Paper plates and school buses: What you might have missed in Biden's infrastructure plan

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By now, the eye-popping top lines and major provisions of President Joe Biden’s "Build Back Better" proposal are everywhere, a $2.5 trillion investment in electric vehicles and physical transportation infrastructure, home care services and housing, the electric grid and water pipes.

But when you’re spending that kind of money, and have a definition of infrastructure that includes everything including the kitchen sink, there’s room to fund all sorts of under-the-radar policies — everything from electrifying the humble yellow school bus to eliminating paper plates in school kitchens. We dove into just a few interesting nuggets thrown into the massive package.

Electrify everything

Biden has made it plain since his campaign days that he wanted to make a major push to herd the country toward electric vehicles as part of his climate goals. And while the ultimate goal is to transition consumers and businesses to clean-burning vehicles, the most impactful, least publicized part of that push may come from things that are ubiquitous in neighborhoods across America: the humble yellow school bus and the U.S. Postal Service’s easy-to-spot delivery trucks. The USPS alone could be a game-changer, with a delivery mandate that stretches from the biggest urban metroplexes to the smallest rural hamlets.


The administration’s plan calls for electrifying at least a fifth of U.S. school buses out of a fleet of nearly 500,000, through a new EPA grant program. A 2019 report by the US PIRG Education Fund found that converting school buses to electric would cut emissions by 5.3 million tons, which would be the equivalent of taking about a million cars off the road. And, if the initial cost of replacement can be overcome, electric fleets could save school districts significant money on fuel costs.

The plan also calls for converting the entire fleet of federal vehicles to electric, a force of almost 650,000 — including delivery trucks for the USPS, which as it happens just embarked on a massive new (and controversial) procurement effort, though only 10 percent of those were envisioned to be electric.

Beyond visibility, the investments needed to seed school districts and USPS facilities throughout the nation with the infrastructure to sustain a fleet could help spur broader adoption beyond just major cities.

Education nation

Beyond school buses, the proposal also says funds will be used to help school districts cut down on disposable products in its lunchrooms. The potential impact is stark: The middle schools of Minnetonka, Minn., ditched disposable utensils and bowls and ended up saving $23,000 over three years, prevented over three tons of trash, and saved on water.

Biden’s proposal calls for all sorts of investments in schools and education, including higher education. One pot of money that has attracted less attention: a call for a $10 billion investment into research and development at historically black colleges and universities, plus $15 billion more for creating centers of excellence at HBCUs.

New federal offices

The proposal also contains a staggering $50 billion over eight years to create an office within the Commerce Department to oversee the nation’s critical supply chains, whose vulnerabilities have been exposed during the coronavirus pandemic. To give a sense of the scope of this office, which has yet to be defined beyond those broad contours, the entire Commerce Department’s most recently enacted budget was just $9 billion, and its largest division, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, made up $5.4 billion of that total.

The White House did not provide details on how the money would be spent, but noted the office would be "dedicated to monitoring domestic industrial capacity and funding investments to support production of critical goods."

It also calls for the creation of a Grid Deployment Authority housed within the Energy Department, in a bid to modernize grid infrastructure. The White House anticipates it would allow existing rights-of-way along roads and railways to be better leveraged, and would support "creative financing tools to spur additional high priority, high-voltage transmission lines."

Broaden broadband

One $100-billion plank of Biden’s plan is devoted to closing the digital divide. And not only is Biden staking out plans to extend broadband access to underserved parts of the country, he’s also aggressively targeting what his administration calls “overpriced” broadband offerings within the U.S. compared to other countries.

The Biden plan questions the wisdom of a U.S. telecom marketplace dominated by the private sector and whether these profit-driven companies truly have American consumers’ best interests at heart. His emphasis on billing prices marks a departure from many traditional broadband subsidy proposals in recent years.

“And when I say affordable, I mean it,” Biden remarked in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. “Americans pay too much for Internet service.”

The White House’s proposed $100 billion would squeeze commercial internet providers like Comcast and AT&T by prioritizing the handout of these federal buildout subsidies for other entities like local governments and nonprofits. And Biden wants to mandate that broadband providers are more open about what they charge customers.


Computing power to boost the Pentagon

Biden’s plan calls for investing $180 billion in research and development, including in emerging technologies that the Pentagon is attempting to harness as it trains its sights on countering military gains made by China in recent decades.

The blueprint recommends $50 billion for the National Science Foundation to focus on emerging fields such as semiconductors, advanced computing, biotechnology and advanced energy technology. Biden’s plan also proposes investments in other technologies the Pentagon is aiming to target, including artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

Tinkering with tax credits

Biden proposed extending by 10 years the current investment tax credit, which boosts solar and storage projects, and the production tax credit, which subsidizes wind power. As part of the plan, Biden backed expanding the credits to include a direct pay option, as well as tie those breaks to strong labor standards.

The extension of the credits has been a top priority for the renewable energy industry, which points to them for growing the industry by providing consistency and certainty for projects that often have lengthy development timelines.

A White House fact sheet also suggested investing in decarbonized hydrogen demonstration projects in distressed communities with a new production tax credit that can spur capital-project retrofits and installations. Biden’s plan also calls for expanding the so-called 45Q tax credit that is accessed by projects that capture and store carbon dioxide, in order to make it easier to use for industrial applications, direct air capture and retrofits of existing power plants.

The president’s plan also supports extending the advanced energy manufacturing tax credit, known as 48C. Taken together, the credits suggest a push by the Biden administration to use the tax code to incentivize a shift to clean energy technologies as part of its overall goal to eliminate carbon pollution from the power sector by 2035.

Lorraine Woellert, John Hendel, Steven Overly, Michael Stratford, Connor O’Brien and Kelsey Tamborrino contributed to this report.

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