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There’s been a steady flow of states, cities and companies announcing 100 percent clean energy targets lately, including a law signed last week in Washington state and a pledge made Tuesday by a Madison, Wisconsin, utility. The goals are usually decades in the future, so I asked an expert what that means for us today.

I’m Dan Gearino, your guide to the clean energy economy. Send comments and news tips to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org, and thanks for reading.

— Dan

How Meaningful Are States’ 100% Clean Energy Commitments?

When California passed its commitment to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045 last September, I didn’t think it would be trendsetting, at least not right away. After all, there was a multiyear gap between when Hawaii became the first state to adopt this kind of law in 2015 and when California did.

Well, I was wrong. Washington state was the latest to enact similar legislation, and it followed on the heels of New Mexico and Puerto Rico. Clearly, the underlying idea has taken on a life of its own, as reported by my colleague Phil McKenna.

With the policy approaching the mainstream, I am now wondering something more basic: Is this commitment meaningful?

To find some answers, I spoke with Mike Vandenbergh, who teaches environmental and energy law at Vanderbilt Law School.

He told me it makes sense to be skeptical when states pass laws to transform their energy economies but put most of the hardest choices years or decades into the future.

Despite this, he thinks the laws serve an important purpose because they provide a strong signal to companies, especially utilities, about what the future is going to look like.


“All of these are not going to be simple, beautiful, tidy efforts,” he said. “But they signal to utilities that resisting decarbonization is not a viable long-term business strategy, regardless of what the federal government does.”

Underscoring this point, another utility announced plans this week to move to carbon-free electricity. MGE of Wisconsin said it would eliminate fossil fuels from its generation mix by 2050.

“In creating an energy future for our customers and shareholders, we need ambitious and crucial reductions in carbon emissions that align with the work of the scientific community, specifically the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its assessment of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050,” Jeff Keebler, the company’s top executive, said in a statement.

Wisconsin is not one of the nine or so states seriously considering some form of 100 percent clean energy proposal right now. But as the state’s utilities begin to move in that direction, it becomes much easier to see how such a policy would be politically viable.

MGE, which stands for Madison Gas & Electric, has about 150,000 electricity customers and is at least the second Wisconsin utility to make this kind of commitment. Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, which has about 210,000 customers in Wisconsin, announced its 100 percent carbon-free plan in December.

This is not yet a tidal wave of government actions and corporate decisions embracing clean energy, but that wave feels a lot closer than it did just a year ago.
 

Rooftop Solar Gets a Lifeline in South Carolina

Years of contentious debate over solar power in South Carolina has ended in a unanimous vote for a bill dubbed The Energy Freedom Act.

The bill passed both houses of the South Carolina General Assembly last week, with not a single “no” vote, and has now been signed by Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican.

The bill increases the cap on the amount of rooftop solar generation that is eligible for net metering, the policy that allows solar owners to sell excess power to the utility for a credit. The state’s largest utility, Duke Energy, had
hit the 2 percent cap last summer, intensifying the push by consumers and solar advocates for lawmakers to take action. (The 2 percent is rooftop solar’s share of the generation capacity in each utility’s service area.)

The measure also begins the process of changing the rates customers receive for selling excess power. Right now, consumers receive the full retail rate.

The new rate or rates would be set by regulators in a future case, which is similar to what is happening in many states as rooftop solar gets more popular. The results vary substantially but usually lead to a decrease in how much credit solar owners receive.

The South Carolina bill is a compromise among many groups, including the utilities. Solar advocates say this is a big step forward and much better than the alternative of letting the cap remain in place.

“We had a good deliberative process on some pretty groundbreaking clean energy legislation,’’ said Rebecca Haynes, deputy director of Conservation Voters of South Carolina, quoted by The State newspaper. “This saves the rooftop solar industry.’’

(Photo: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
 

Parties Talk Compromise in Ohio Nuclear Bailout

Republicans and Democrats in the Ohio legislature say they are looking to compromise on a proposal that, in its current form, would bail out two nuclear power plants and eliminate state standards for energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Democrats say there would need to be changes, including preserving the renewable energy standards, according to
a report this week by my former paper, The Columbus Dispatch.

Meanwhile, committee hearings continue on the proposal, which would charge utility customers across the state $2.50 per month, with the proceeds going to power plants that are either carbon-free or have made improvements to reduce carbon emissions.

This would raise about $300 million per year, with about half going to the nuclear plants and the rest going to other power plants. These could be renewables or fossil fuels, depending on criteria that would be set at a later date.

I wrote in March about who and what is driving this proposal, and I am watching this one closely.

To better understand what’s happening, I reached out to Thomas Suddes, a journalism professor at Ohio University who previously covered the statehouse for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and still writes a weekly column for the paper.

“I find it interesting that so many Ohio House Republicans are concerned about the environment and carbon emissions,” he said.

He was only being slightly sarcastic. He thinks there is a genuine, and growing, desire by some Republicans to do something to cut harmful emissions. It just so happens that this desire dovetails with the needs of a well-connected company, FirstEnergy Solutions, to get a bailout for its two nuclear plants.


“The exercise of political clout by public utilities in Ohio is an old story,” Suddes said. “Whatever they propose gets a hearing much more than if John Doe or Mary Doe proposes something along those lines.”

But that clout has limits. The bill sought by FirstEnergy Solutions is opposed by oil and gas interests, environmental groups and consumer advocates, among many others.

Because of this opposition, Suddes thinks the House Republican majority will have enough “no” votes within its ranks that it will need support from Democrats to pass.

A compromise, if one is in the offing, will likely come together in the next few weeks.
 

Solar to Be ‘Cheaper than Gas Almost Everywhere’

I’ve written often about forecasts showing the price of utility-scale solar falling below other leading power sources such as natural gas, and how there already are examples of solar being the least expensive option in parts of this country.

Well, here’s where the trend is going, according to Tom Heggarty, senior solar analyst for Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables:

“By 2023, we think solar’s going to be cheaper than gas almost everywhere around the world,” he said, speaking Tuesday at GTM Solar Summit in Phoenix.


Greentech Media wrote about Heggarty’s presentation, including a look at different solar markets and how the drop in prices will lead to tighter profit margins for solar companies.

The trend is striking because 2023 is not far away. The transition to cleaner energy is accelerating, and governments and companies are wise to figure out how to benefit from the shift.

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