Expansion of clean energy loans is ‘sleeping giant’ of climate bill
By Ivan Penn
Tucked into the Inflation Reduction Act that President Joe Biden signed last week is a major expansion of federal loan programs that could help the fight against climate change by channeling more money to clean energy and converting plants that run on fossil fuels to nuclear or renewable energy.
The law authorizes as much as $350 billion in additional federal loans and loan guarantees for energy and automotive projects and businesses. The money, which will be disbursed by the Energy Department, is in addition to the better-known provisions of the law that offer incentives for the likes of electric cars, solar panels, batteries and heat pumps.
The aid could breathe life into futuristic technologies that banks might find too risky to lend to or into projects that are just short of the money they need to get going.
“This is a sleeping giant in the law and a real gold mine in deploying these resources,” said Dan Reicher, who was an assistant energy secretary in the Clinton administration. “This massive amount being made available is a big deal.”
But like all government efforts to aid industry and advance new technologies, the expansion of the loan authority carries risks for Biden and the Democrats, who passed the bill without any Republican votes. About a decade ago, conservatives seized on the failure of Solyndra, a solar company that had borrowed about $500 million from the Energy Department, to criticize the Obama administration’s climate and energy policies.
Backers of the program have argued that despite defaults like Solyndra, the program has been sustainable overall. Of the $31 billion the department has disbursed, about 40% has been repaid and interest payments in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2021, totaled $533 million — more money than the failed Solyndra loan.
The Energy Department’s loan programs began in 2005 under the George W. Bush administration but expanded significantly in the Obama era. The department provided a crucial loan that helped Tesla expand when it sold only expensive two-door electric sports cars; the company is now the world’s most valuable automaker.
Under the Trump administration, which played down the risks of climate change, the department’s loan office was much less active. The Biden team has been working to change that. Last month, the department said it planned to loan $2.5 billion to General Motors and LG Energy Solution to build electric-car battery factories in Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.
The department’s loan program office is reviewing 77 applications for $80 billion in loans sought before the new climate law was approved. The Inflation Reduction Act will add $100 billion to existing loan programs for financing production of electric vehicles, for instance, and for projects on tribal lands. It will also add up to $250 billion in new loan guarantees and $5 billion to support the costs of loan programs.
“We have established that the private sector wants to use our resources again,” said Jigar Shah, director of the Energy Department’s loan programs office and a former solar energy entrepreneur. “We still have to do a lot of work. We have to identify all the areas that qualify.”
One beneficiary of the new loan money could be the Palisades Power Plant, a nuclear facility on Lake Michigan near Kalamazoo, Michigan, that closed in May. The plant had struggled to compete in the PJM energy market, which serves homes and businesses in 13 states, including Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.
The Biden administration has made nuclear power a focal point of its efforts to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector by 2035. The administration has offered billions of dollars to help existing facilities like the Diablo Canyon Power Plant — a nuclear operation on California’s coast that is set to close by the end of 2025 — stay open longer. It is also backing new technologies like small modular reactors that the industry has long said would be cheaper, safer and easier to build than conventional large nuclear reactors.
The owner of the Palisades facility, Holtec International, said it was reviewing the loan program and other opportunities for its own small reactors as well as bringing the shuttered plant back online.
“There are a number of hurdles to restarting the facility that would need to be bridged,” the company said in a statement, “but we will work with the state, federal government, and a yet to be identified third-party operator to see if this is a viable option.”
In addition to nuclear projects, the loan money could spur development of other clean energy sources, including converting dams that do not produce electricity into new power facilities like those by Rye Development, a company based in West Palm Beach, Florida, that is working on several projects in the Pacific Northwest.
Some researchers and developers are exploring conversion of old fossil fuel plants into clean energy facilities. That could mean using old oil and gas wells for geothermal power; old coal power plants as sites for large batteries; and old coal mines for solar farms. Such conversions could reduce the need to build projects on undeveloped land, which often takes longer because they require extensive environmental review and can face significant local opposition.
“We’re in a heap of trouble in siting the many millions of acres of solar we need,” Reicher said. “It’s 6 to 10 million acres of land we’ve got to find to site the projected build out of utility scale solar in the United States. That’s huge.”
Other developers are hoping the government will help finance technologies and business plans that are still in their infancy.
Timothy Latimer is CEO and co-founder of Fervo Energy, a Houston company that uses the same horizontal drilling techniques as oil and gas producers to develop geothermal energy. He said his firm can produce clean energy 24 hours a day or produce more or less energy over the course of a day to balance out the intermittent nature of wind and solar power and spikes in demand.
Latimer claims that the techniques his firm has developed will lower the cost for geothermal power, which in many cases is more expensive than electricity generated from natural gas or solar panels. He has projects under development in Nevada, Utah, Idaho and California and said the new loan authority could help the geothermal business expand much more quickly.
“It’s been the talk of the geothermal industry,” Latimer said. “I don’t think we were expecting good news a month ago, but we’re getting more ready for prime time. We have barely scratched the surface with the amount of geothermal that we can develop in the United States.”
For all the potential of the new law, critics say a significant expansion of government loans and loan guarantees could invite more waste and fraud. In addition to Solyndra, the Energy Department has acknowledged that several solar projects that received its loans or loan guarantees have failed or never got off the ground.
A large nuclear plant under construction in Georgia, Vogtle, has also received $11.5 billion in federal loan guarantees. The plant has been widely criticized for years of delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns.
“Many of these projects are funded based on political whim rather than project quality,” said Gary Ackerman, founder and former executive director of the Western Power Trading Forum, a coalition of more than 100 utilities and other businesses that trade in energy markets. “That leads to many stranded assets that never live up to their promises and become examples of government waste.”
But Jamie Carlson, who was a senior adviser to the energy secretary during the Obama administration, said the department learned from its mistakes and developed a better approach to reviewing and approving loan applications. It also worked more closely with businesses seeking money to ensure that they were successful.
“It used to be this black box,” said Carlson, who is now an executive at SoftBank Energy. “You just sat in purgatory for like 18 months and sometimes up to two years.”
Carlson said the department’s loans serve a vital function because they can help technologies and companies that have demonstrated some commercial success but need more money to become financially viable. “It’s there to finance technologies that are proven but perhaps to banks that are perceived as more risky,” she said.
Energy executives said they were excited because more federal loans and loan guarantees could turbocharge their plans.
“The projects that can be done will go faster,” said William W. Funderburk Jr., a former commissioner at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power who now runs a water and energy company. “This is a tectonic plate shift for the industry — in a good way.”