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What the Clean Energy for America Act Gets Right — And How It Can Improve

Originally published on the World Resources Institute.
By John FeldmannDevashree Saha, and Rajat Shrestha 

Under the Biden administration’s infrastructure plan, tax credits for clean energy and technologies are expected to play an important role in achieving a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

The Clean Energy for America Act, introduced by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) in April 2021, takes vital steps toward streamlining the tax code and making clean energy tax credits more effective and accessible. This bill proposes replacing the more than 40 existing clean energy tax credits with three categories of technology-neutral tax credits to incentivize clean electricity, clean transportation and energy efficient homes and commercial buildings.

While this legislation is a step in the right direction, more can be done to improve upon the proposal and existing clean energy tax credits. Doing so would ensure that tax credits reach their full potential as an essential part of the United States’ actions to reduce emissions.

What’s wrong with the existing clean energy tax credits?

As the proposed new legislation points out, existing clean energy tax credits are a patchwork of outdated and intermittently available incentives that do not allow companies and developers sufficient time to plan and develop large-scale projects. It can take many years to plan and obtain permits for large energy projects, but tax credits are routinely extended for only one-year intervals and are often extended retroactively.

The original figure can be found here.

In December 2020, Congress passed temporary extensions for many of the existing clean energy tax credits. However, these extensions are set to expire within the next few years. Similar short-term extensions have historically led to boom and bust cycles of clean energy technologies, and this sputtering progress will not get the United States to 50% emission reductions by 2030.

Existing tax credits are also inaccessible to many Americans who need them. For instance, the electric vehicle (EV) tax credit is not available at the point of sale; taxpayers must wait until after filing taxes in order to receive the credit. Additionally, this tax credit is non-refundable, which prevents the taxpayer from fully claiming the credit if they do not owe more federal taxes than the credit is worth. There is also a cap on the number of vehicles that can qualify for the tax credit from each manufacturer, which disincentivizes electric vehicle production from industry leaders like Tesla and General Motors.

The current energy efficiency tax credits for residential and commercial buildings are also non-refundable, leaving many building owners unable to access them. Furthermore, residential energy efficiency tax credits use 2007 building standards, which are severely outdated, and numerous one- or two-year extensions of the credit have led to continued uncertainty among developers. These issues stifle innovation and deployment of new technologies.

The original figure can be found here.

Finally, the major clean energy tax credits in the power sector — the investment tax credit (ITC) and production tax credit (PTC) — have mostly been claimed by solar and wind technologies, while other renewable energy generation and storage technologies, such as geothermal, storage and green hydrogen, are unable to take advantage of them.

What does the Clean Energy for America Act do?

The Clean Energy for America Act addresses many shortcomings in the current tax credit regime.

First, it extends the availability of the credits for many years and provides clear phaseout criteria. This means that companies will be able to innovate and develop new technologies, and developers can plan long-term projects with confidence that tax credits will be available for years to come. Under the proposed legislation, power sector credits will phase out over a period of five years after the sector’s emissions fall 75% from 2021 levels. In the transportation sector, clean fuel tax credits will phase out after the sector’s emissions fall 75% from 2019 levels, and electric vehicle tax credits would phase out when EV sales reach 50% of annual new vehicle sales.

The EV tax credit is made refundable, and the per-manufacturer cap is removed. Commercial operators are able to claim a 30% tax credit on EV purchases of all vehicle classes, which would boost EV medium- and heavy-duty vehicle sales. Clean fuel producers are eligible to receive a tax credit if the fuel life cycle emissions are at least 25% lower than the average. This emissions requirement would increase over time starting in 2026.

In the power sector, tax credits are extended to all power generation technologies if the facility has zero greenhouse gas emissions. Improvements to the transmission grid that are vital to modernizing the sector, including energy storage and high voltage transmission, are also eligible for the new tax incentives. Homeowners installing zero emission energy generation technologies would be eligible for a 30% investment tax credit, as well.

The proposed legislation also updates building efficiency standards, using the latest nationally recognized standards for residential and commercial buildings. In the industrial sector, incentive levels for direct air capture (DAC) are increased to $175/ton CO2 from the current level of approximately $30/ton CO2. This recognizes the importance that DAC will play in reaching net-zero emission targets and its ability to reduce emissions in hard-to-abate sectors.

