barriers to growth in the industry, and encourage workforce adoption. 

While these initiatives are a good start, significantly more funding from Congress is necessary to support the development of pilot demonstrations and commercial-scale projects and enable wider adoption of geothermal energy. The BIL notably expanded the DOE’s mission area in supporting the deployment of clean energy technologies, including establishing the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations (OCED) and funding demonstration programs from the Energy Division of BIL and the Energy Act of 2020. However, the $84 million in funding authorized for geothermal pilot demonstrations was only a fraction of the funding that other programs received from BIL and not commensurate to the actual cost of next-generation geothermal projects. Congress should be investing an order of magnitude more into next-generation geothermal projects, in order to maintain U.S. leadership in geothermal energy and reap the many benefits to the grid, the climate, and the economy.

Another key issue is that DOE has currently and in the past limited all of its funding for next-generation geothermal to EGS technologies only. As a result, companies pursuing closed-loop/AGS and other next-generation technologies cannot qualify, leading some projects to be moved abroad. Given GTO’s historically limited budget, it’s possible that this was the result of a strategic decision to focus their funding on one technology rather than diluting it across multiple technologies. However, given that none of these technologies have been successfully commercialized at a wide scale yet, DOE may be missing the opportunity to invest in the full range of viable approaches. DOE appears to be aware of this, as the agency currently has a working group on AGS. New funding from Congress would allow DOE to diversify its investments to support the demonstration and commercial application of other next-generation geothermal technologies. 

Alternatively, there are a number of OCED programs with funding from BIL that have not yet been fully spent (Table 1). Congress could reallocate some of that funding towards a new program supporting next-generation geothermal projects within OCED. Though not ideal, this may be a more palatable near-term solution for the current Congress than appropriating new funding.

Table 1. OCED programs that have remaining unspent funding from BIL as of publication in January 2024.
OCED ProgramTotal FundingCommitted FundingUnspent Funding
Carbon Capture Demonstration Projects$2.547 billion$1.889 billion$658 million
Carbon Capture Large Scale Pilot Projects$937 million$820 million$117 million
Energy Improvements in Rural and Remote Areas$1 billion$365 million$635 million
Clean Energy Demonstration Program on Current and Former Mine Land$500 million$450 million$50 million
Energy Storage Demonstration Projects and Pilot Grant Program$355 million$349 million$6 million
Long-Duration Demonstration Program and Joint Initiative$150 million$30 million$120 million

A third option is that DOE could use some of the funding for the Energy Improvements in Rural and Remote Areas program, of which $635 million remains unallocated, to support geothermal projects. Though the program’s authorization does not explicitly mention geothermal energy, geothermal is a good candidate given the abundance of geothermal production potential in rural and remote areas in the West. Moreover, as a clean firm power source, geothermal has a comparative advantage over other renewable energy sources in improving energy reliability. 

Other Transactions Authority

BIL and IRA gave DOE an expanded mandate to support innovative technologies from early stage research through commercialization. To do so, DOE will need to be just as innovative in its use of its available authorities and resources. Tackling the challenge of scaling technologies from pilot to commercialization will require DOE to look beyond traditional grant, loan, and procurement mechanisms. Previously, we identified the DOE’s Other Transaction Authority (OTA) as an underleveraged tool for accelerating clean energy technologies. 

OTA is defined in legislation as the authority to enter into any transaction that is not a government grant or contract. This negative definition provides DOE with significant freedom to design and implement flexible financial agreements that can be tailored to the unique challenges that different technologies face. OT agreements allow DOE to be more creative, and potentially more cost-effective, in how it supports the commercialization of new technologies, such as facilitating the development of new markets, mitigating risks and market failures, and providing innovative new types of demand-side “pull” funding and supply-side “push” funding. The DOE’s new Guide to Other Transactions provides official guidance on how DOE personnel can use the flexibilities provided by OTA. 

With additional funding from Congress, the DOE could use OT agreements to address the unique barriers that geothermal projects face in ways that may not be possible through other mechanisms. Below are four proposals for how the DOE can do so. We chose to focus on supporting next-generation geothermal projects, since the young industry currently requires more governmental support to grow, but we included ideas that would benefit conventional hydrothermal projects as well.

Geothermal Development on Agency Land

This year, the Defense Innovation Unit issued its first funding opportunity specifically for geothermal energy. The four winning projects will aim to develop innovative geothermal power projects on Department of Defense (DoD) bases for both direct consumption by the base and sale to the local grid. OT agreements were used for this program to develop mutually beneficial custom terms. For project developers, DoD provided funding for surveying, design, and proposal development in addition to land for the actual project development. The agreement terms also gave companies permission to use the technology and information gained from the project for other commercial use. For DoD, these projects are an opportunity to improve the energy resilience and independence of its bases while also reducing emissions. By implementing the prototype agreement using OTA, DoD will have the option to enter into a follow-on OT agreement with project developers without further competition, expediting future processes.

DOE could implement a similar program for its 2.4 million acres of land. In particular, the DOE’s land in Idaho and other western states has favorable geothermal resources, which the DOE has considered leasing. By providing some funding for surveying and proposal development like the DoD, the DOE can increase the odds of successful project development, compared to simply leasing the land without funding support. The DOE could also offer technical support to projects from its national labs. 

With such a program, a lot of the value that the DOE would be providing is the land itself, which the DOE currently has more of than actual funding for geothermal energy. The funding needed for surveying and proposal development is much less than would be needed to support the actual construction of demonstration projects, so GTO could feasibly request funding for such a program through the annual appropriations process. Depending on the program outcomes and the resulting proposals, the DOE could then go back to Congress to request follow-on funding to support actual project construction. 

Drilling Cost-Share Program

To help defray the high cost of drilling, the DOE could implement a milestone-based cost-share program. There is precedent for government cost-share programs for geothermal: in 1973, before the DOE was even established, Congress passed the Geothermal Loan Guarantee Program to provide “investment security to the public and private sectors to exploit geothermal resources” in the early days of the industry. Later, the DOE funded the Cascades I and II Cost Shared Programs. Then, from 2000 to 2007, the DOE ran the Geothermal Resource Exploration and Definitions (GRED) I, II, and III Cost-Share Programs. This year, the DOE launched its EGS Pilot Demonstrations program.

A milestone payment structure could be favorable for supporting expensive, next-generation geothermal projects because the government takes on less risk compared to providing all of the funding upfront. Initial funding could be provided for drilling the first few wells. Successful and on-time completion of drilling could then unlock additional funding to drill more wells, and so on. In the past, both the DoD and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have structured their OT agreements using milestone payments, most famously between NASA and SpaceX for the development of the Falcon9 space launch vehicle. The NASA and SpaceX agreement included not just technical but also financial milestones for the investment of additional private capital into the project. The DOE could do the same and include both technical and financial milestones in a geothermal cost-share program. 

Risk Insurance Program

Longer term, the DOE could implement a risk insurance program for conventional hydrothermal and next-generation geothermal projects. Insuring against underproduction could make it easier and cheaper for projects to be financed, since the potential downside for investors would be capped. The DOE could initially offer insurance just for conventional hydrothermal, since there is already extensive data on past commercial projects that can inform how the insurance is designed. In order to design insurance for next-generation technologies, more commercial-scale projects will first need to be built to collect the data necessary to assess the underproduction risk of different approaches.

France has administered a successful Geothermal Public Risk Insurance Fund for conventional hydrothermal projects since 1982. The insurance originally consisted of two parts: a Short-Term Fund to cover the risk of underproduction and a Long-Term Fund to cover uncertain long-term behavior over the operating lifetime of the geothermal plant. The Short-Term Fund asked project owners to pay a premium of 1.5% of the maximum guaranteed amount. In return, the Short-Term Fund provided a 20% subsidy for the cost of drilling the first well and, in the case of reduced output or a dry hole, a compensation between 20% and 90% of the maximum guaranteed amount (inclusive of the subsidy that has already been paid). The exact compensation is determined based on a formula for the amount necessary to restore the project’s profitability with its reduced output. The Short-Term Fund relied on a high success rate, especially in the Paris Basin where there is known to be good hydrothermal resources, to fund the costs of failures. Geothermal developers that chose to get coverage from the Short-Term Fund were required to also get coverage from the Long-Term Fund, which was designed to hedge against the possibility of unexpected geological or geothermal changes within the wells, such as if their output declined faster than expected or severe corrosion or scaling occurred, over the geothermal plant’s operating lifetime. The Long-Term Fund ended in 2015, but a new iteration of the Short-Term Fund was approved in 2023.

The Netherlands has successfully run a similar program to the Short-Term Fund since the 2000s. Private-sector attempts at setting up geothermal risk insurance packages in Europe and around the world have mostly failed, though. The premiums were often too high, costing up to 25–30% of the cost of drilling, and were established in developing markets where not enough projects were being developed to mutualize the risk. 

To implement such a program at the DOE, projects seeking coverage would first submit an application consisting of the technical plan, timeline, expected costs, and expected output. The DOE would then conduct rigorous due diligence to ensure that the project’s proposal is reasonable. Once accepted, projects would pay a small premium upfront; the DOE should keep in mind the failed attempts at private-sector insurance packages and ensure that the premium is affordable. In the case that either the installed capacity is much lower than expected or the output capacity declines significantly over the course of the first year of operations, the Fund would compensate the project based on the level of underproduction and the amount necessary to restore the project’s profitability with a reduced output. The French Short-Term Fund calculated compensation based on characteristics of the hydrothermal wells; the DOE would need to develop its own formulas reflective of the costs and characteristics of different next-generation geothermal technologies once commercial data actually exists. 

Before setting up a geothermal insurance fund, the DOE should investigate whether there are enough geothermal projects being developed across the country to ensure the mutualization of risk and whether there is enough commercial data to properly evaluate the risk. Another concern for next-generation geothermal is that a high failure rate could cause the fund to run out. To mitigate this, the DOE will need to analyze future commercial data for different next-generation technologies to assess whether each technology is mature enough for a sustainable insurance program. Last, poor state capacity could impede the feasibility of implementing such a program. The DOE will need personnel on staff that are sufficiently knowledgeable about the range of emerging technologies in order to properly evaluate technical plans, understand their risks, and design an appropriate insurance package. 

Production Subsidy

While the green premium for next-generation geothermal has not been an issue in California, it may be slowing down project development in other states with lower electricity prices. The Inflation Reduction Act introduced a new clean energy Production Tax Credit that included geothermal energy for the first time. However, due to the higher development costs of next-generation geothermal projects compared to other renewable energy projects, that subsidy is insufficient to fully bridge the green premium. DOE could use OTA to introduce a production subsidy for next-generation geothermal energy with varied rates depending on the state that the electricity is sold to and its average baseload electricity price (e.g., the production subsidy likely would not apply to California). This would help address variations in the green premium across different states and expand the number of states in which it is financially viable to develop next-generation geothermal projects. 

The United States is well-positioned to lead the next-generation geothermal industry, with its abundance of geothermal resources and opportunities to leverage the knowledge and workforce of the domestic oil and gas industry. The responsibility is on Congress to ensure that DOE has the necessary funding to support the full range of innovative technologies being pursued by this young industry. With more funding, DOE can take advantage of the flexibility offered by OTA to create agreements tailored to the unique challenges that the geothermal industry faces as it begins to scale. Successful commercialization would pave the way to unlocking access to 24/7 clean energy almost anywhere in the country and help future-proof the transition to a fully decarbonized power grid. 

Connecting Utility-Scale Renewable Energy Resources with Rural-Urban Transmission

There is a vast amount of wind and solar power ready to be harvested and moved to market across the United States, but it must be connected through long-distance transmission to protect against intermittency instability. Strategically placed long-distance transmission also ensures that rural and urban populations benefit economically from the transition to clean energy.

The Biden-Harris Administration should facilitate the transition to a clean grid by aggressively supporting utility-scale renewable energy resources in rural areas that are connected to urban centers through modernized high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission. To move toward total electrification and a decarbonized grid, the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) must encourage renewable energy production on federal land through the BLM’s multiple-use mandate. BLM must work in tandem with the Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Transportation (DOT), and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to transport increased clean power generation through newly constructed HVDC lines that can handle this capacity.

This two-pronged approach will move loads from high-generation, low-demand rural areas to low-generation, high-demand (often coastal) urban hubs. As residents in the East arrive home from work and turn on their TVs, the sun is still up in the West and can provide for their energy needs. As residents in the Northwest wake up, grind coffee, and tune into the news, they can rely on power from the Midwest, where the wind is blowing.

Challenge and Opportunity

Utility-Scale Renewable Energy Development on Federal Land 

After taking office, the Biden-Harris Administration rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and committed the United States to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50–52% below 2005 levels by 2030. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is a positive step toward meeting these GHG emissions goals. The IRA allocated $369 billion to climate and energy security investments, which should be used to bolster development of renewables on federal lands. Together with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, this funding affords an enormous opportunity.

Building utility-scale renewable energy infrastructure such as wind or solar requires a vast amount of space. A utility-scale solar power plant could require between 5 and 10 acres of land in order to generate enough energy to power approximately 173 homes

The federal government owns a vast amount of land, some of which is viable for wind and solar. To be exact, the federal government owns 640 million acres of land (nearly one-third of all U.S. land), which is managed through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS), the National Park Service (NPS), the Forest Service (USFS), and the Department of Defense (DOD). 

Land owned by the BLM (245 million acres) and the USFS (193 million acres) falls under similar multiple-use, sustained-yield mandates. The majority of those combined 438 million acres under BLM jurisdiction are the concern of this memo. According to the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA), resources and uses on those federal lands must be used in a balanced combination that “best meets present and future needs of the American people.” This multiple-use mandate presents an enormous opportunity for deployment of utility-scale renewable energy resources. The BLM manages over 19 million acres of public lands with excellent solar potential across six states and 20.6 million acres of public lands with excellent wind potential. This land is ripe for utility-scale renewable energy generation and will be critical to achieving the nation’s decarbonization goals. Green energy generation on these lands should be privileged. 

