With California Voters Focused on Climate, Biden Touts Obama-Era Energy Investments

3 min
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event inside the John Deere Exhibition Hall at the FFA Enrichment Center on Jan. 25 in Ankeny, Iowa. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

With early voting underway in California, the Democratic candidates for president are facing a Golden State electorate more concerned than ever before with how the next commander in chief will confront the globe's changing climate.

Joe Biden's climate spending plan pales in comparison to the ambitious proposals of his Democratic rivals. But the former vice president can make a unique pitch: He is the only candidate who has already guided a nationwide clean energy initiative.

Biden is betting that the billions of dollars in clean energy funds that went to California in the Obama administration's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will help him make his case to voters — and provide him with a boost in the March 3 primary.

"The attitude of Californians in terms of the intensity of their feeling for all of what we were doing through the Recovery Act in California was a heck of a lot less intense than it is today," Biden said in an interview with KQED. "Here we are now eight, nine, 10 years later and I'm not being critical of anybody in California — you've been ahead of everybody — but everybody sort of had an epiphany here. Everybody understands this is really worth it."

In 2009, with the country reeling from the Great Recession, President Barack Obama tasked Biden with overseeing the administration's $787 billion stimulus package.

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Included in the bill was a $90 billion investment in clean energy, the largest in U.S. history. The biggest renewable energy windfall went to California: $11.8 billion by the end of Obama's first term — triple the amount awarded to any other state.

The Recovery Act experience showed that Biden can pursue a green initiative that balances large-scale government investment with private sector innovation, said Joseph Aldy, professor of the practice of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

"I think it's this kind of experience that for Vice President Biden, helps him form a very pragmatic approach," said Aldy, who served in the Obama administration as special assistant to the president for energy and environment.

But in a presidential primary marked by competition over ambitious progressive agendas, there's a political risk in asking voters to turn their attention back a decade.

Biden's leading opponents in California are running on their climate plans, not records. Bernie Sanders' (the current leader in state primary polling) is calling for a "Green New Deal" with nearly 10 times the spending Biden's plan envisions, for example.

"I'm concerned about whether or not climate change will be at the top of the agenda for a Biden administration," said Leah Stokes, assistant professor of political science at UC Santa Barbara.

And unlike Biden, candidates including Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg are calling for a nationwide ban on new hydraulic fracking — a method of extracting oil by using water and chemicals to crack open geological formations. That position is likely to win over environmental activists in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom recently placed a moratorium on new fracking permits, in part over concerns about methane leakage from the process.

To win over California climate voters, Biden will have to persuade them to take a second look at Obama-era investments that largely flew under the radar, re-examine some high-profile failures and embrace lessons from the Recovery Act as a stepping stone to future climate action.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden look at solar panels as they tour the solar array at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Denver, Colorado, February 17, 2009.
Former President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden look at solar panels as they tour the solar array at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Denver, Colorado, on Feb. 17, 2009. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Voter Focus on Climate Change

The last time Biden ran for president, in 2008, climate change barely registered as a priority for California primary voters.

In a December 2007 survey from the Public Policy Institute of California, just 3% of primary voters picked "environment" as the issue they wanted to hear about most from presidential candidates.

Twelve years later, after dire warnings about the impending damage that could come with a warmer planet, and more intense wildfires wreaking havoc at both ends of the state, voter priorities among Democrats in California have drastically shifted.

Now, primary voters name climate change as their highest priority for the next president, according to a December poll from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies.

"The perception of what is needed, that’s changed drastically, thank God," Biden said.

Biden is betting that the Recovery Act, remembered by most as a Keynesian response to revive the economy during the Great Recession, will gain new bona fides as a major climate initiative.

A 'Major Down Payment'

In the last decade, California became home to the world's bestselling electric car and largest solar-thermal power plant. Cities replaced millions of street lights with energy-efficient LED bulbs and state leaders recently celebrated California's one-millionth solar roof installation.

All of those gains were made, in part, because of the funds that flowed from the Recovery Act.

Billions of dollars in loan guarantees helped develop the Ivanpah solar plant in the Mojave Desert and the Tesla Motors factory in Fremont, while grants and tax breaks provided incentives for cities and homeowners to make energy efficiency upgrades.

Workers install solar panels on the roof of a home in San Rafael.
Workers install solar panels on the roof of a home in San Rafael. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Robert Weisenmiller, who served as a California's energy commissioner from 2010 to 2019, said the stimulus package provided a "major down payment on our energy infrastructure."

"We did a surprisingly large number of projects, about nine major solar projects," he added. "No one had ever really tried to do that level of permitting. And many of these projects combined state and federal land in some fashion. So it really laid the groundwork for a lot of the future we’re in now."

The Obama administration credited Recovery Act investments with saving enough energy to power 10,000 homes by 2050 and a 2011 study from the BlueGreen Alliance credited the Recovery Act's clean energy initiatives with "creating or saving nearly a million jobs."

"In the past, people would say, 'Oh, if you're supporting solar panels, that might be costing us jobs in other parts of the economy,'" said Harvard professor Joseph Aldy. "Well now we realize that if we're investing in the installation of solar panels, and in their manufacturing, we're actually creating some jobs."

"It makes people think twice about what a clean energy transition might look like from a labor standpoint, not just from a reducing carbon dioxide emissions standpoint," Aldy added.

