Jenkins Says New Policies Provide Huge Opportunities for Climate Progress
By Donald Gilpin
“This is a game-changing piece of legislation,” said Princeton University Professor Jesse Jenkins, discussing the impact of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 with a September 12 lunchtime gathering in the University’s Wallace Hall.
“For the first time in our history, the full financial weight of the federal government is behind the clean energy transition,” he said. “This has never been the case before. I’m very excited to share the impacts of the Inflation Reduction Act that we have been able to estimate with our modeling.”
Jenkins, who frequently delivers testimony to congressional committees and whose research is regularly featured in major media outlets, went on to explain in detail why this recent legislation will be transforming the nation’s push for cleaner energy and a net-zero greenhouse emissions economy.
Jenkins leads Princeton University’s REPEAT Project (repeatproject.org), which provides timely independent environmental and economic evaluation of federal energy and climate policies, and he was a principal investigator and lead author of Princeton’s Net-Zero America study. Jenkins recently served on the National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine expert committee on Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy System.
He also regularly provides technical analysis and policy advice for nonprofit organizations, policy makers, investors, and technology ventures working towards the deployment of clean energy.
In the past there have been sporadic tax credits for particular technologies, a failed attempt in 2010 to enact a large cap-and-trade bill, piecemeal efforts by the states, voluntary actions by universities and institutions and companies, and a number of states, including New Jersey, pushing to accelerate the clean energy transition. “But the federal government has been out to lunch for the most part,” said Jenkins. “They have not been part of it, but that changes fundamentally with the passage of this law.”
The main focus of the Inflation Reduction Act, he said, is that “it tries to make clean energy cheap. It tries to make it cheaper than the conventional fossil fuel alternatives.”
It offers carrots rather than sticks, he explained. In contrast to carbon taxes or emission regulations that try to raise the cost of fossil fuels or limit their use, “The explicit focus of this bill is to make it a better business decision, to make it a better household financial decision for you and me and all the businesses across the country to pick cleaner options, whether that’s a utility trying to decide what kind of electricity it wants to purchase in the future, or Amazon or Avis car rental with some fleet manager trying to decide what kind of vehicles to buy, or you and I deciding how we want to heat our homes or what kind of vehicle we want to use to get around the community,” said Jenkins.
Tax credits, grants, rebates, loans, and other financial incentives all help to make clean energy and other climate solutions cheap. “There is a variety of financial incentives that put their thumb on the scale for the clean energy option,” he added.
An assistant professor and macro-scale energy systems engineer at Princeton with a joint appointment in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment, Jenkins leads the Princeton ZERO Lab (Zero-carbon Energy Systems Research and Optimization Laboratory), which focuses on evaluating low-carbon energy technologies, guiding investment and research in innovative energy technologies, and improving energy and climate policy and planning decisions. He earned his Ph.D. from M.I.T., worked as a postdoctoral environmental fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and spent six years as an energy and climate policy analyst before coming to Princeton in 2019.
Jenkins went on to point out attributes of the recently enacted legislation that will help to keep the new provisions in place. “This should not be the last policy that we implement, but we also don’t want it to be repealed if there’s a change in congressional make-up,” he said.
The new policy provides tangible economic benefits to communities across the country. “It’s about avoiding future climate damage, but also about delivering a better country,” he said, “delivering cleaner energy, manufacturing jobs across the country, driving investment into communities that need it, and addressing environmental concerns.”
Among the many details of the bill is funding for demonstration and improvement of new technologies and industrial policies that will build U.S. supply chains to manufacture components for solar photovoltaics and wind turbines, batteries, and electric vehicles.
Jenkins added that the bill could help to create “hundreds of thousands, probably a couple of million” new jobs in manufacturing across the country, and in terms of environmental justice, the bill directs more than $60 billion to specifically reduce emissions and pollution in “environmentally overburdened communities,” those communities near polluting facilities or next to highways or other heavily polluting areas that are suffering the effects of the current fossil energy system.
There are also incentives in the bill that are intended to channel investments into traditional fossil energy-producing parts of the country, with a substantial bonus for investing in those areas, to help those communities gain a more direct and clear economic stake in clean energy systems.
“The bill is designed to deliver broad benefits in order to build and sustain a political coalition that will make future actions easier and hopefully make repeal of all of these changes much more difficult,” said Jenkins.
Other anticipated advantages of the new legislation, Jenkins noted, include inflation reduction, especially in the crucial areas of health care and energy; a boost to the drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero; and a substantial improvement in air quality that could help to avoid about 35,000 premature deaths in the first 10 years of the law.
These policies, Jenkins added, are paid for by a corporate minimum tax and higher IRS enforcement on tax cheats. “In a nutshell, billion dollar corporations and tax cheats pay more in taxes for all of us to get cheaper, cleaner energy,” he said. “Sounds like a good deal to me. I’m pretty excited about it, and I hope you are too. This is a big piece of legislation.”