Together, the 15 central U.S. states account for the majority of national wind and solar technical potential. However, these states are projected to comprise only a third of the nation’s electrical demand in 2050. Population-dense and predominantly coastal cities have higher energy demand, while the Midwest and Southwest are dominated by rural communities and public land. Transmission lines are needed to transport renewable energy from these central states to the urban centers with large energy markets.

Transmission Development on a Rural-Urban Grid

The U.S. grid is split into three regions: the Western Interconnection, the Eastern Interconnection, and ERCOT Interconnection (Texas). These three regions are only minimally connected nationally, regionally, or even through interstate connections due to intense localism on the part of utilities that are not financially incentivized to engage in regional transmission. There are three key utility ownership models in the United States: private investor-owned utilities (IOUs), public power utilities owned by states or municipalities, and nonprofit rural electric cooperatives (co-ops). 

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is an independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity. In this capacity, it ensures that regional goals are established and met. Two types of entities established by FERC, regional transmission organizations (RTOs) and independent system operators (ISOs), help to coordinate regional transmission across utilities. RTOs are voluntary bodies of utilities that streamline and coordinate regional transmission initiatives and objectives. ISOs are independent and federally regulated entities that coordinate regional transmission to ensure nondiscriminatory access and streamline regional goals. ISOs and RTOs are similar, but RTOs generally have jurisdiction over a larger geographic area. Two-thirds of the nation’s electricity load is served in ISO/RTO regions. The remainder of the energy market is dominated by vertically integrated utilities that manage both transmission and distribution.

Establishing more connections among the three regional grids will support renewable energy development, reduce GHG emissions, save consumers money, increase resilience, and create jobs. Connecting the power grid across states and time zones is also vital to peak load control. Greater connection mitigates the inherent instability of renewables: if clouds cover the sun in the East, winds will still blow in the Midwest. If those winds die, water will still flow in the Northwest’s rivers.

The best way to make connections between regional and local grids is through high-voltage direct current electrical transmission systems. HVDC transmission allows for the direct current (DC) transfer of power over long distances, which is more energetically efficient than alternating current (AC).

There is precedent and forward momentum on developing interstate transmission, including projects like SunZia in the Southwest, TransWest Express in the Mountain West, Grain Belt Express in the Midwest, and Champlain Hudson Power Express in the Northeast. The Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) recently approved $10.3 billion in regional HVDC lines, a move that is projected to generate up to $52.2 billion in net benefits through mitigated blackouts and increased fuel savings. 

Though co-ops account for the smallest percentage of utilities (there are 812 total), they are found in the primarily rural Midwest, where there is high generation potential for solar and wind energy. Here, utility participation in RTOs is low. FERC has expressed disinterest in mandating RTO participation and in taking punitive action. However, it can incentivize regional planning through RTO membership or, where unappealing to local utilities, incentivize regional transmission investment through joint ownership structures. 

The Biden-Harris Administration has taken the first steps to address these issues, such as releasing an Action Plan in 2022 to encourage federal agencies to expedite the permitting process of renewable energy. The president should expand on the existing Action Plan to build a larger coalition of contributors and also encourage the following recommendations to facilitate maximum clean-energy transition efficiency. Achieving the Biden-Harris Administration decarbonization targets requires the tandem development of rural utility-scale renewable energy and regional HVDC transmission to carry this energy to urban centers, benefiting people and economies across the United States. 

Plan of Action

Recommendation 1. BLM should prioritize renewable energy permit awards near planned HVDC transmission lines and existing rights-of-way. 

Compared to FY20, BLM reported that it has increased renewable energy permitting activities by 35%, supporting the development of 2,898 MW of onshore solar, wind, and geothermal energy generation capacity. BLM received 130 proposals for renewable energy generation projects on public lands and six applications for interconnected transmission lines in 2021. The transmission line proposals would support 17 GW of energy, which would also support the transmission of renewable energy on non-federal land across the Southwest.

DOI can directly support renewable energy generation by instructing BLM to ensure that contracts are awarded through the multiple-use, sustained-yield mandate in a specific way. Though Section 50265 of the IRA mandates that oil and gas leases must continue, DOI can plan with an eye to the future. Renewables built on public lands should be constructed in areas closest to planned HVDC transmission, including but not limited to Kansas, Wyoming, and New Mexico. Renewables should always take precedence over coal, oil, and natural gas in areas where existing or future HVDC transmission lines are planned to begin construction or upgrades. Renewables should also always take precedence near railways and federal highways, where HVDC transmission is more easily implemented. Contracts for renewables near planned HVDC interstate transmission lines and existing rights-of-way like railways and highways should be given precedence in the awards process. This will prime the grid for the Biden-Harris Administration’s decarbonization goals and ensure that oil and gas generation is situated closer to legacy lines that are more likely to be retired sooner. DOI has unique considerations due to Section 50265 of the IRA, but it can still coordinate with other federal agencies to manage its constraints and judiciously prioritize transmission-adjacent renewable energy generation sites. 

Recommendation 2. FERC should incentivize regional transmission planning by encouraging federal-local partnerships, introducing joint-ownership structures, and amending Order 1000.

FERC should encourage RTOs to prioritize regional transmission planning in order to meet decarbonization goals and comply with an influx of cheaper, cleaner energy into its portfolio. The FERC-NARUC Task Force is a good starting point for this cooperation and should be expanded upon. This federal-state task force on electric transmission is a good blueprint for how federal objectives for regional planning can work hand-in-hand with local considerations. FERC can highlight positive cases like SB448 in Nevada, which incentivizes long-distance transmission and mandates the state’s participation in an RTO by 2030. FERC should encourage utility participation in RTOs but emphasize that long-distance transmission planning and implementation is the ultimate objective. Where RTO participation is not feasible, FERC can incentivize utility participation in regional transmission planning in other ways. 

FERC should incentivize utility participation in regional transmission by encouraging joint-ownership structures, as explored in a 2019 incentives docket. In March 2019, FERC released a Notice of Inquiry seeking comments on “the scope and implementation of its electric transmission incentives regulations and policy.” Commenters supported non-public utility joint-ownership promotion, including equity in transmission lines that can offset customer rates, depending on the financing structure. In February 2023, FERC approved incentives for two of Great River Energy’s interstate transmission projects, in which it will own a 52.3% stake of the Minnesota Iron Range project and 5% of the Big Stone project. In the Iron Range project, Great River can use a 50% equity and 50% debt capital structure, placing the construction expenses on its rate base. The cash flow generated by this capital structure is necessary for the completion of this interstate transmission line, and FERC should encourage similar projects and incentives.

FERC should amend Order 1000—Transmission Planning and Cost Allocation. As former Commissioner Glick has noted, Order 1000 in its current iteration unintentionally encourages the construction of smaller lines over larger-scale regional transmission lines because utilities prefer not to engage in potentially lengthy, expensive competition processes. In April 2022, FERC published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR), which, among other things, attempts to address this perverse incentive by amending the order “to permit the exercise of a federal rights of first refusal for transmission facilities selected in a regional transmission plan for purposes of cost allocation, conditioned on the incumbent transmission provider establishing joint ownership of those facilities.” Amending this rule and allowing federal ROFR for joint ownership structures will encourage partnerships, spread risks across more parties, and allow greater access to large investments that traditionally require an insurmountable capital investment for most investors new to this sector. The NOPR also encouraged long-term regional transmission planning and improved coordination between local and regional entities and implementation goals. The amendment was supported by both utilities and environmental groups. Public comments were closed for submission in summer 2022. Now, over a year later, FERC should act quickly to issue a final rule on amending Order 1000.

In addition to incentivizing more regionally focused transmission planning at the utility level, federal agencies should work together to ensure that HVDC lines are strategically placed to facilitate the delivery of renewable energy to large markets. 

Recommendation 3. The Biden-Harris Administration should encourage the Department of Transportation to work with the Grid Deployment Office (GDO) and approve state DOT plans for HVDC lines along existing highways and railroads. 

In 2021, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) released a memorandum providing guidance that state departments of transportation may leverage “alternative uses” of existing highway rights of way (ROW), including for renewable energy, charging stations, transmission lines, and broadband projects, and that the FHWA may approve alternative uses for ROWs so long as they benefit the public and do not impair traffic. The GDO, created by the Biden-Harris Administration, should work directly with state DOTs to plan for future interstate lines. As these departments coordinate, they should use a future highway framework characterized by increased electric vehicle (EV) usage, increased EV charging station needs, and improved mass transit. This will allow DOT to reinterpret impeding the “free and safe flow of traffic.” The FHWA should encourage state DOTs to use the SOO Green HVDC Link as a blueprint. The idea of reconciling siting issues by building transmission lines along existing rights-of-way such as highways or railroads is known to this administration, as evidenced by President Biden’s reference in a 2022 White House Statement and by FERC’s June 2020 report on barriers and opportunities for HVDC transmission. 

Recommendation 4. DOI, the Department of Agriculture (USDA), DOD, DOE, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should sign a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that builds on their 2022 MOU but includes DOT.

In 2022, DOI, USDA, DOD, DOE, and the EPA signed an MOU that would expedite the review process of renewable energy projects on federal lands. DOT, specifically its FHWA and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), should be included in this memorandum. The president should direct these agencies to sign a second MOU to work together to create a regional and national outline for future transmission lines and prioritize permit requests that align with that outline. This new MOU should add the DOT and illustrate the specific ways that FHWA and FRA can support its goals by repurposing existing transportation rights-of-ways. 

Recommendation 5. All future covered transmission planning should align with the MOU proposed in Recommendation 4. 

Under Section 50152 of the IRA, the DOE received $760 million to distribute federal grants for the development of covered transmission projects. Section 50153 appropriates an additional $100 million to DOE, which is specifically tailored to wind electricity planning and development, both offshore and interregional. The DOE should require that all transmission planning using this federal funding align with the long-term outline created under the MOU recommended above. Additionally, preference should be given to transmission lines (receiving federal funding) that link utility-scale renewable energy projects with large urban centers.

Recommendation 6. The EPA should fund technical and educational training to rural and disadvantaged communities that might benefit from an influx of high-demand green energy jobs. 

The federal government should leverage existing funding to ensure that rural and disadvantaged communities directly benefit from economic development opportunities facilitated by the clean energy transition. The EPA should use funds from Section 60107 of the IRA to provide technical and educational assistance to low-income and disadvantaged communities in the form of job training and planning. EPA funding can be used to ensure that local communities have the technical knowledge to take advantage of the jobs and opportunities created by projects like the SOO Green HVDC Link. Because this section of the IRA only funds up to $17 million in job training, this should be allocated to supplement community colleges and other technical training programs that have established curricula and expertise. 

To ensure that efforts are successful in the long term, federal agencies, utilities, and other stakeholders must have access to accurate and current information about transmission needs nationwide. 

Recommendation 7. Congress should fund regular updates to existing future transmission needs studies. 

Congress must continue to approve future research into both halves of the electrification equation: generation and transmission. Congress already approved funding for the NREL Electrification Futures Study and the NREL Interconnections SEAM Study, both published in 2021. These studies allow NREL to determine best-case scenario models and then communicate its research to the RTOs that are best positioned to help IOUs plan for future regional transmission. These studies also guide FERC and the GDO as they determine best-case scenarios for linking rural clean energy resources to urban energy markets. 

In addition, Congress must continue to fund the GDO National Transmission Needs Study, which was funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL). This study researches capacity constraints and congestion on the transmission grid and will help FERC and RTOs determine where future transmission should be planned in order to relieve pressure and meet needs. The final Needs Study was issued in summer 2023, but it must be updated on a regular basis if the country is to actively move toward grid coordination. 

The Summer 2023 Needs Study included, for the first time, modeling and discussion of anticipated future capacity constraints and transmission congestion. As the grid continues to evolve and different types of renewable energy are integrated into the grid, future needs studies should continue to include forward-looking models under a variety of renewable energy scenarios.

Conclusion

The Biden-Harris Administration has rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, affirming their commitment to significant decarbonization goals. To achieve this end, the administration must follow a two-pronged approach that facilitates the installation of utility-scale renewable energy on public lands in the Midwest and Southwest and expedites the implementation of HVDC transmission lines that will link these resources to urban energy markets. 

It is impossible to meet the Biden-Harris Administration climate goals without drastic action to encourage further electrification, renewable energy development, and transmission planning. Fortunately, these actions are ripe for bipartisan coordination and are already supported through existing laws like the IRA and BIL. These recommendations will help meet these goals and secure a brighter future for Americans across the rural-urban divide.

Frequently Asked Questions
What recent efforts has FERC taken to modernize transmission?

FERC has made recent strides toward encouraging transmission modernization through Order No. 2023. While this rule primarily addresses the “largest interconnection queue size in history” and takes steps to accelerate the interconnection process, it does not address the lack of transmission capacity and infrastructure nationally. Order No. 2023 is a vital step forward in interconnection process modernization, and it should be the first of many toward large-scale transmission planning.

How many utility-scale solar and onshore wind plants are currently in use on public lands?

As of November 2021, BLM-managed lands produced 12 GW of power from renewable energy sources, through 36 wind, 37 solar, and 48 geothermal permitted projects. To put this number into perspective, 1 GW is enough to power approximately 750,000 homes. Helpfully, BLM maintains a list of planned and approved renewable energy projects on its lands. Additionally, the Wilderness Society maintains an interactive map of energy projects on public lands.


In contrast, BLM manages over 37,000 oil and gas leases, including over 96,000 wells.

How will states benefit from renewable energy development on public lands?

Due to their high renewable-energy development potential, Midwest and Southwest states stand to disproportionately gain from a clean energy jobs boom in the fields of construction, management, and the technical trades. Given the West’s and Northeast’s desire for a decarbonized grid and their comparatively greater energy use, these states will benefit by receiving greater amounts of renewable energy to meet their energy needs and decarbonization goals.

How many regional HVDC transmission lines are currently planned or approved?

