Low-Energy Fridays: The Increasingly Expensive Inflation Reduction Act’s First Anniversary
The Biden administration recently marked the first anniversary of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). As is often the case with government programs, authoritative estimates project that the eventual taxpayer cost will be higher than anticipated. In this case, at $1.2 trillion, the projected cost is three times what Congress was told to expect when the bill passed last year.
IRA advocates claim its high cost is worthwhile. But it’s important, especially amid skyrocketing cost projections, to take a hard look at the path we’re on and determine if course corrections are warranted.
First, we must remember that the IRA is climate policy that aims to reduce emissions. It has virtually nothing to do with inflation; the name was political packaging useful in securing a few votes for the bill. As climate policy, the ultimate measure of effectiveness depends on how much greenhouse emissions are reduced and at what cost.
In other words, results outweigh intentions. But because it’s still too soon for results, IRA advocates applaud manufacturing plants announced; jobs reportedly created; electric vehicles to be subsidized; and wind, solar and other clean energy projects to be built. Essentially, proponents are cheering for the resources being used while critics’ concerns about cost-effectiveness are being sidelined.
Let’s examine the purported job creation benefits. According to the White House, the IRA has already created over 170,000 jobs in clean energy manufacturing. But at a time when unemployment rates are historically low, jobs are not being created so much as getting shuffled around. Hiring an electrician to help build a new manufacturing plant likely means that someone else in the community will lose their electrician. Sure, the school district or other employer can hire someone else—but with unemployment rates as low as they are, it will cost a lot or take a long time to find a replacement.
As the law pulls skilled workers into IRA-favored projects, homebuilders, hospitals, school districts and so on will see more vacancies and more unfinished work. The White House doesn’t account for jobs lost in other sectors due to the IRA, but these losses matter too. In fact, the Tax Foundation estimates that the law will result in 29,000 lost jobs on net.
Ultimately, the IRA doesn’t increase the availability of capital—it just encourages investors to push their investments into favored programs and away from the rest. Again, the law will reshuffle resources without any assurance that the net effect will be better.
But here’s another key point: investors were already on board with clean energy. Hundreds of clean energy projects were under development before the IRA was passed, each working its way through regulatory and other hurdles. As an analyst at Resources for the Future observed, “Energy projects take years to get off the ground due to permitting, siting, and availability of materials, among other factors that currently are slowing implementation.”
Since the IRA dangles a bigger carrot in front of investors than earlier subsidies did, we can expect to see a rapid boost in the number of projects mired in regulatory delays. This may result in more money for clean energy projects that would have been built anyway, as well as for lawyers and regulatory specialists trying to squeeze more projects through an already congested permitting and interconnection process. Reforms directed at existing regulatory roadblocks would likely produce faster results at a lower overall cost.
The aforementioned $1.2 trillion estimate was presented by Goldman Sachs to reflect tax revenue forgone by the U.S. government due to IRA subsidies. The higher number reflects Goldman Sachs’ expectation that the IRA will generate much higher interest from investors than anticipated in the earlier analysis. Advocates may say, “Great—more of a good thing!” But remember, more spending is not the goal. Investment uses up resources, but the real measure of climate policy is in reduced emissions.
Given spiraling cost projections and question marks hanging over its efficiency, the IRA demands ongoing scrutiny. We can’t treat the IRA as sacrosanct when the stakes are this high. We owe it to ourselves to study the law’s actual impacts continually and be willing to course correct as needed.