The $1.2 trillion in clean energy and infrastructure spending measures pushed by President Joe Biden over the past three years is paying off in more manufacturing and energy jobs in America, especially across the "battery belt" in the Southeast, where new electric vehicle and battery plants are being built, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said during a visit to Chattanooga on Wednesday.
"The South is doing really well in attracting investment as a result of the president's 'Invest in America' agenda," Granholm told reporters after touring the electricians' apprenticeship program offered through the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 175. "We're going to require a million more workers per year for the next 10 years in order to build out this clean energy economy, and where it all starts is here with these apprentices."
Granholm told union members training to become electricians that "you are at the tip of the spear" in the battle to fight climate change and make America energy independent.
The White House has set a goal of making America's electricity grid carbon-free by 2035, which Granholm said is realistic even with the growth in electricity demand as electric vehicles replace gas-powered vehicles.
The Tennessee Valley Authority has set a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050, but at the current pace, the federal utility expects to still get about 20% of its power from natural gas by 2035.
TVA President Jeff Lyash told a congressional committee last week that the federal utility "is going as far and as fast as we can" to limit carbon emissions. But he said TVA will continue to need some natural gas generation to meet peak power demands, especially with electricity usage projected to double by 2050 in the Tennessee Valley due to population and electric vehicle growth.
Granholm said she thinks TVA can do better in cutting its use of fossil fuels to become carbon free by 2035.
"TVA is doing a lot on nuclear power, which is great, and we know there is a long lead time on nuclear," Granholm said in an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "TVA is also very incentivized now to be able to make sure that we get to that clean energy future."
The Inflation Reduction Act and other infrastructure measures have provided 30% tax credits for solar, wind, nuclear and other carbon-free energy investments and extended such tax credits even to government-owned utilities like the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The conversion to carbon-free energy will require new power plants and factories to be built and will phase out traditional oil and gas industries, which some Republican critics claim is pushing up inflation and eliminating many jobs.
But the White House projects the Inflation Reduction Act will bring an estimated $900 million of investment in large-scale clean power generation and storage in Tennessee alone and even more in neighboring Georgia.
"There's a lot of investment in this region in clean energy and a lot of that is made possible because of the president's agenda," Granholm said.
Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said "Chattanooga's future is in green energy technology," and the federal infrastructure incentives are helping propel that growth.
"The future is really, really bright right here because of these investments," Kelly said.
Mitch Landrieu, a former New Orleans mayor who is now a senior advisor on infrastructure spending for the White House, said such investments are helping to build the economy "and you really see this manifested in Tennessee."
"It used to be trickle down, but as the president says, we are building the economy from the bottom up and the middle out for working folks in America," Landrieu told union members during his visit to Chattanooga with Granholm. "This is the most pro-union president we have ever had, and he always says that the middle class built America and the unions built the middle class."
The apprentices training to become electricians, who are paid to learn, will earn an average of $72,000 a year, plus benefits, once they complete their courses, officials said.
Landrieu and Granholm are traveling across Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina this week as part of the "People Powered: Summer Road Trip" to promote Biden's infrastructure spending plan.
"Whether or not you believe in climate change, you must believe in creating jobs in your community and making sure we have home-grown clean energy," Granholm said.