The United States lags in the number of HVDC transmission lines, particularly compared to China and Europe. In 2022, only 552 miles of high voltage transmission were added to the United States. Currently, there are four regional transmission lines proposed, two of which expect to begin construction this year. Of these planned lines, three are in the Midwest and Southwest, and one is in the Northeast. While this is progress, China has recently invested $26 billion in a national network of ultra-high-voltage lines.

Why does this memo focus on BLM multiple-use, sustained-yield mandates and not the other five purveyors of U.S. public lands?

Five agencies manage federal land, including BLM, USFS, FWS, NPS, USDA, and DOD. However, only BLM and USFS operate under the FLPMA’s multiple-use, sustained-yield mandates, and their land-use mandates are similar. The other agencies’ mandates require them to protect and conserve animals and plants, promote tourism and engagement with public lands, and manage military installations and bases. This said, BLM and USFS are the best candidates for developing utility-scale renewable energy resources through their specific mandates. This memo focuses on the larger of those entities, which has greater potential for substantial renewable energy development and an established permitting system. As discussed in this USFS and NREL study, the study of renewable-energy resource construction on national forest system lands is still in early stages, whereas BLM’s policies and systems are developed.

Why is tribal land not included in this proposal? How can stakeholders on tribal lands take advantage of federal funding to build similar resources and connect their populations through HVDC transmission lines?

It is not within the scope of this memo to address issues specific to Tribal lands. However, various federal agencies offer clean energy funding specifically for Tribes, such as the Tribal Energy Loan Guarantee Program. If desired by Tribal communities, the U.S. government should prioritize funding for HVDC transmission lines that link Tribal power generation to Tribal urban centers and utility grids. For tribes seeking guidance on implementing utility-scale projects, Navajo Nation can serve as one model. Navajo Nation has the highest solar potential of any tribal land in the country. They have successfully constructed the Kayenta Solar Project (55 MW of energy), and have finalized leases for the Cameron Solar Plant (200 MW) and the Red Mesa Tapaha Solar Generation Plant (70 MW). The Cameron project alone will generate $109 million over the next 30 years for tribal coffers through tax revenue, lease payments, and energy transmission payments. Another example is the solar energy portfolio of Moapa Band of Paiute Indians. The Tribe manages a growing portfolio of utility-scale solar projects, including Moapa Southern Paiute Solar Project (250 MW), and the first utility-scale installation on tribal land. Currently under development are the Arrow Canyon Solar Project, the Southern Bighorn Solar Project, and the Chuckwalla Solar Projects, all of which feature joint ownership between tribal, federal, and private stakeholders.

Geothermal is having a moment. Here’s how the Foundation for Energy Security and Innovation can make sure it lasts.

Geothermal energy is having a moment. The Department of Energy has made it a cornerstone of their post-BIL/IRA work – announcing an Enhanced Geothermal Earthshot last year and funding for a new consortium this year, along with additional funding for the Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE), Utah’s field lab. 

It’s not just government – companies hit major milestones in commercial applications of geothermal this year. Fervo Energy launched a first-of-its-kind next-generation geothermal plant, using technology it developed this year. Project Innerspace, a geothermal development organization, recently announced a partnership with Google to begin large-scale mapping and subsurface data collection, a project that would increase understanding of and access to geothermal resources. Geothermal Rising recently hosted their annual conference, which saw record numbers of attendees. 

But despite the excitement in these circles, the uptake of geothermal energy broadly is still relatively low, with only 0.4% of electricity generated in the U.S. coming from geothermal.

There are multiple reasons for this – that despite its appeal as a clean, firm, baseload energy source, geothermal has not exploded like its supporters believe it can and should. It has high upfront costs, is somewhat location dependent, and with the exception of former oil and gas professionals, lacks a dedicated workforce. But there are a range of actors in the public and private sector who are already trying to overcome these barriers and take geothermal to the next level with new and creative ideas.

One such idea is to use DOE’s newly authorized Foundation for Energy Security and Innovation (FESI) to convene philanthropy, industry, and government on these issues. At a recent FAS-hosted workshop, three major, viable use cases for how FESI can drive expansion of geothermal energy rose to the surface as the result of this cross-sector discussion. The foundation could potentially oversee: the development of an open-source database for data related to geothermal development; agreements for cost sharing geothermal pilot wells; or permitting support in the form of technical resource teams staffed with geothermal experts. 

Unlocking Geothermal Energy

DOE’s Foundation for Energy Security and Innovation (FESI) was authorized by the CHIPS and Science Act and is still in the process of being stood up. But once in action, FESI could provide an opportunity for collaboration between philanthropy, industry, and government that could accelerate geothermal. 

As part of our efforts to support DOE in standing up its new foundation with the Friends of FESI initiative, FAS is identifying potential use cases for FESI – structured projects that the foundation could take on as it begins work. The projects must forward DOE’s mission in some way, with particular focus on clean energy technology commercialization. We have already received a wide range of ideas for how FESI can act as a central hub for collaboration on specific clean energy technologies; how it can support innovative procurement and talent models for government; or how it can help ensure an equitable clean energy transition. 

In early October, FAS had the opportunity to host a workshop as part of the 2023 Geothermal Rising Conference. The workshop invited conference attendees from nonprofits, companies, and government agencies of all levels to come together to brainstorm potential projects that could forward geothermal development. The workshop centered on four major ideas, and then invited attendees to break out into small groups, rotating after a period of time to ensure attendees could discuss each idea. 

The workshop was successful, adding depth to existing ideas. The three main ideas that came out of the workshop – an open source geothermal database, cost sharing pilot wells, and permitting support – are explored in more detail below. 

Open-source database for subsurface characterization

One of the major barriers to expanded geothermal development is a lack of data for use in exploration. Given the high upfront costs of geothermal wells, developers need to have a detailed understanding of subsurface conditions of a particular area to assess the area’s suitability for development and reduce their risk of investing in a dead end. Useful data can include bottom hole temperatures, thermal gradient, rock type, and porosity, but can also include less obvious data – information on existing water wells or transmission capacity in a particular area. 

These data exist, but with caveats: they might be proprietary and available for a high cost, or they might be available at the state level and constrained by the available technical capacity in those offices. Data management standards and availability also vary by state. The Geothermal Data Repository and the US Geological Survey manage databases as well, but utility of and access to these data sources is limited. 

With backing from industry and philanthropic sources, and in collaboration with DOE, FESI could support collection, standardization, and management of these data sources. A great place to begin would be making accessible existing public datasets. Having access to this data would lower the barrier to entry for geothermal start-ups, expand the types of geothermal development that exist, and remove some of the pressure that state and federal agencies feel around data management. 

Cost sharing pilot wells

After exploration, the next stage in a geothermal energy source’s life is development of a well. This is a difficult stage to reach for companies: there’s high risk, high investment cost, and a lack of early equity financing. In short, it’s tough for companies to scale up, even if they have the expertise and technology. This is also true across different types of geothermal – just as much in traditional hydrothermal as in superhot or enhanced geothermal

One way FESI could decrease the upfront costs of pilot wells is by fostering and supporting cost-share agreements between DOE, companies, and philanthropy. There is a precedent for this at DOE – from loan programs in the 1970s to the Geothermal Resource Exploration and Definition (GRED) programs in the 2000s. Cost-share agreements are good candidates for any type of flexible financial mechanism, like the Other Transactions Authority, but FESI could provide a neutral arena for funding and operation of such an agreement. 

Cost share agreements could take different forms: FESI could oversee insurance schemes for drillers, offtake agreements, or centers of excellence for training workforces. The foundation would allow government and companies to pool resources in order to share the risk of increasing the number of active geothermal projects. 

Interagency talent support for permitting

Another barrier to geothermal development (as well as to other clean energy technologies) is the slow process of permitting, filled with pitfalls. While legislative permitting reform is desperately needed, there are barriers that can be addressed in other ways. One of these is by infusing new talent: clean energy permitting applications require staff to assess and adjudicate them. Those staff need encyclopedic knowledge of various state, local, tribal, and federal permitting laws and an understanding of the clean energy technology in question. The federal government doesn’t have enough people to process applications at the speed the clean energy transition needs. 

FESI could offer a solution. With philanthropic and private support, the foundation could enable fellowships or training programs to support increased geothermal (or other technological) expertise in government. This could take the form of ‘technical resource teams,’ or experts who can be deployed to agencies handling geothermal project permitting applications and use their subject matter knowledge to move applications more quickly through the pipeline. 

The Bottom Line

These ideas represent a sample in just one technology area of what’s possible for FESI. In the weeks to come, the Friends of FESI team will work to develop these ideas further and also start to gauge interest from philanthropies in supporting them in the future. If you’re interested in contributing to or potentially funding these ideas, please reach out to our team at fesifriends@fas.org. If you have other ideas for what FESI could work on or just want to keep up with FESI, sign up for our email newsletter here.

Systems Thinking in Climate: Positive Tipping Points Jumpstart Transformational Change

This blog post is the second piece in a periodic series by FAS on systems thinking. The first is on systems thinking in entrepreneurial ecosystems.

News was abuzz two weeks ago with a flurry of celebratory articles showcasing the first-year accomplishments of the Administration’s signature clean energy law, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), on its August 16-anniversary. The stats are impressive. Since the bill’s passage, some 270 new clean energy projects have been announced, with investments totaling some $132 billion, according to a Bank of America analyst report. President Biden, speaking at a White House anniversary event, reported that the legislation has already created 170,000 clean energy jobs and will create some 1.5 million jobs over the next decade, while significantly cutting the nation’s carbon emissions. 

The New York Times also headlined an article last week: “The Clean Energy Future Is Arriving Faster Than You Think,” citing that “globally, change is happening at a pace that is surprising even the experts who track it closely.” In addition, the International Energy Agency, which provides analysis to support energy security and the clean energy transition, made its largest ever upward revision  to its forecast on renewable capacity expansion. But should this accelerated pace of change that we are seeing really be such a surprise? Or, can rapid acceleration of transformation be predicted, sought after, and planned for?

FAS Senior Associate Alice Wu published a provocative policy memo last week entitled, “Leveraging Positive Tipping Points To Accelerate Decarbonization.” Wu asserts that we can anticipate and drive toward thresholds in decarbonization transitions. A new generation of economic models can enable the analysis of these tipping points and the evaluation of effective policy interventions. But to put this approach front and center will require an active research agenda and a commitment to use this framework to inform policy decisions. If done successfully, a tipping points framework can help forecast multiple different aspects of the decarbonization transition, such as food systems transformation and for ensuring that accelerated transitions happen in a just and equitable manner. 

Over the past year, FAS has centralized the concept of positive tipping points as an organizing principle in how we think about systems change in climate and beyond. We are part of a global community of scholars, policymakers, and nonprofit organizations that recognize the potential power in harnessing a positive tipping points framework for policy change. The Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter, Systemiq, and the Food and Land Use Coalition are a few of the leading organizations working to apply this framework in a global context. FAS is diving deep into the U.S. policy landscape, unpacking opportunities with current policy levers (like the IRA) to identify positive tipping points in progress and, hopefully, to build capacity to anticipate and drive toward positive tipping points in the future.

Through a partnership between FAS and Metaculus, a crowd-forecasting platform, a Climate Tipping Points Tournament has provided an opportunity for experienced and novice forecasters alike to dive deep into climate policy questions related to Zero Emissions Vehicles (ZEVs). The goal is to anticipate some of these nonlinear transformation thresholds before they occur and explore the potential impacts of current and future policy levers.

While the tournament is still ongoing, it is already yielding keen insights on when accelerations in systems behavior is likely to occur, on topics that range from the growth of ZEV workforce to the supply chain dynamics for critical minerals needed for ZEV batteries. FAS is planning to publish a series of memos that will seek to turn insights from the tournament into actionable policy recommendations. Future topics planned include: 1) ZEV subsidies; 2) public vs. private charging stations; sodium ion battery research and development; and 4) ZEV battery recycling and the circular economy.

Going forward, FAS will continue to elevate the concept of positive tipping points in the climate space and beyond. We believe that if scientists and policymakers work together toward operationalizing this framework, positive tipping points can move quickly from the realm of the theoretical to become an instrument of policy design that enables decision makers to craft laws and executive action that promotes systems change toward the beneficial transformations we are seeking.

Leveraging Positive Tipping Points to Accelerate Decarbonization

Summary

The Biden Administration has committed the United States to net-zero emissions by 2050. Meeting this commitment requires drastic decarbonization transitions across all sectors of society at a pace never seen before. This can be made possible by positive tipping points, which demarcate thresholds in decarbonization transitions that, once crossed, ensure rapid progress towards completion. A new generation of economic models enables the analysis of these tipping points and the evaluation of effective policy interventions. 

The Biden Administration should undertake a three-pronged strategy for leveraging the power of positive tipping points to create a larger-than-anticipated return on investment in the transition to a clean energy future. First, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) should evaluate new economic models and make recommendations for how agencies can incorporate such models into their decision-making process. Second, federal agencies should integrate positive tipping points into the research agendas of existing research centers and programs to uncover additional decarbonization opportunities. Finally, federal agencies should develop decarbonization strategies and policies based on insights from this research.

Challenge and Opportunity

Climate change brings us closer each year to triggering negative tipping points, such as the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet or the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation. These negative tipping points, driven by self-reinforcing environmental feedback loops, significantly accelerate the pace of climate change. 

Meeting the Biden Administration’s commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 will reduce the risk of these negative tipping points but requires the United States to significantly accelerate the current pace of decarbonization. Traditional economic models used by the federal government and organizations such as the International Energy Agency consistently underestimate the progress of zero-emission technologies and the return on investment of policies that enable a faster transition, resulting in the agency’s “largest ever upwards revision” last year. A new school of thought presents “evidence-based hope” for rapidly accelerating the pace of decarbonization transitions. Researchers point out that our society consists of complex and interconnected social, economic, and technological systems that do not change linearly under a transition, as traditional models assume; rather, when a positive tipping point is crossed, changes made to the system can lead to disproportionately large effects. A new generation of economic models has emerged to support policymakers in understanding these complex systems in transition and identifying the best policies for driving cost-effective decarbonization.