Notable Failures

But like so much of the Obama administration's stimulus package, many clean energy investments largely flew under the radar, like the tax breaks folded into corporate and personal returns, and grants dropped into city coffers for future spending.

The projects in California that did receive attention were not the shining examples the administration had hoped for.

The most notable failure was Solyndra, the solar panel manufacturer which received the first loan guarantee from the Recovery Act: $535 million to build their manufacturing facility in the Bay Area city of Fremont and a visit from President Obama to boot.

In 2011, the company went bankrupt, laying off 1,100 workers. Solyndra's flop drew scrutiny of the company's loan application and unleashed criticism that the Energy Department propped up the manufacturer because of its investors' ties to the president. The next year, Republicans spent millions on ads attacking Obama over the loan guarantee.

"We learned that the appetite for risk in the political environment in Washington, D.C. is relatively low," Aldy said.

Like Solyndra, the massive Ivanpah Solar Power Facility in the Mojave Desert has been targeted as a symbol of the stimulus packages' largess.

Heliostats - in essence, rotating mirrors - at the Ivanpah solar power plant, in California's Mojave Desert south of Las Vegas.
Heliostats - in essence, rotating mirrors - at the Ivanpah solar power plant, in California's Mojave Desert south of Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Perhaps the most New Deal-esque project to land in California through the Recovery Act, Ivanpah was the largest solar thermal power plant in the world at the time of its completion in 2014: Hundreds of thousands of sunlight-reflecting mirrors spread across 5 square miles of federal land. Oakland-based BrightSource Energy received more than $1.37 billion in loan guarantees through the Recovery Act to construct the facility.

The early reports on Ivanpah were less than stellar: criticism that it harmed local wildlife, energy production that fell short of targets and an over-reliance on natural gas to operate the system at night and on cloudy days, which rendered the facility a carbon polluter.

But while the cost efficiency of Ivanpah is still maligned, clean energy production from the facility has edged up in recent years, and experts have hailed it as a trailblazer for future large-scale solar power production.

UC Santa Barbara professor Leah Stokes argued that the loan guarantee program that funded Ivanpah and Solyndra deserves a second look.

"The government made money on that program while also supporting lots of companies creating new technologies," Stokes said. "And a project like Ivanpah, which is riskier because it's new and innovative, is exactly the kind of thing that the federal government should be supporting."

"I actually think that those were really smart investments that the federal government made," she said.

Future Investments Must Go Further, Experts Say 

Even proponents of the Recovery Act's clean energy impacts acknowledge that Biden, or any other Democratic contender, will have to drastically up the ante in future climate-focused investments.

Because while the stimulus invested heavily in renewable energy, it wasn't explicitly designed to fight climate change.

Federal dollars were prioritized for shovel-ready projects as part of the stimulus' chief goal of getting Americans back to work.

And a mechanism to limit greenhouse gases, like California's cap-and-trade system, never came to fruition: Obama and Biden failed to rally enough support in the U.S Senate for a carbon pricing measure.

A decade later, it's hard to evaluate the impact the Recovery Act had on the decarbonization of the economy. Studies have found that emissions dropped more than expected in the years after the stimulus, but largely attribute that to a slowed economy and a nationwide shift from coal to natural gas.

"Let's face it, in 2010, it was economic recovery we were focused on. Now, we have to focus on climate change," said Weisenmiller, the former California energy commissioner. "We need more on the level of a World War II-type of effort to really move the needle on climate — American Recovery and Reinvestment Act times ten or something."

Election 2020

Biden's leading opponents in California have made climate proposals that more closely mirror that wartime scope, led by Sanders' promise of a $16.3 trillion investment.

Biden has pledged $1.7 trillion in spending and wants Congress to pass emissions limits that would drive further private-sector capital toward clean energy. And he says his foreign policy experience makes him well-equipped to bring other nations along in a global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

When the Recovery Act was signed, the concept of climate justice was in its nascent stages. A 2015 study from the International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics at Lund University found that "there is no data that can be used to determine which demographic groups gained most as a result of the Renewable Energy stimulus."

By contrast, the climate plans of the leading Democrats in 2020 all come with a nod to climate justice and promise that economic mobilization in the face of a climate crisis will also address racial and socioeconomic disparities.

"It's one thing to say, 'How do we get photovoltaics commercialized?' " Weisenmiller said. "It's another thing to say, 'How do you make sure that everyone participates in some fashion? How do you make sure that you're really reaching out to our disadvantaged communities?' "

'There's Going to Be Mistakes Made'

Asked about his climate plan, Biden pledged to seize the "opportunity" of climate change to reshape the country's economy.

"We're the only country in the world that’s ever turned great problems into great opportunities," he said.

To make that happen, Biden sounded ready to embrace lessons from the Recovery Act's clean energy investment: political patience and an embrace of risk-taking.

"Some of the experimentation that's going to take place to get us to net zero emissions, there's going to be mistakes made," Biden said. "But that can't turn us back from the commitment."

If climate-focused research and development goes off without a hitch, it likely isn't moving the needle enough, said Weisenmiller.

"You have to really expect some failures to occur," Weisenmiller added. "But if you do enough things, and you have enough successes, you're going to push things forward."