The Next Front in the War Against Climate Change

In August 2022, the U.S. passed the most ambitious climate legislation of any country, ever. As the director of President Joe Biden’s National Economic Council at the time, I helped design the law. Less than two years later, the Inflation Reduction Act has succeeded beyond my wildest hopes at unleashing demand for clean energy. So why do I find myself lying awake at night, worried that America could still fail to meet its climate goals?

Because even though unprecedented sums of money are flowing into clean energy, our current electricity system is failing to meet Americans’ demand for clean power. If we don’t fix it, the surge in investment will not deliver its full economic and planetary potential.

The Inflation Reduction Act was historic in scale, investing 10 times more than any prior climate legislation in the United States. Our theory was that we could use public incentives to encourage major private investment in areas where technological innovation could pay big dividends. This in turn would make zero-carbon technology cheaper, disperse it more widely, and drive down emissions faster. During two years of intense, often painful legislative negotiations, I wondered whether we would ever get to test this theory in practice. We ran endless models, but the models only get you so far. If we provided the public incentives, would the private investment really come?

We now can definitively say that the answer is yes. Total investment in clean energy was more than 70 percent higher in 2023 than in 2021, and now represents a larger share of U.S. domestic investment than oil and gas. Clean-energy manufacturing is off the charts. Money is disproportionately flowing into promising technologies that have yet to reach mass adoption, such as hydrogen, advanced geothermal, and carbon removal. And, thanks to a provision that allows companies to buy and sell the tax credits they generate, the law is creating an entirely new market for small developers.

But for all of this progress to deliver, it needs to translate into clean energy that Americans can actually use. In 2023, we added 32 gigawatts of clean electricity to the U.S. grid in the form of new solar, battery storage, wind, and nuclear. It was a record—but it was still only about two-thirds of what’s necessary to stay on track with the IRA’s goal of reducing emissions by 40 percent by 2030.

For decades, the biggest obstacle to clean energy in the U.S. was insufficient demand. That is no longer the case. The problem now is the structure of our electricity markets: the way we produce and consume electricity in America. We need to fix that if we want the biggest clean-energy investment in history to actually get the job done.

The topic of utility reform operates in what the climate writer David Roberts has described as a “force field of tedium.” I can say from experience that starting a cocktail-party conversation about public-utility-commission elections is a good way to find yourself standing alone. But if you care about averting the most apocalyptic consequences of climate change, you need to care about utilities.

A century ago, utilities were granted regional monopolies to sell electricity subject to a basic bargain. They could earn a profit by charging consumers for investments in building new power plants and transmission lines; in exchange, they’d commit to providing reliable electricity to all, and submit to regulation to make sure they followed through.

This model made sense for much of the 20th century, when generating electricity required building big, expensive fossil-fuel-powered steam turbines, and utilities needed to be assured of a healthy return on such heavy up-front investments. But it is at least a generation out of date. Over the past several decades, technology has opened up new ways of meeting consumers’ electricity demand. The 20th-century utility model doesn’t encourage this innovation. Instead, it defaults toward simply building more fossil-fuel-burning plants. As a result, consumers get a less reliable product at higher prices, and decarbonization takes a back seat.

Consider batteries. In recent years, battery technology has made huge leaps. Large batteries can charge up when prices are low, then push renewable electricity back onto the grid when people need power—even when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. They can be paired with rooftop solar panels to create virtual power plants that balance out the grid, saving consumers billions of dollars a year while helping to meet electricity demand. During one evening in April, for example, batteries supplied as much as a fifth of California’s total energy demand.

Many utilities, however, won’t prioritize installing batteries, and they won’t invest in solutions that let consumers do more with less energy. That’s because these programs lower utilities’ capital expenditures, which lowers the rates they charge consumers and, in turn, their profits. If utilities don’t get paid for innovating, they’re unlikely to do it.

The problem is even more pronounced when it comes to our electricity grid. Right now the grid is old, dumb, and too small. New technology makes it easier to change that. Just by rewiring lines from the 1950s with advanced conductors made of materials such as carbon fiber, we can double the amount of power they move. If we did this at scale, the existing grid could meet all projected electricity demand over the next decade. This tech isn’t science fiction. It has been piloted in the field since the early 2000s. But utilities aren’t investing in it at scale.

Part of the problem is our antiquated system for permitting and siting transmission projects, which takes too long and costs too much. That’s why the White House worked with Senator Joe Manchin and other legislators to establish a framework for permitting reform to be passed separately from the IRA, an effort that unfortunately has stalled in Congress. But the deeper issue is the system in which our utilities themselves operate.

The IRA didn’t fix these issues. We were working with a 50–50 Senate, with no Republican support. That meant we had to pass the law through the budget-reconciliation process, which doesn’t allow for rewriting regulations. And although we were aware of the problems with electricity markets, we underestimated just how big a barrier they would pose to clean-energy adoption. This doesn’t mean the IRA is destined to fail. What it means is that the next phase of the fight against climate change must be the comparatively wonky, unsexy work of reforming our outdated electricity markets.

On a policy level, this isn’t rocket science. In Australia, households are paid for sending electricity back into the grid. Lo and behold, Australia today has the highest rate of rooftop solar panels per capita of any country. In the U.S., state legislatures and regulators in places as varied as Utah and Hawaii have figured out how to pay households to install batteries and send electricity back to the grid. Last year, Montana unanimously passed a law that gave utilities a financial incentive to use more advanced materials in their transmission lines. But these remain the exceptions to the rule.

The underlying challenge is political. As the incumbents in electricity markets, some utilities have a track record of undercutting regulatory reform. This can include illegal corruption, such as the case of a utility in Illinois that was caught bribing the Illinois House speaker to support legislation that raised consumers’ rates. More often, utilities rely on the depressingly legal practice of using money from Americans’ electricity bills to lobby regulators and legislators.

Utility companies’ most powerful weapon, however, isn’t cash or clout: It’s the force field of tedium. Even to environmentalists, the issue of utility reform feels esoteric and abstract. Yet what in the past may have felt like avoidable wonkery is now existential. Demand for electricity is increasing for the first time in two decades, spurred by the spread of data centers. Across the Southeast, vertically integrated utilities are claiming that rising demand leaves them with no choice but to burn more fossil fuels. As recently as last month, Georgia Power won approval to build new gas plants over the objections of corporate customers and consumer advocates.

But the potential for winning politics is here as well. Biden has made leveling the playing field a centerpiece of his economic agenda. The environmental movement needs to tap into the same impulse. The price of energy touches every American family and business. If a utility is trying to bill consumers for the cost of an expensive new natural-gas plant instead of cheaper and cleaner alternatives, that isn’t a fair price—it’s a junk fee that consumers are paying for no good reason. When a utility misuses your money to influence its own regulators, that’s simple corruption.

Shifting this approach will not happen without a new vocabulary and new coalitions. The climate movement must recognize that its primary target is no longer just Big Oil; it’s the regulatory barriers that keep clean energy from getting built and delivered efficiently to American homes. The movement also needs to pressure Big Tech companies, whose AI offerings are driving up energy demands, to follow through on their lofty climate talk by supporting reform in the utility system as well.

Solving these problems will not be easy. But the IRA’s success to date, unfinished though it may be, offers hope. When we get the politics and the incentives right, we can generate change far faster than we ever predicted.