At COP26 in 2021, leaders of countries responsible for 73% of world emissions, including the United States, committed to work together to reach positive tipping points under the Breakthrough Agenda. The United Kingdom and other European countries have led the movement thus far, but there is an opportunity for the United States to join as a leader in implementing policies that intentionally leverage positive tipping points and benefit from the shared learnings of other nations. 

Domestically, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) include some of the strongest climate policies that the country has ever seen. The implementation of these policies presents a natural experiment for studying the impact of different policy interventions on progress towards positive tipping points.

How do positive tipping points work?

Figure 1. Diagram of a system and its positive tipping point. The levers for change on the left push the system away from the current high-emission state and towards a new net-zero state. As the system moves away from the current state, the self-reinforcing feedback loops in the system become stronger and accelerate the transition. At the positive tipping point, the feedback loops become strong enough to drive the system towards the new state without further support from the levers for change. Thus, policy interventions for decarbonization transitions are most crucial in the lead up to a positive tipping point. (Adapted from the Green Futures Network.)

Just as negative tipping points in the environment accelerate the pace of climate change, positive tipping points in our social, economic, and technological systems hold the potential to rapidly accelerate the pace of decarbonization (Figure 1). These positive tipping points are driven by feedback loops that generate increasing returns to adoption and make new consumers more likely to adopt (Figure 2):

The right set of policies can harness this phenomenon to realize significantly greater returns on investment and trigger positive tipping points that give zero-emission technologies a serious boost over incumbent fossil-based technologies.

Figure 2. Examples of positive feedback loops: (a) learning by doing, (b) social contagion, and (c) complementary technology reinforcement.

One way of visualizing progress towards a positive tipping point is the S-curve, where the adoption of a new zero-emission technology grows exponentially and then saturates at full adoption. This S-curve behavior is characteristic of many historic energy and infrastructure technologies (Figure 3). From these historic examples, researchers have identified that the positive tipping point occurs between 10% and 40% adoption. Crossing this adoption threshold is difficult to reverse and typically guarantees that a technology will complete the S-curve.

Figure 3. The historic adoption of a sample of infrastructure and energy systems (top) and manufactured goods (bottom). Note that the sharpness of the S-curve can vary significantly. (Source: Systemiq)

For example, over the past two decades, the Norwegian government helped build electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure (complementary technology) and used taxes and subsidies to lower the price of EVs below that of gas vehicles. As a result, consumers began purchasing the cheaper EVs, and over time manufacturers introduced new models of EVs that were cheaper and more appealing than previous models (learning by doing and economies of scale). This led to EVs skyrocketing to 88% of new car sales in 2022. Norway has since announced that it would start easing its subsidies for EVs by introducing two new EV taxes for 2023, yet EV sales have continued to grow, taking up 90% of total sales so far in 2023, demonstrating the difficult-to-reverse nature of positive tipping points. Norway is now on track to reach a second tipping point that will occur when EVs reach price parity with gas vehicles without assistance from taxes or subsidies.

Due to the interconnected nature of social and technological systems, triggering one positive tipping point can potentially increase the odds of another tipping point at a greater scale, resulting in “upward-scaling tipping cascades.” Upward-scaling tipping cascades can occur in two ways: (1) from a smaller system to a larger system (e.g., as more states reach their tipping point for EV adoption, the nation as a whole gets closer to its tipping point) and (2) from one sector to another. For the latter, researchers have identified three super-leverage points that policymakers can use to trigger tipping cascades across multiple sectors:

  1. Light-duty EVs → heavy-duty EVs and renewable energy storage: The development of cheaper batteries for light-duty EVs will enable cheaper heavy-duty EVs and renewable energy storage thanks to shared underlying battery technology. The build-out of charging infrastructure for light-duty EVs will also facilitate the deployment of heavy-duty EVs.
  2. Green ammonia → heavy industries, shipping, and aviation: The production of green ammonia requires green hydrogen as an input, so the growth of the former will spur the growth of the latter. Greater production of green hydrogen and green ammonia will catalyze the decarbonization of the heavy industries, shipping, and aviation sectors, which use these chemicals as fuel inputs.
  3. Traditional and alternative plant proteins → land use: Widespread consumption of traditional and alternative plant proteins over animal protein will reduce pressure on land-use change for agriculture and potentially restore significant amounts of land for conservation and carbon sequestration.

The potential for this multiplier effect makes positive tipping points all the more promising and critical to understand.

Further research to identify positive tipping points and tipping cascades and to improve models for evaluating policy impacts holds great potential for uncovering additional decarbonization opportunities. Policymakers should take full advantage of this growing field of research by integrating its models and insights into the climate policy decision-making process and translating insights from researchers into evidence-based policies. 

Plan of Action

In order for the government to leverage positive tipping points, policymakers must be able to (1) identify positive tipping points and tipping cascades before they occur, (2) understand which policies or sequences of policies may be most cost-effective and impactful in enabling positive tipping points, and (3) integrate that insight into policy decision-making. The following recommendations would create the foundations of this process.

Recommendation 1. Evaluate and adopt new economic models

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) should conduct a joint evaluation of new economic models and case studies to identify where new models have been proven to be more accurate for modeling decarbonization transitions and where there are remaining gaps. They should then issue a report with recommendations on opportunities for funding further research on positive tipping points and new economic models and advise sub agenciessubagencies responsible for modeling and projections, such as the Energy Information Administration within the Department of Energy (DOE), on how to adopt these new economic models.

Recommendation 2. Integrate positive tipping points into the research agenda of federally funded research centers and programs.

There is a growing body of research coming primarily from Europe, led by the Global Systems Institute and the Economics of Energy Innovation and Systems Transition at the University of Exeter and Systemiq, that is investigating global progress towards positive tipping points and different potential policy interventions. The federal government should foster the growth of this research area within the United States in order to study positive tipping points and develop models and forecasts for the U.S. context.

There are several existing government-funded research programs and centers that align well with positive tipping points and would benefit synergistically from adding this to their research agenda:

Recommendation 3. Use insights from positive tipping points research to develop and implement policies to accelerate progress towards positive tipping points

Researchers have already identified three super-leverage points around which the federal government should consider developing and implementing policies. As future research is published, the PCAST should make further recommendations on actions that the federal government can take in leveraging positive tipping points.

Super-Leverage Point #1: Mandating Zero-Emission Vehicles (ZEVs) 

ZEV mandates require car manufacturers to sell a rising proportion of ZEVs within their light duty vehicles sales. Ensuring a growing supply of ZEVs results in falling costs and rising demand. Evidence of the effect of such policies in U.S. states, Canadian provinces, and China and future projections suggest that ZEV mandates are a crucial policy lever for ensuring a full EV transition. Such policies rely on the reallocation of private capital rather than government spending, making it particularly cost-effective. Combined with the investments in EV manufacturing and public charging infrastructure in the IRA and IIJA, a national ZEV mandate could radically boost the EV transition. 

A national ZEV mandate is unlikely to pass Congress anytime soon. However, the recently proposed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) greenhouse gas emissions standards for passenger cars and trucks would effectively require 67% of car sales to be ZEVs by 2032 in order for car manufacturers to comply with the regulations. The proposed standards would provide regulatory strength behind the Biden Administration’s goal of 50% of new cars sold by 2030 to be ZEVs. The EPA should finalize these standards as soon as possible at or above the currently proposed stringency. 

The proposed EPA standards are projected to result in a 50% reduction in the price of EV batteries by 2035. This will have knock-on effects on the cost of batteries for renewable energy storage and battery electric trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles, which would likely bring forward the cost parity tipping point for these technologies by a number of years.

Super-Leverage Point #2: Mandating Green Ammonia Use in Fertilizer Production 

Ammonia is the primary ingredient for producing nitrogen-based fertilizer and requires hydrogen as an input. Traditionally, this hydrogen is produced from natural gas, and the production of hydrogen for ammonia accounts for 1% of global CO2 emissions. Green hydrogen produced from water and powered by renewable energy would enable the production of green ammonia for nitrogen-based fertilizers.

Based on a DOE tipping point analysis, green ammonia production is one of the most promising areas for initial large-scale deployment of green hydrogen, thanks to its ability to use established ammonia supply chains and economies of scale. Green ammonia production also has one of the lowest green premia in the hydrogen economy. Green ammonia production will enable infrastructure development and cost reductions for green hydrogen to decarbonize other sectors, including shipping, aviation, and heavy industries like steel. 

The Biden Administration should set a target for green ammonia production for domestic fertilizer in the Federal Sustainability Plan similar to India’s draft hydrogen strategy requiring 20% green ammonia production by 2027–2028. The EPA should then propose Clean Air Act carbon emission limits and guidelines for nitrogen-based fertilizer production plants, similar to the recently proposed standards for coal and natural gas power plants, to provide regulatory strength behind that target. These limits would effectively require fertilizer plants to blend a growing percentage of green ammonia into their production line in order to meet emission limits. According to the DOE, the clean hydrogen production tax credit in the IRA has enabled cost parity between green ammonia and fossil-based ammonia, so the EPA should be able to set such limits without increasing food production costs.

Super-Leverage Point #3: Public Procurement to Promote Plant and Alternative Proteins

Shifting protein consumption from meat to plant and alternative proteins can reduce emissions from livestock farming and reduce land use change for meat production. Plant proteins refer to protein-rich plants, such as nuts and legumes, and traditional products made from those plants, such as tofu and tempeh. Alternative proteins currently on the market include plant- and fermentation-based protein products intended to mimic the taste and texture of meat. Studies show that if plant and alternative proteins are able to reach a tipping point of 20% market share, this would ease up 7–15% of land currently used for agriculture to conservation and the restoration of its ability to serve as a carbon sink. 

Public procurement of alternative proteins for federal food programs leverages government spending power to support this nascent market and introduce new consumers to alternative proteins, thus increasing its accessibility and social traction. Last year, the National Defense Authorization Act established a three-year pilot program for the U.S. Navy to offer alternative protein options. The California state legislature also invested $700 million to support schools in procuring more plant-based foods and training staff on how to prepare plant-based meals.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is a major procurer of food through collaboration between the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and distributes the majority of procured food through the Child Nutrition Programs (CNPs), especially the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Currently, AMS does not procure any traditional or alternative protein products made from plant protein, but USDA guidelines do allow traditional and alternative protein products to fulfill meat/meat alternate requirements for CNPs. The AMS should develop product specifications and requirements for procuring these types of products and assist traditional and alternative protein companies to become USDA food vendors. The FNS should then launch a pilot program spending, for example, 1% of their procurement budget on traditional and alternative protein products. This should be supported by education and training of food service workers at schools that participate in the NSLP on how to prepare meals using traditional and alternative proteins.

Conclusion

The sooner that positive tipping points that accelerate desired transitions are triggered, the sooner that decarbonization transitions will be realized and net-zero goals will be met. Early intervention is crucial for supporting the growth and adoption of new zero-emission technologies. The recommendations above present the foundations of a strategy for leveraging positive tipping points and accelerating climate action.

Acknowledgements

I’d like to acknowledge Erica Goldman for her generous feedback and advice on this piece and for her thought leadership on this topic at FAS.

FAQs about Leveraging Positive Tipping Points to Accelerate Decarbonization
What are the necessary conditions for a positive tipping point?

The key conditions for triggering a positive tipping point are affordability, attractiveness, and accessibility of new zero-emission technologies compared to incumbents. Affordability is often the most crucial condition: achieving price parity with incumbent technologies (with and then without the support of taxes and subsidies) can unlock rapid growth and adoption. Attractiveness refers to consumer preferences about a new technology’s performance, complementary features, or ability to signal social values. Accessibility refers to whether supporting infrastructure or knowledge, such as charging stations for EVs or recipes for cooking alternative proteins, is commonly available to support adoption. Due to the relative nature of these conditions, policymakers can influence them either by making the new technology more affordable, attractive, and accessible or by making the incumbent technology less affordable, attractive, and accessible. Often, a combination of both approaches is required to achieve the optimal effect.

Are federal policymakers the only actors that can trigger positive tipping points? What about state policymakers?

States can cooperate to identify and coordinate policies that activate upward-scaling tipping cascades into other states and eventually the federal government. A promising example of this is the growing adoption of California’s Advanced Clean Cars II EV sales mandate by Vermont, New York, Washington, Oregon, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland, and soon Colorado, Massachusetts, and Delaware.

What about individuals and social movements?

Social contagion, mentioned above, is a powerful type of feedback loop that can drive the spread of not just technology adoption but also new behaviors, opinions, knowledge, and social norms. Through social contagion, social movement can be formed, capable of wielding greater influence than the sum of individuals. That influence can then translate into demands for government and industry action to decarbonize. A prime example is Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future student movement. Another example is the Social Tipping Point Coalition that in 2021 rallied a coalition of over 100 scientists, universities, nongovernmental and grassroots organizations, and other individuals to petition the new Dutch parliament to implement new climate policies.

What about industry stakeholders?

Industry has a direct hand in creating the conditions for a positive tipping point through their business models, technological development, and production. Industries are more likely to invest in adopting and improving low- and zero-carbon technologies and practices if the government clearly signals that it will back the transition, resulting in positive, reinforcing “ambition loops” between government climate policy and industry climate action. Industry coordination is also key to ensuring that new technologies are complementary and that infrastructure supporting a technology is developed alongside the technology itself. For example, coordination between EV companies is necessary to develop compatible charging mechanisms across manufacturers. Coordination between charging companies and EV companies can help charging companies identify which geographies have greatest demand for chargers.

What about international coordination?

International coordination strengthens positive feedback loops and accelerates cost reductions for green technologies. For example, a recent study suggests that if the three largest car markets—the United States, Europe, and China—implement zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) sales mandates (i.e., requirements that an increasing percentage of each car manufacturer’s sales must be EVs), EVs will be able to reach cost parity with gas vehicles five years sooner than in the scenario without those ZEV mandates.