The bill also requires project developers to pay wages that meet or exceed prevailing local rates and utilize registered apprenticeship programs to qualify for the credits. Furthermore, investments qualifying for clean electricity, energy storage and transmission credits located in low-income areas would receive higher incentives.

Finally, the new bill eliminates all preferential tax subsidies for fossil fuel exploration and drilling costs. This is a crucial step in shifting away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy.

How can the Clean Energy for America Act be improved?

While the Clean Energy for America Act vastly upgrades the existing clean energy tax credits, there are a few ways that it could be improved.

First, making the EV tax credit refundable in the form of a direct payment to the taxpayer or a rebate at the point of sale — the preferred forms of refundability — would ensure the greatest level of availability for individual and corporate taxpayers and would drive greater adoption of zero-emission vehicles. In addition to tax credits, providing support for the used vehicle market through subsidized financing, supporting charging infrastructure, and extending battery warranties would make EVs affordable for more Americans.

The existing EV tax credit has been criticized for mostly helping taxpayers in higher income brackets who can afford more expensive EVs. Therefore, introducing a vehicle price cap, above which the vehicle would not qualify for the EV tax credit, would prevent luxury car buyers from claiming the credit. This would also incentivize manufacturers to make EVs more affordable.

Electric heat pumps — which run on electricity and use heat from the environment to heat a home — are a crucial technology for decarbonizing buildings, but high upfront costs, including electrical upgrade costs, pose a significant barrier to homeowners, particularly when compared to natural gas heaters. Increasing the credit amount for air-source heat pumps substantially from the proposed $800 would go a long way in enabling faster adoption of this technology. As heat pumps catch on, and as manufacturers achieve economies of scale, heat pumps are likely to become more cost-effective. The tax credit can be scaled back once this happens.

In the industrial sector, decarbonizing heating processes is essential to reducing emissions. Therefore, a tax credit aimed at electrifying low- and medium-temperature heating processes, as well as using waste biomass and hydrogen in high-temperature heating processes, would provide incentives for companies to start adopting these technologies. This would drive emissions down in these carbon intensive processes. Reintroducing investment tax credits for low-carbon manufacturing — for example, bringing back the 48C manufacturing tax credit, which was first passed in 2009 and offered tax credits for the production of clean technologies and expanding it to include low-emissions hydrogencement, steel and ammonia production — could help drive enormous emission reductions in the industrial sector. Doing so would also spur domestic clean energy manufacturing across the country.

While the proposed bill extends the existing credit for DAC and increases its incentive levels, it eliminates the credit for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) storage projects. Keeping the credit available for EOR storage in the near term is critical to enabling the storage technologies of the future.

The bipartisan Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage Tax Credit Amendments Act, which was recently introduced in the Senate, would enhance the carbon capture credit for geologic storage in both saline formations and oil and gas fields. This is critical to scaling technical carbon dioxide removal and achieving the atmospheric reductions in CO2 essential to achieving United States and global climate goals.

Finally, while the proposed phaseout criteria provide clear, long-term guidance for developers and innovators, the inclusion of additional criteria could avoid locking-in suboptimal technologies and unnecessary and inefficient tax expenditures. Tax credits should be seen as one tool in the federal decarbonization toolbox that can bridge the cost differential between established fossil fuel technologies and emerging cleaner technologies, enabling the latter to gain a foothold in the market.

To that end, tax credits should be paired with other policies to address the myriad of challenges facing the faster deployment of various low-carbon technologies. Therefore, phaseout criteria should contain provisions that reduce or eliminate tax credit incentives when more effective and efficient policies are implemented, such as sector- or economy-wide decarbonization policies like a clean energy standard or a carbon tax.

Realizing the Full Decarbonization Potential of Tax Credits

Advancing a portfolio of policy options is critical if the United States is to achieve its decarbonization goals. Tax credits are a crucial policy tool in incentivizing innovation and deployment of clean energy and low-carbon technologies. It is past time to reform the outdated tax code and provide durable, predictable, and more effective federal support for low-carbon technologies. The Clean Energy for America Act is a much-needed step in this direction. With some improvements, this legislation would provide critical support for clean energy and technologies that are essential for U.S. climate goals and provide an equitable and clean energy future for all Americans.


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