What has the federal government done to identify or accelerate positive tipping points so far?

The U.S. Global Change Research Program’s 2022–2031 Strategic Plan includes tipping points and nonlinear changes in complex systems as two of its research priorities. Specifically, the Strategic Plan highlights the need to investigate “the potential for beneficial tipping points” and incorporate research on nonlinearity in economics-based models to evaluate societal decisions in future National Climate Assessments. However, it will take another four to five years to produce the next National Climate Assessment under this strategic plan. (The fifth National Climate Assessment, which is expected to be published this fall, was drafted before the new strategic plan was published.) Thus, additional executive and agency action is necessary to operationalize positive tipping points in the federal government before the next National Climate Assessment is released.

How can we track progress towards positive tipping points?

The federal government currently collects some data on the sales and adoption rates of the relatively more mature clean energy technologies, such as electric vehicles. A 2022 Bloomberg report attempted to identify “early-stage tipping points” at around 5% adoption for 10 clean energy technologies that reflect when their adoption becomes measurably exponential and compare their adoption curves across countries globally. Beyond adoption rates, a number of additional factors indicate progress towards positive tipping points, such as the number of companies investing in a zero-emission technology or the number of states adopting regulations or incentives that support zero-emission technologies in a sector. Tracking these indicators can help policymakers sense when a system is approaching a positive tipping point. The nonprofit Systems Change Lab currently tracks the adoption of decarbonization technologies and factors that affect decarbonization transitions on a global scale. Philanthropic funding or a public-private partnership with the Systems Change Lab could leverage their existing infrastructure to track tipping point indicators on a national scale for the United States.

What are the risks or potential unintended consequences to consider when crossing a positive tipping point?

Approaching a positive tipping point first requires a system to become destabilized in order to make change possible. Once a positive tipping point is crossed, the system then accelerates towards a new state and begins to restabilize. However, the destabilization during the transition can have unintended consequences due to the rapid shift in how social, economic, and technological systems are organized and how resources are distributed within those systems. Potential risks include economic precarity for people employed in rapidly declining industries and resulting social instability and backlash. This can potentially exacerbate inequality and undesirable social division. As such, policies ensuring a just transition must be implemented alongside policies to accelerate positive tipping points. Research on the interaction between these policies is currently ongoing. It is essential that decisions to develop policies that accelerate movement towards positive tipping points always consider and evaluate the potential for unintended consequences.

Building the Talent Pipeline for the Energy Transition: Aligning U.S. Workforce Investment for Energy Security and Supply Chain Resilience

Summary

With the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the United States has outlined a de facto industrial policy to facilitate and accelerate the energy transition while seeking energy security and supply chain resilience. The rapid pace of industrial transformation driven by the energy transition will manifest as a human capital challenge, and the workforce will be realigned to the industrial policy that is rapidly transforming the labor market. The energy transition, combined with nearshoring, will rapidly retool the global economy and, with it, the skills and expertise necessary for workers to succeed in the labor market. A rapid, massive, and ongoing overhaul of workforce development systems will allow today’s and tomorrow’s workers to power the transition to energy security, resilient supply chains, and the new energy economy—but they require the right training opportunities scaled to match the needs of industry to do so.

Policymakers and legislators recognize this challenge, yet strategies and programs often sit in disparate parts of government agencies in labor, trade, commerce, and education. A single strategy that coordinates a diverse range of government policies and programs dedicated to training this emerging workforce can transform how young people prepare for and access the labor market and equip them with the tools to have a chance at economic security and well-being.

Modeled after the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program, we propose the Energy Security Workforce Training (ESWT) Initiative to align existing U.S. government support for education and training focused on the jobs powering the energy transition. The Biden-Harris Administration should name an ESWT Coordinator to manage and align domestic investments in training and workforce across the federal government. The coordinator will spearhead efforts to identify skills gaps with industry, host a ESWT White House Summit to galvanize private and social sector commitments, encourage data normalization and sharing between training programs to identify what works, and ensure funds from existing programs scale evidence-based sector-specific training programs. ESWT should also encompass an international component for nearshored supply chains to perform a similar function to the domestic coordinator in target countries like Mexico and promote two-way learning between domestic and international agencies on successful workforce training investments in clean energy and advanced manufacturing.

Challenge and Opportunity

With the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, the United States has a de facto industrial policy to facilitate and accelerate the energy transition while seeking energy security and supply chain resilience. However, our current workforce investments are not focused on the growing green skills gap. We require workforce investment aligned to the industrial policy that is rapidly transforming the labor market, to support both domestic jobs and the foreign supply chains that domestic jobs depend on. 

Preparing Americans to Power the Energy Transition

The rapid pace of industrial transformation driven by the energy transition will manifest as a human capital challenge. The energy transition will transform and create new jobs—requiring a massive investment to skill up the workers who will power the energy transition. Driving this rapid transition are billions of dollars slated for incentives and tax credits for renewable energy and infrastructure, advanced manufacturing, and supply chain creation for goods like electric vehicle batteries over the coming years. The vast upheaval caused by the energy transition combined with nearshoring is transforming both current jobs as well as the labor market young people will enter over the coming decade. The jobs created by the energy transition have the potential to shift a whole generation into the middle class while providing meaningful, engaging work. 

Moving low-income students into the middle class over the next 10 years will require that education and training institutions meet the rapid pace of industrial transformation required by the energy transition. Education and training providers struggle to keep up with the rapid pace of industrial transformation, resulting in skills gaps. Skills gaps are the distance between the skills graduates leave education and training with and the skills required by industry. Skills gaps rob young people of opportunities and firms of productivity. And according to LinkedIn’s latest Green Economy report, we are facing a green skills gap—with the demand for green skills outpacing the supply in the labor force. Firms have cited skills gaps in diverse sectors related to the energy transition, including infrastructure, direct air capture, electromobility, and geothermal power

Graduates with market-relevant skills earn between two and six times what their peers earn, based on evaluations of International Youth Foundation’s (IYF) programming. In addition, effective workforce development lowers recruitment, selection, and training costs for firms—thereby lowering the transaction costs to scale moving people into the positions needed to power the energy transition. Industrial transformation for the energy transition involves automation, remote sensing, and networked processes changing the role of the technician—who is no longer required to execute tasks but instead to manage automated processes and robots that now execute tasks. This changes the fundamental skills required of technicians to include higher-order skills for managing processes and robots. 

We will not be able to transform industry or seize the opportunities of the new energy future without overhauling education and training systems to build the skills required by this transformation and the industries that will power it. Developing higher-order thinking skills means changing not only what is taught but how teaching happens. For example, students may be asked to evaluate and make actionable recommendations to improve energy efficiency at their school. Because many of these new jobs require higher-order thinking skills, policy investment can play a crucial role in supporting workers and those entering the workforce to be competitive for these jobs. 

Creating Resilient Supply Chains, Facilitating Energy Security, and Promoting Global Stability in Strategic Markets

Moving young people into good jobs during this dramatic economic transformation will be critical not only in the United States but also to promote our interests abroad by (1) creating resilient supply chains, 2) securing critical minerals, and (3) avoiding extreme labor market disruptions in the face of a global youth bulge. 

Supply chain resilience concerns are nearshoring industrial production—shifting the demand for industrial workers across geographies at a shocking scale and speed—as more manufacturing and heavy industries move back into the United States’ sphere of influence. The energy transition combined with nearshoring will rapidly retool the global economy. We need a rapid, massive, and ongoing overhaul of workforce development systems at home and abroad. The scale of this transition is massive and includes complex, multinational supply chains. Supply chains are being reworked before our eyes as we nearshore production. For example, the port of entry in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, is undergoing rapid expansion in anticipation of explosive growth of imports of spare parts for electric vehicles manufactured in Mexico. These shifting supply chains will require the strategic development of a new workforce.

The United States requires compelling models to increase its soft power to secure critical minerals for the energy transition. Securing crucial minerals for the energy transition will again reshape energy supply chains, as the mineral deposits needed for the energy transition are not necessarily located in the same countries with large oil, gas, or coal deposits. The minerals required for the energy transition are concentrated in China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Australia, Chile, Russia, and South Africa. We require additional levers to establish productive relationships to secure the minerals required for the energy transition. Workforce investments can be an important source of soft power. 

Today’s 1.2 billion young people today make up the largest and most educated generation the world has ever seen, or will ever see, yet they face unemployment rates at nearly triple that of adults. Globally the youth unemployment rate is 17.93% vs. 6.18% for adults. The youth unemployment rate refers to young people aged 15–24 who are available for or seeking employment but who are unemployed. While rich countries have already passed through their own baby booms, with accompanying “youth bulges,” and collected their demographic dividends to power economic growth and wealth, much of the developing world is going through its own demographic transition. While South Korea experienced sustained prosperity once its baby boomers entered the labor force in the early 2000s, Latin America’s youth bulge is just entering the labor force. In regions like Central America, this demographic change is fueling a wave of outmigration. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the youth bulge is making its way through compulsory education with increasing demands for government policy to meet high rates of youth unemployment. It is an open question whether today’s youth bulges globally will drive prosperity as they enter the labor market. Policymakers are faced with shaping labor force training, and government policy rooted in demonstrable industry needs to meet this challenge. At the same time, green jobs is already one of the most rapidly growing occupations. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that adopting clean energy technologies will generate 14 million jobs by 2030, with 16 million more to retrofit and construct energy-efficient buildings and manufacture new energy vehicles. At the same time, the World Economic Forum’s 2023 future of jobs report cites the green transition as the key driver of job growth. However, the developing world is not making the corresponding investments in training programs for the green jobs that are driving growth. 

Alignment with Existing Initiatives

The Biden-Harris Administration’s approach to the energy transition, supply chain resilience, and energy security must address this human capital challenge. Systemic approaches to building the skills for the energy transition through education and training complement the IRA’s incentivized apprenticeships, and focus investments from the IIJA, by building out a complete technical, vocational, education and training system oriented toward building the skills required for the energy transition. We propose a whole-of-government approach that integrates public investment in workforce training to focus on the energy transition and nearshoring with effective approaches to workforce development to address the growing green skills gap that endangers youth employment, the energy transition, energy security and supply chain resilience. 

The Biden-⁠Harris Administration Roadmap to Support Good Jobs demonstrates a commitment to building employment and job training into the Investing in America Agenda. The Roadmap catalogs programs throughout the federal government that address employment and workforce training authorized in recent legislation and meant to enable more opportunities for workers to engage with new technology, advanced manufacturing, and clean energy. Some programs had cross-sector reach, like the Good Jobs Challenge that reached 32 states and territories authorized in the American Rescue Plan to invest in workforce partnerships, while others are more targeted to specific industries, like the Battery Workforce Initiative that engages industry in developing a battery manufacturing workforce. The Roadmap’s clearinghouse of related workforce activities across the federal ecosystem presents a meaningful opportunity to advance this commitment by coordinating and strategically implementing these programs under a single series of objectives and metrics. 

Identifying evidence-driven training programs can also help fill the gap between practicums and market-based job needs by allowing more students access to practical training than can be reached solely by apprenticeships, which can have high individual transaction costs for grantees to coordinate. Additionally, programs like the Good Jobs Challenge required grantees to complete a skills-gap analysis to ensure their programs fit market needs. The Administration should seek to embed capabilities to conduct skills-gap analyses first before competitive grants are requested and issued to better inform program and grant design from the beginning and to share that learning with the broader workforce training community. By using a coordinated initiative to engage across these programs and legislative mandates, the Administration can create a more catalytic, scalable whole-of-government approach to workforce training.

Collaborating on metrics can also help identify which programs are most effective at meeting the core metrics of workforce training—increased income and job placements—which often are not met in workforce programs. This initiative could be measured across programs and agencies by (1) the successful hiring of workers into quality green jobs, (2) the reduction of employer recruitment and training costs for green jobs, and (3) demonstrable decreases in identified skills gaps—as opposed to a diversity of measures without clear comparability that correspond to the myriad agencies and congressional committees that oversee current workforce investments. Better transferable data measured against comparable metrics can empower agencies and Congress to direct continued funds toward what works to ensure workforce programs are effective.

The DOL’s TAACCCT program provides a model of how the United States has successfully invested in workforce development to respond to labor market shocks in the past. Building on TAACCCT’s legacy and its lessons learned, we propose focusing investment in workforce training to address identified skills gaps in partnership with industry, engaging employers from day one, rather than primarily targeting investment based on participant eligibility. When investing in bridging critical skills gaps in the labor market, strategy and programs must be designed to work with the most marginalized communities (including rural, tribal, and Justice40 communities) to ensure equitable access and participation. 

Increased interagency collaboration is required to meet the labor market demands of the energy transition, both in terms of domestic production in the United States and the greening of international supply chains from Mexico to South Africa. Our proposed youth workforce global strategy, the Energy Security Workforce Training Initiative outlined below provides a timely opportunity for the Administration to make progress on its economic development, workforce and climate goals. 

Plan of Action

We propose a new Energy Security Workforce Training Initiative to coordinate youth workforce development training investments across the federal government, focused on critical and nearshored supply chains that will power energy security. ESWT will be charged with coordinating U.S. government workforce strategies to build the pipeline for young people to the jobs powering the energy transition. ESWT will rework existing education and training institutions to build critical skills and to transform how young people are oriented to, prepared for, and connected to jobs powering the energy transition. ESWT will play a critical role in cross-sector and intergovernmental learning to invest in what works and to ensure federal workforce investments in collaboration with industry address identified skills gaps in the labor market for the energy transition and resilient supply chains. Research and industry confirmation would inform investments by the Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Education (ED), Department of Commerce (DOC), and Department of Labor (DOL) toward building identified critical skills through scalable means with marginalized communities in mind. A key facet of ESWT will be to normalize and align the metrics by which federal, state, and local partners measure program effectiveness to allow for better comparability and long-term potential for scaling the most evidence-driven programs.

The ESWT should be coordinated by the National Economic Council(NEC) and DOC, particularly the Economic Development Administration. Once established, ESWT should also involve an international component focused on workforce investments to build resilience in nearshore supply chains on which U.S. manufacturing and energy security rely. Mexico should serve as an initial pilot of this global initiative because of its intertwined relationship with U.S. supply chains for products like EV batteries. Piloting a novel international workforce training program through private sector collaboration and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), DOL, and U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) investments could help bolster resilience for domestic jobs and manufacturing. Based on these results, ESWT could expand into other geographies of critical supply chains, such as Chile and Brazil. To launch ESWT, the Biden Administration should pursue the following steps.

Recommendation 1. The NEC should name an ESWT Initiative Coordinator in conjunction with a DOC or DOL lead who will spearhead coordination between different agency workforce training activities.

With limited growth in government funding over the coming years, a key challenge will be more effectively coordinating existing programs and funds in service of training young people for demonstrated skills gaps in the marketplace. As these new programs are implemented through existing legislation, a central entity in charge of coordinating implementation, learning, and investments can best ensure that funds are directed equitably and effectively. Additionally, this initial declaration can lay the groundwork to build capacity within the federal government to conduct market analyses and consult with industries to better inform program design and grant giving across the country. The DOC and the Economic Development Administration seem best positioned to lead this effort with an existing track record through the Good Jobs Challenge and capacity to engage fully with industry to build trust that curricula and training are conducted by people that employers verify as experts. However, the DOL could also take a co-lead role due to authorities established under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). In selecting lead agencies for ESWT, these criteria should be followed:

  1. Access to emerging business intelligence regarding industry-critical skills—DOC, DOE
  2. Combined international and domestic remit—DOE/DOL, DOC (ITA)
  3. Remit that allows department to focus investment on demonstrated skills gaps, indicated by higher wages and churn—DOC
  4. Permitted to convene advisory committees from the private sector under the Federal Advisory Committee Act—DOC

Recommendation 2. The DOC and NEC, working with partner agencies, should collaborate to identify and analyze skills gaps and establish private-sector feedback councils to consult on real-time industry needs.

As a first step, DOC should commission or conduct research to identify quantitative and qualitative skills gaps related to the energy transition in critical supply chains both domestically and in key international markets — energy efficiency in advanced manufacturing, electric vehicle production, steel, batteries, rare earth minerals, construction, infrastructure and clean energy. DOC should budget for 20 skills gap assessments for critical occupational groups (high volume of jobs and uncertainty related to required, relevant skills) in the above-mentioned sectors. Each skills gap assessment should cost roughly $100,000, bringing the total investment to $2 million over a six-to-twelve-month period.  Each skills gap assessment will determine the critical and scarce skills in a labor market for a given occupation and the degree to which existing education and training providers meet the demand for skills.

This research is central to forming effective programs to ensure investments align with industry skills needs and to lower direct costs on education providers, who often lack direct expertise in this form of analysis. Commissioning these studies can help build a robust ecosystem of labor market skills gap analysts and build capacity within the federal government to conduct these studies. By completing analysis in advance of competitive grant processes, federal grants can be better directed to training based on high-need industry skill sets to ensure participating students have market-driven employment opportunities on completion. The initial research phase would occur over a six-month timeline, including staffing and procurement. The ESWT coordinator would work with DOC, ED, and DOL to procure curricula, enrollment, and foreign labor market data. Partner agencies in this effort should also include the Departments of Education, Labor, and Energy. The research would draw upon existing research on the topic conducted by Jobs for the Future, IYF, the Project on Workforce at Harvard, and LinkedIn’s Economic Graph.

Recommendation 3. Host the Energy Security Workforce Development White House Summit to galvanize public, private, and social sector partners to address identified skills gaps.

The ESWT coordinator would present the identified quantitative and qualitative skills gaps at an action-oriented White House Summit with industry, state and local government partners, education providers, and philanthropic institutions. The Summit could serve as a youth-led gathering focused on workforce and upskilling for critical new industries and galvanize a call to action across sectors and localities. Participants will be asked to prioritize among potential choices based on research findings, available funding mechanisms, and imperatives to transform education and training systems at scale and at pace with industrial transformation. Addressing the identified skills gaps will require partnering with and securing the buy-in of both educational institutions as well as industry groups to identify what skills unlock opportunities in given labor markets, develop demand-driven training, and expanded capacity of education and training providers in order to align interests as well as curricula so that key players have the incentives and capacity to continually update curricula—creating lasting change at scale. This summit would also serve as a call to action for private sector partnerships to invest in helping reskill workers and establish buy-in from the public and civil society actors. 

Recommendation 4. Establish standards and data sharing processes for linking existing training funds and programs with industry needs by convening state and local grantees, state agencies, and federal government partners.

ESWT should lay out a common series of metrics by which the federal government will assess workforce training programs to better equip efforts to scale successful programs with comparable evidence and empower policymakers to invest in what works. We recommend using the following metrics: 

  1. Successful hiring of workers into quality green jobs
  2. The reduction of employer recruitment and training costs for green jobs
  3. Demonstrable decreases in identified skills gaps

Metrics 2 and 3 will rely on ongoing industry consultations—as well as data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Because of the diffuse nature of existing skills gap analyses across federal grantees and workforce training programs, ESWT should serve as a convenor for learning between jurisdictions. Models for federal government data clearinghouses could be effective as well as direct sharing of evidence and results between education providers across a series of common metrics.

Recommendation 5. Ensure grants and investments in workforce training are tied to addressing specific identified skills gaps, not just by regional employment rates.

A key function of ESWT would be to determine feasible and impactful strategies to address skills gaps in critical supply chains, given the identified gaps, existing funding mechanisms, the buy-in of critical actors in key labor markets (both domestic and international), agency priorities, and the imperative to make transformative change at scale. The coordinator could help spur agencies to pursue flexible procurement and grant-making focused on outcomes and tied to clear skills gap criteria to ensure training demonstrably develops skills required by market needs for the energy transition and growing domestic supply chains. While the Good Jobs Challenge required skills gap analysis of grantees, advanced analyses by the ESWT Initiative could inform grant requirements to ensure federal funds are directed to high-need programs. As many of these fields are new, innovative funding mechanisms could be used to meet identified skills gaps and experiment with new training programs through tiered evidence models. Establishing criteria for successful workforce training programs could also serve as a market demand-pull signal that the federal government is willing and able to invest in certain types of training, crowding-in potential new players and private sector resources to create programs tailored for the skills industry needs.

Depending on the local context, the key players, and the nature of the strategy to bridge the skills gap for each supply chain, the coordinating department will determine what financing mechanism and issuing agency is most appropriate: compacts, grants, cooperative agreements, or contracts. For example, to develop skills related to worker safety in rare-earth mineral mines in South Africa or South America, the DOL could issue a grant under the Bureau of International Labor Affairs. To develop the data science skills critical for industrial and residential energy efficiency, the ED could issue a grants program to replicate Los Angeles Unified School District’s Common Core-aligned data science curriculum.

Recommendation 6. Congress should authorize flexible workforce training grants to disperse—based on identified industry needs—toward evidence-driven, scalable training models and funding for ESWT within the DOC to facilitate continued industry skills need assessments.

Congress should establish dedicated staff and infrastructure for ESWT to oversee workforce training investments and actively analyze industry needs to inform federal workforce investment strategies. Congress and the Administration should also explore how to incentivize public-private partnerships and requirements for energy, manufacturing, and supply chain companies to engage in curriculum development efforts or provide technical expertise to access tax credits included in the IRA or CHIPS.

Recommendation 7. ESWT could also incorporate an international perspective for nearshored supply chains critical to energy security and advanced manufacturing. 

To pilot this model, we recommend:

  1. Bilateral coordination of federal workforce and training investments across agencies like State, USAID, and DFC: Mexico could serve as an ideal pilot country due to its close ties with U.S. supply chains and growth in the manufacturing sector. This coordination effort should direct USAID and other government funding toward workforce training for industries critical to domestic supply chains for energy security and green jobs.
  2. Two-way learning between domestic and international workforce programs: As ESWT develops effective strategies to address the skills gap for the energy transition, the interagency initiative will identify opportunities for two-way learning. For example, as curricula for eclectic vehicle assembly is developed and piloted in Mexico with support from USAID, it could inform U.S.-based community colleges’ work with the DOL and DOE.
  3. If successful, expand to additional aligned countries including Brazil, India, and South Africa and nations throughout the Americas that source energy and manufacturing inputs for the green economy: ESWT could facilitate scalable public-private partnership vehicles for partner country governments, private corporations, philanthropy, and nongovernmental organizations to collaborate and fund country-dedicated programs to train their energy and climate workforce. This step could be done in conjunction with naming a Special Envoy at the State Department to coordinate diplomatic engagement with partner countries. The Envoy and Coordinator should have expertise and experience in North and South America economic relations and diplomacy, and labor markets economics. Congress could incorporate dedicated funds for ESWT into annual appropriations at State.

Conclusion

The transition from an economy fueled by human and animal labor to fossil fuels took roughly 200 years (1760–1960) and was associated with massive labor market disruptions as society and workers reacted to a retooled economy. Avoiding similar labor market disruptions as we seek to transition off fossil fuels over decades, not centuries, will require concentrated coordinated action. The Energy Security Workforce Training Initiative will overhaul education and training systems to develop the skills needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the labor markets central to long-term U.S. energy security and ensure that supply chains are resilient to shocks. Such a coordinated investment in training will lower recruitment, selection, and training costs for firms while increasing productivity and move people into the middle class with the jobs fueling the energy transition. 

By focusing federal workforce funding on addressing the green skills gap, we will be able to address the human capital challenges implicit in scaling the infrastructure, manufacturing overhaul, and supply chain reconfiguration necessary to secure a just transition, both at home and abroad. By building in critical international supply chains both for manufacturing and energy security from day one, the ESWT Initiative incorporates two-way learning as a means to knit together strategic supply chains through bilateral investments in equitable workforce initiatives. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What can a coordinator/interagency collaboration model offer that existing approaches do not?

Existing investments in workforce development are fragmented and are not oriented toward building the workforce needed to a net-zero carbon world, with secure energy supplies and resilient supply chains. This collaboration model ensures that workforce investments are aligned towards the net-zero carbon by 2050 aim and are targeted to the domestic and international labor markets essential to ensuring that aim, energy security, and supply chain resilience.


Similarly, to the Feed the Future Coordinator, created in 2009 because of global food insecurity and recognizing after the L’Aquila Italy G8 Summit Joint Statement on Global Food Security towards a goal of mobilizing $20 million over three years towards global agricultural and development that we needed a greater focus on food security. 


This role would ensure that programs are aligned around common goal and measuring progress towards that goal. The NEC oversees the work of the coordinator. Ultimately, the Coordinator would work with Congress and the NEC to develop authorization language. 

How would the ESWT function with differing funding sources and agency stakeholders? Does Congress need to authorize this?

Instead of creating a new fund or program requiring congressional authorization, the ESWT strategy would align existing workforce investments across government with the Administration’s aim of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

What evidence is there that workforce training and education can meet the skills gap you identify? What is the risk of failure?

Skills gaps are persistent problems around the world as education and training systems struggle to keep up with changing demands for skills. Simply investing in training systems, without addressing the underlying causes of skills gaps, will not address skills gaps. Instead, investment must be tied to the development of market-demanded skills. In IYF’s experience, this requires understanding quantitative and qualitative skills gaps, developing an industry consensus around priority skills, and driving changes to curricula, teaching practices, and student services to orient and train young people for opportunities.

How does this approach align with current and past legislative priorities?

Our proposed unified approach to workforce development for the energy transition aligns with the priorities of the former Congress’s House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment, the US Strategy to Combat Climate Change through International Development; and the Congressional Action Plan for a Clean Energy Economy and a Healthy, Resilient, and Just America.

How does this approach align with USAID’s priorities?

Systemic workforce approaches that engage the public, private, and civil sectors spur catalytic investments and bring new partners to the table in line with USAID’s commitment to drive progress, not simply development programs. However, there has been little concentrated investment to build the necessary skills for the energy transition. A coordinated investment strategy to support systemic approaches to build the workforce also aligns with USAID’s localization agenda by:



  1. Building the capacity of local Technical Vocational Education and Training systems to develop the workforce that each country needs to meet its zero-emission commitments while continuing to grow its economy. 

  2. Developing the capacity of local organizations, whose mission will be to facilitate workforce development efforts between the public, private and civil sectors. 

  3. Incentivize industrial policy changes to include workforce considerations in the plan to decarbonize.

  4. Creating increased opportunities to generate and share evidence on successful workforce strategies and programs. To keep up with this rapid transformation of the economy, it will be essential to share information, lessons learned, and effective approaches across international, multilateral, and bilateral organizations and through public private partnerships. For example, the Inter-American Development Bank has identified the Just Transition as a strategic priority and is working with LinkedIn to identify critical skills. As Abby Finkenauer, the State Department’s Special Envoy for Global Youth Issues, has long championed, bringing domestic and international lessons together will be critical to make a more inclusive decarbonized economy possible.

Using Other Transactions at DOE to Accelerate the Clean Energy Transition

Summary

The Department of Energy (DOE) should leverage its congressionally granted other transaction authority to its full statutory extent to accelerate the demonstration and deployment of innovations critical to the clean energy transition. To do so, the Secretary of Energy should encourage DOE staff to consider using other transactions to advance the agency’s core missions. DOE’s Office of Acquisition Management should provide resources to educate program and contracting staff on the opportunity that other transactions present. Doing so would unlock a less used but important tool in demonstrating and accelerating critical technology developments at scale with industry.

Challenge and Opportunity

OTs are an underleveraged tool for accelerating energy technology.

Our global and national clean energy transition requires advancing novel technology innovations across transportation, electricity generation, industrial production, carbon capture and storage, and more. If we hope to hit our net-zero emissions benchmarks by 2030 and 2050, we must do a far better job commercializing innovations, mitigating the risk of market failures, and using public dollars to crowd in private investment behind projects. 

The Biden Administration and the Department of Energy, empowered by Congress through the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), have taken significant steps to meet these challenges. The Loan Programs Office, the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, the Office of Technology Transitions, and many more dedicated public servants are working hard towards the mission set forward by Congress and the administration. They are deploying a range of grants, procurement contracts, and tax credits to achieve their goals, and there are more tools at their disposal to accelerate a just, clean energy transition. The large sums of money appropriated under BIL and IRA require new ways of thinking about contracting and agreements.

Congress gives several federal agencies the authority to use flexible agreements known as other transactions (OTs). Importantly, OTs are defined by what they are not. They are not a government contract or grant, and thus not governed by the Federal Acquisitions Regulations (FAR). Historically, NASA and the DoD have been the most frequent users of other transaction authorities, including for projects like the Commercial Orbital Transportation System at NASA which developed the Falcon 9 space vehicle, and the Global Hawk program at DARPA.

In contrast, the Department of Energy has infrequently used OTs, and even when it has, the programs have achieved no notable outcomes in support of their agency mission. When the DOE has used OTs, the agency has interpreted their authority as constraining them to cost-sharing research agreements. This restricts the creativity of agency staff in executing OTs. All the law says is that an OT is not a grant or contract. By limiting itself to cost sharing research agreements, DOE is preemptively foreclosing all other kinds of novel partnerships. This is critical because some nascent climate-solution technologies may face a significant market failure or a set of misaligned incentives that a traditional research and development transaction (R&D) may not fix.

This interpretation has hampered DOE’s use of OTs, limited its ability to engage small businesses and nontraditional contractors, and prevented DOE from fully pursuing its agency mission and the administration’s climate goals.

Exploring further use of OTs would open up a range of possibilities for the agency to help address critical market failures, help U.S. firms bridge the well-documented valleys of death in technology development, and fulfill the benchmarks laid out in the DOE’s Pathways to Commercial Liftoff.
According to a GAO report from 2016, the DOE has only used OTs a handful of times since they had the authority updated in 2005, nearly two decades ago. Compare the DOE’s use of OTs to other agencies in the four-year period in the table below (the most recent for which there is open data).

TABLE 1

From GAO-16-209

Almost every other agency uses OTs at a significantly higher rate, including agencies that have smaller overall budgets. While quantity of agreements is not the only metric to rely on, the magnitude of the discrepancy is significant. 

Other agencies have made significant changes since 2014, most notably the Department of Defense. A 2020 CSIS report found that DoD use of OTs for R&D increased by 712% since FY2015, including a 75% increase in FY2019. This represents billions of dollars in awards, much of which went to consortia, including for both prototyping and production transactions. While the DOE does not have the same budget or mission as DoD, the sea change in culture among DoD officials willing to use OTs over the past few years is instructive. While DoD did receive expanded authority in the FY2015 and 2016 NDAA, this alone did not account for the massive increase. A cultural shift drove program staff to look at OTs as ways to quickly prototype and deploy solutions that could advance their missions, and support from leadership enabled staff to successfully learn how and when to use OTs.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) only uses OTs for two agencies, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHIMSA). Like DOE, the FAA is not restricted in what it can and can’t use OTs for. It is authorized to “carry out the functions of the Administrator and the Administration…on such terms and conditions as the Administrator may consider appropriate.” Unlike DOE, the FAA and DOT have used their authority for several dozen transactions a year, totaling $1.45 billion in awards between 2010 and 2014.

FIGURE 1

From the GAO chart (Table 1), it’s clear that ARPA-E also follows the DOE in deploying very few OTs in support of its mission. Despite being originally envisioned as a high-potential, high-impact funder for technology that is too early in the R&D process for private investors to support, the most recent data shows that ARPA-E does not use OTs flexibly to support high-potential, high-impact tech.

The same GAO report cited above stated that:

“DOE’s regulations—because they are based on DOD’s regulations—include requirements that limit DOE’s use of other transaction agreements…. Officials told us they plan to seek approval from the Office of Management and Budget to modify the agency’s other transaction regulations to better reflect DOE’s mission, consistent with its statutory authority. According to DOE officials, if the changes are approved, DOE may increase its use of other transaction agreements.” 

That report was published in 2016, but it is unclear that any changes were sought or approved, though they likely do not need to change any regulations at all to actually make use of their authority.1 The realm of the possible is quite large, and DOE has yet to fully explore the potential benefits to its mission that OTs provide. 

DOE can use OTs without any further authority to drive progress in critical technologies.

The good news is that DOE has the ability to use OTs without further guidance from Congress or formally changing any guidelines. Recognizing their full statutory authority would open up use cases for OTs that would help the DOE make meaningful progress towards its agency mission and the administration’s climate goals. 

For example, the DOE could use OTs in the following ways:

Given the exigencies of climate change and the need to rapidly decarbonize our society and economy, there are very real instances in which traditional research contracts or grants are not enough to move the needle or unlock a significant market opportunity for a technology. Forward contract acquisitions, pay for delivery contracts, or other forms of transactions that are nonstandard but critical to supporting development of technology are covered under this authority.

One promising area where it seems the DOE is currently using this approach is in supporting the hydrogen hubs initiative. Recently the DOE announced a $1 billion initiative for demand-side support mechanisms to mitigate the risk of market failures and accelerate the commercialization of clean hydrogen technologies. The Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) for the H2Hubs program notes that “other FOA launches or use of Other Transaction Authorities may also be used to solicit new technologies, capabilities, end-uses, or partners.” The DOE could use OTs more frequently as a tool to advance other critical commercial liftoff strategies or to maximize the impact of dollars appropriated to implementation of the BIL and IRA. Some areas that are ripe for creative uses of other transactions include:

This demand-pull would complement other recent actions taken to bolster critical minerals like the clean vehicle tax credit and the Loan Program Office’s loans to mineral processing facilities. Such a consortium could come from the existing critical materials institute or be formed by separate entities.

DOE could use other transactions to further support this nascent consortium and increase the demonstration and deployment of geothermal projects. The agency could also use other transactions to organize the sharing of critical subsurface data and resources through a single entity.

A carbon removal purchasing agreement for the DOE’s Regional Direct Air Capture Hubs could function much the same as the proposed hydrogen hubs initiative. It also could take the shape of a consortium of DAC vendors, nonprofits, scientists, and others managed by a single entity that can set standards for purchase agreements. This would cut the negotiation time among potential parties by a significant amount, allowing for cost saving and faster decarbonization.

DOE could organize an advance market commitment for long-duration energy storage capabilities on federal properties that meet certain storage hour and grid integration requirements. Such a commitment could include the DoD and the General Services Administration (GSA), which own and operate the large portfolio of federal properties, including bases and facilities in hard-to-reach locations that could benefit from more predictable and secure energy infrastructure. Early procurement of capability-meeting but expensive systems could help diversify the market and drive technology down the cost curve to reach the target of $650 per kW and 75% RTE for intra-day storage and $1,100 per kW 55 and 60% RTE for multiday storage.

To use OTs more frequently, the DOE needs to focus on culture and education.

As noted, the DOE does not need additional authorization or congressional legislation to use OTs more frequently. The agency received authority in its original charter in 1977, codified in 42 U.S. Code § 7256, which state:

“The Secretary is authorized to enter into and perform such contracts, leases, cooperative agreements, or other similar transactions with public agencies and private organizations and persons, and to make such payments (in lump sum or installments, and by way of advance or reimbursement) as he may deem to be necessary or appropriate to carry out functions now or hereafter vested in the Secretary.” [emphasis added]

This and other legislation gives DOE the authority to use OTs as the Secretary deems necessary. 

Later guidelines in implementation state that other officials at DOE who have been presidentially appointed and confirmed by the Senate are able to execute these transactions. The DOE’s Office of Acquisition Management, Office of General Counsel, and any other legal bodies involved should update any unnecessarily restrictive guidelines, or note that they will follow the original authority granted in the agency’s 1977 charter. 

While that would resolve any implementation questions about the ability to use OT at DOE, the agency ultimately needs strong leadership and buy-in from the Secretary in order to take full advantage. As many observers note regarding DoD’s expanding use of OTs, culture is what matters the most. The DOE should take the following actions to make sure the changing of these guidelines empowers DOE public servants to their full potential:

  1. The Secretary should make clear to DOE leadership and staff that increased use of OTs is not only permissible but actively encouraged.
  1. The Secretary should provide internal written guidance to DOE leadership and program-level staff on what criteria need to be met for her to sign off on an OT, if needed. These criteria should be driven by DOE mission needs, technology readiness, and other resources like the commercial liftoff reports.
  1. The Office of Acquisition Management should collaboratively educate relevant program staff, not just contracting staff, on the use of OTs, including by providing cross-agency learning opportunities from peers at DARPA, NASA, DoD, DHS, and DOT.
  1. DOE should provide an internal process for designing and drawing up an OT agreement for staff to get constructive feedback from multiple levels of experienced professionals.
  1. DOE should issue a yearly report on how many OTs they agree to and basic details of the agreements. After four years, GAO should evaluate DOE’s use of OTs and communicate any areas for improvement. Since OTs don’t meet normal contracting disclosure requirements, some form of public disclosure would be critical for accountability.

Mitigating risk

Finally, there are many ways to address potential risks involved with executing new OTs for clean energy solutions. While there are no legal contracting risks (as OTs are not guided by the FAR), DOE staff should consider ways to most judiciously and appropriately enter into agreements. For one resource, they can leverage the eight recent reports put together by four different offices of inspector generals on agencies’ usage of other transactions to understand best practices. Other important risk limiting activities include:

  1. DoD commonly uses consortiums to gather critical industry partners together around challenges in areas such as advanced manufacturing, mobility, enterprise healthcare innovations, and more.
  1. Education of relevant parties and modeling of agreements after successful DARPA and NASA OTs. These resources are in many cases publicly available online and provide ready-made templates (for example, the NIH also offers a 500-page training guide with example agreements).

Conclusion

The DOE should use the full authority granted to it by Congress in executing other transactions to advance the clean energy transition and develop secure energy infrastructure in line with their agency mission. DOE does not need additional authorization or legislation from Congress in order to do so. GAO reports have highlighted the limitations of DOE’s OT use and the discrepancy in usage between agencies. Making this change would bring the DOE in line with peer agencies and push the country towards more meaningful progress on net-zero goals.

Frequently Asked Questions
What are some examples of OTs?

The following examples are pulled from a GAO report but should not be regarded as the only model for potential agreements.


Examples of Past OTs at DOE
“In 2010, ARPA-E entered into an other transaction agreement with a commercial oil and energy company to research and develop new drilling technology to access geothermal energy. Specifically, according to agency documentation, the technology being tested was designed to drill into hard rock more quickly and efficiently using a hardware system to transmit high-powered lasers over long distances via fiber optic cables and integrating the laser power with a mechanical drill bit. According to ARPA-E documents, this technology could provide access to an estimated 100,000 or more megawatts of geothermal electrical power in the United States by 2050, which would help ARPA-E meet its mission to enhance the economic and energy security of the United States through the development of energy technologies.


According to ARPA-E officials, an other transaction agreement was used due to the company’s concerns about protecting its intellectual property rights, in case the company was purchased by a different company in the future. Specifically, one type of intellectual property protection known as “march-in rights” allows federal agencies to take control of a patent when certain conditions have not been met, such as when the entity has not made efforts to commercialize the invention within an agreed upon time frame.33 Under the terms of ARPA-E’s other transaction agreement, march-in rights were modified so that if the company itself was sold, it could choose to pay the government and retain the rights to the technology developed under the agreement. Additionally, according to DOE officials, ARPA-E included a United States competitive clause in the agreement that required any invention developed under the agreement to be substantially manufactured in the United States, provided products were also sold in the United States, unless the company showed that it was not commercially feasible to do so. This agreement lasted until fiscal year 2013, and ARPA-E obligated about $9 million to it.”


Examples at DoD
“In 2011, DOD entered into a 2-year other transaction agreement with a nontraditional contractor for the development of a new military sensor system. According to the agreement documentation, this military sensor system was intended to demonstrate DOD’s ability to quickly react to emerging critical needs through rapid prototyping and deployment of sensing capabilities. By using an other transaction agreement, DOD planned to use commercial technology, development techniques, and approaches to accelerate the sensor system development process. The agreement noted that commercial products change quickly, with major technology changes occurring in less than 2 years. In contrast, according to the agreement, under the typical DOD process, military sensor systems take 3 to 8 years to complete, and may not match evolving mission needs by the time the system is complete. According to an official, DOD obligated $8 million to this agreement.”

Are there any restrictions on the use of OTs?

Other interpretations of the statute have prevented DOE from leveraging OTs, and there seems to be confusion on what is allowed. For example, a commonly cited OTA explainer implies that DOE is statutorily limited to “RD&D projects. Cost sharing agreement required.”


But nowhere in the original statute does Congress require DOE to exclusively use cost sharing agreements, nor is this the case at other agencies where OTs are common practice.


However, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 did require the DOE to issue guidelines for the use of OTs 90 days after the passing of the law, and this is where it gets complicated. They did so, and according to a 2008 GAO report, DOE enacted guidelines which used a specific model called a technology investment agreement (TIA). These guidelines were modeled on the DoD’s then-current guidelines for OTs and TIAs, mandating cost sharing agreements “to the maximum extent practicable” between the federal government and nonfederal parties to an agreement.2 An Acquisition/Financial Assistance Letter issued by senior DOE procurement officials in 2021 defines this explicitly: “Other Transaction Agreement, as used in this AL/FAL, means Technology Investment Agreement as codified at 10 C.F.R., Part 603, pursuant to DOE’s Other Transaction Authority of 42 U.S.C. § 7256.” However, the DOE’s authority as codified in 42 U.S.C. § 7256 (a) and (g) does not define OTs as TIAs, the definition is just a guideline from DOE, and could be changed.

What are Technology Investment Agreements?

Technology Investment Agreements are used to reduce the barrier to commercial and nontraditional firms’ involvement with mission-critical research needs at DOE. They are particularly useful in that they do not require traditional government accounting systems, which can be burdensome for small or new firms to implement. But that does not mean they are the only instrument that should be used. The law says that TIAs for research projects should involve cost sharing to the “maximum extent practicable.” This does not mean that cost sharing must always occur. There could be many forms of transactions other than grants and contracts in which cost sharing is neither practicable nor feasible.


Furthermore, the DOE is empowered to use OTs for research, applied research, development, and demonstration projects. Development and demonstration projects would not fit neatly in the category of research projects covered by TIAs. So subjecting them to the same guidelines is an unduly restrictive guideline.

What are consortiums?

Consortia are basically single entities that manage a group of members (to include private firms, academics, nonprofits, and more) aligned around a specific challenge or topic. Government can execute other transactions with the consortium manager, who then organizes the members around an agreed scope. MITRE provides a longer explainer and list of consortia.

Building Back with a Cleaner Power Grid for America

Achieving energy decarbonization in America will require a power grid supplied by renewable energy and backed by ample energy storage. The challenge is that many types of renewable energy provide power intermittently depending on factors such as the time of day or weather conditions. To maintain grid reliability while working towards a nation powered by 100% renewable energy, the Biden-Harris Administration should accelerate adoption of distributed energy resources and expand transmission capacity to create a more unified national power grid. These efforts will increase equitable access to clean energy, accelerate investment in renewables, and create thousands of long-term, high-skilled jobs in a robust American energy sector.

Challenge and Opportunity

The U.S. power grid was built in—and designed for—a previous energy era: one in which on-demand, regionally located energy supplies (such as coal-fired power plants) are delivered to thousands of customers along one-direction transmission lines and managed by public utilities that operate as local monopolies.

But as our nation pushes to replace fossil fuels with cleaner sources of power, the energy landscape will look quite different. Many types of renewable energy provide power intermittently depending on factors such as the time of day or weather conditions. Supplies of such energy sources cannot be ramped up easily (or at all) during periods of peak demand. Meanwhile, smart-and-distributed-energy technologies—such as smart thermostats, rooftop solar, and electric vehicles—have led to an increasingly dynamic and complex power grid. 

The policy response to these rapid changes in the way we generate power has mostly constituted a patchwork of efforts at the state and regional level. Federal attention to renewables has focused largely on tax incentives and on regulation via orders from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). For instance, FERC’s recent order opening wholesale energy markets to distributed energy resources is an important step towards increasing the share of renewables in the U.S. energy sector. Incentives to increase adoption of renewables and investment in research and development (R&D) to improve performance and utility of renewables are essential as well. But to realize a quick and smooth transition to a clean-energy future, concerted action is needed to tackle the intermittency challenge that renewables pose.

Such action can proceed via two complementary pathways simultaneously. The first pathway is using technology advances like vehicle-to-grid (V2G) integration, demand response, smart thermostats, and energy storage to flexibly shift load demand. These technologies help guide certain discretionary types of energy consumption (e.g., running a load of laundry) to occur during times when renewable-energy supply is high but demand is low, and can even enable consumers to return energy to the grid (e.g., by plugging in a parked electric vehicle so that the vehicle’s battery can be used as a power source) to during periods of peak demand.

Unfortunately, innovative energy-management technologies are markedly underutilized in the U.S. power sector. Distorted market-incentive structures, inadequate control protocols governing relationships between operators and consumers, and reliability concerns have all made utilities reluctant to embrace a more dynamic grid. Moreover, grid users (i.e., residential and commercial customers) cannot currently participate in an open energy market on an equal footing with utilities. This means that our nation is not realizing the full value of services that customers can provide to a power grid.

A smarter grid-operating system would (1) make it easier for operators to integrate distributed energy resources (DER) with more conventional types of power supplies, (2) economically incentivize changes in user behavior to smooth out energy-demand curves, and (3) enable everyday Americans to invest in distributed clean-energy technologies and earn returns for providing various services to the power grid. These steps in turn would greatly facilitate large-scale integration of renewables into the U.S. power mix.

The second pathway for addressing the intermittency problem is to finally create a connected and integrated American power grid. This would enable areas with steady supplies of renewable energy—such as solar in the Southwest, wind in Texas and the Midwest, and off-shore wind in New England—to deliver power to different parts of the country as needed. Preliminary studies done by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have demonstrated the economic and environmental benefits of unifying currently disconnected sections of the American power grid. Examples from California and Texas illustrate the need to and benefits of expanding national transmission capacity.

California’s power grid highlights the problems of building aggressive renewable energy portfolios without sufficient transmission. As renewable-energy capacity in California has increased, so too has curtailment—i.e., deliberate reduction in output—of that capacity (Figure 1). Roughly half of this curtailment has been due to transmission constraints. Transmission constraints have also prevented creation of approximately 72,000 potential American jobs from renewable-energy projects in the Midwest.

Figure 1

Insufficient transmission capacity coupled with increasing renewable-energy production in California is resulting in significant curtailment, or waste, of renewable energy in the state. (Source: California ISO. (2021).

In Texas, the 2021 winter storm Uri recently demonstrated an even more dire consequence of limited interconnection across our nation’s power infrastructure: the disastrous failure modes that can manifest in isolated power grids. When Uri hit, grid operators simultaneously encountered high load demand as residents turned up their heaters and inadequate energy supply as naturalgas power plants began failing in the cold weather. The rolling power failures experienced in Texas during the storm could have been mitigated if Texas had been able to import energy from other grids. Connecting the regional power grids that exist in the United States will improve grid resiliency across the nation by allowing regions to draw from each other as circumstances and local conditions demand.

Strengthening the U.S. power grid through improved use of energy-management technologies and better regional interconnections will have benefits that extend beyond grid flexibility and resilience. Grid modernization will create jobs across America in the construction, manufacturing, and energy sectors. By empowering rate-payers to produce their own energy, sell back surplus energy to the grid, and be rewarded for shifting energy-consumption patterns in response to grid conditions, grid modernization will generate economic value for consumers. By encouraging development of distributed energy resources, grid modernization will allow rural communities to replace expensive and burdensome propane shipments with continuously flowing electricity from local solar and storage installations. By transforming the U.S. power grid from a collection of regional entities into an interconnected, national resource, grid modernization will allow energy developers to tap into a national energy market instead of being limited by regional boundaries. And by creating a more unified energy sector, one in which states and communities rely on each other for power, grid modernization might even result in a more united country.

Plan of Action

The federal government plays a critical role in regulating and maintaining the nation’s grid infrastructure. As such, there is much that the Biden-Harris Administration can do—by using existing executive authority and by working with Congress on legislative actions—to strengthen the resilience of the U.S. power grid and foster integration of distributed energy resources and renewables into the U.S. power sector. Progress on these fronts will help transition the United States towards a 100% clean-energy future while creating industries and jobs centered around clean-energy resources, building up America’s advanced manufacturing base, and generating new economic opportunities for all Americans.

Actions using existing executive authority

Improve coordination between federal and state entities to reduce regulatory barriers to energy development. The federal government can support interstate grid projects (such as regional interconnections) by helping coordinate state legislatures and by reducing regulatory burdens related to such projects. In particular, FERC plays an important role in coordinating regional grid investments and planning across states (such as the Eastern seaboard’s off-shore wind grid). The Biden-Harris Administration should prioritize this function of FERC in order to reduce the bureaucratic hurdles faced by energy developers. The new White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy (Climate Policy Office) can play an additional coordinating role, helping to align technical research conducted at the Department of Energy (DOE)‘s national labs with policy and regulatory work conducted through the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the Department of Interior, the Department of Defense, and other relevant federal entities. Finally, the Climate Policy Office can work with state legislatures to provide state-specific recommendations (i.e., recommendations tailored to the unique natural resources and electricity market structures of each state) on how to best incentivize investment and job growth in the energy industry.

Actions involving collaboration with Congress

Scale R&D innovations in clean-energy technologies by increasing relevant DOE funding. The federal government can use its federal budget to help scale R&D innovations in clean energy and help advance those innovations towards manufacturing and production. By accelerating commercialization and mass production of clean-energy innovations, federal investment will help make clean energy more affordable for American consumers, while simultaneously fostering job growth in the American energy sector. To that end, the next White House budget proposal should include significant funding increases for DOE, in particular for DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE)1, Loan Program Office (LPO), and Advanced Research Project Agency for Energy (ARPA-E). Increasing funding for these offices, which use different financing schemes to invest in technologies at different stages of commercialization, is a direct way for the federal government to scale up American-made energy technologies. These three offices heave a proven ability to identify promising candidates for energy innovation.2 Increasing appropriations for these high-impact offices by $500M will represent a more than 10% increase in each offices’ budget: enough to make a difference, but not a dramatic departure from the budget increases already appropriated by Congress from FY 2019– FY 2020.

Broaden the definition of “qualifying facilities” to allow everyday Americans to participate in energy markets. Broadening the definition of “qualifying facility (QF)” in the Power Utility Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA) of 1978 to include energy storage, power quality factors, and demand response would require utilities to compensate energy providers for a wider range of services: i.e., services that go beyond simple energy production. The power grids of today and of the future are more than a collection of relatively fixed energy demands and supplies. Broadening the definition of QF would acknowledge the increasingly dynamic nature of the power grid, where excess supply often needs to be stored for later and where some portion of demand load can be shifted to different times of day. In particular, broadening the definition of QF would require utilities to (1) treat their own customers as first-class suppliers for a diverse set of potential use-cases in the energy marketplace and (2) properly compensate rate-payers for any services they provide to the power grid. Ensuring the market properly rewards customers for adopting novel clean-energy technologies will spur clean-energy market growth, drive innovation, and generate economic value for individual Americans newly able to participate in electricity markets.

Encourage construction of additional transmission capacity via tax incentives and loan programs. Tax credits have historically been a popular way for Congress to incentivize development of renewable energy such as wind and solar.3 By making the construction of additional transmission capacity similarly eligible for tax credits, Congress can support a critical piece of our nation’s grid infrastructure while creating construction jobs across the country.4

Frequently Asked Questions
What role can electric vehicles play in a smarter grid?

From the standpoint of the power grid, electric vehicles (EV) are essentially mobile batteries. EVs plugged in and their batteries used to store surplus renewable energy when production is high or return energy to the grid when renewable-energy production drops. However, this vehicle-to-grid exchange requires careful coordination between EV owners and utility operators. The current power grid is not designed to handle individual consumers returning power to the grid, and there is no way for utilities to compensate EV owners for the value they provide to utilities by doing so. A “smart grid” would create an electricity marketplace that EV owners could participate in. Such a marketplace would significantly improve the value proposition of EVs, encouraging EV uptake as well as domestic investment in advanced automobile manufacturing. Given that Tesla became America’s most valuable automobile company in 2020, the market has already seen the value that EVs have to offer. A smarter power grid will allow full capitalization of that value by consumers, industry, and our power grid.

In an increasingly divisive political environment, how can bipartisan support be generated for investment in energy infrastructure?

Investing in the U.S. power grid will benefit many constituent groups, allowing for a multifaceted approach to messaging. For instance:



  • Solar energy coupled with storage can lower electricity costs and reduce reliance on imported natural gas or propane for rural and isolated communities.

  • Certain U.S. geographic regions, such as the Southwest, contain some of the greatest natural renewable energy sources in the world. Directing federal incentives towards such areas will create jobs at the state and local level while reducing foreign energy dependence.

  • President Eisenhower passed the Interstate Highway Act by appealing to bipartisan support in a Cold War environment and helped create our modern road infrastructure. The transmission power grid, as the “interstate highway” for the electricity that powers America, is a similarly important piece of infrastructure that will help America maintain its national security and international competitiveness.

How do established or maturing clean-energy technologies relate to America’s economic and strategic interests?

Distributed clean-energy technologies, like energy storage, residential solar, on-shore and offshore wind, and electric vehicles are quickly reaching economies of scale. Artificial intelligence is increasingly being used to ensure grid stability, optimize grid operations, and inform resource planning. High-voltage transmission lines and power inverters are critical parts of the infrastructure that makes up the backbone of the power grid. Each of these technologies presents an economic opportunity for the federal government to invest in building new infrastructure and spur private development, creating new jobs and industries in the process. In addition, many of these technologies are currently manufactured abroad or rely on minerals imported from foreign countries. The federal government should direct research funding towards technologies that do not rely on foreign imports and that leverage America’s existing manufacturing infrastructure and natural resources. Finally, maintaining a robust workforce of professionals who know how to manage and debug production processes will be important for ensuring that our nation is capable of translating American R&D into products that can be manufactured domestically. Following through on the Plan of Action outlined in this proposal will help open the power grid to broader participation and ensure cleaner, more equitable power distribution while simultaneously advancing American technical competitiveness and manufacturing capabilities.

Why is changing the definition of qualifying facilities under PURPA important to helping Americans achieve access to the power grid market?

The federal government’s recent involvement in the power market has focused on tax credits and R&D funding. Indeed, the Energy Act of 2020 injects significant federal funding to R&D funding programs and extends certain tax credits. While continued support for R&D funding is important and tax credits are an important market mechanism, amending PURPA is a different type of action altogether. By changing the definition of qualifying facilities, the federal government categorically changes the basis by which utilities buy power. Firmly establishing an expanded definition of QF via legislation will prevent non-elected bodies from arbitrating the definition of QFs either now or in the future. FERC performed such arbitration in 2020, to the detriment of energy storage projects and the chagrin of clean-energy trade associations.


Amending the definition will force the market to properly compensate consumer-provided services that provide value to the grid. For instance, smart thermostats can reduce electricity used for heating and cooling when energy supply drops or electric vehicles can be optimized to only charge when supply is ample. Incentivizing behavioral changes like these is critical for achieving a 100% clean power grid. Amending PURPA to allow Americans to invest in and earn returns on a broad range of energy technologies today will prepare the United States for the power grid of tomorrow.