Inside Clean Energy: Not a Great Election Year for Renewable Energy, but There’s Reason for Optimism

The pandemic and the presidential race were, as one advocate put it, the “giant elephants in your face.” But there’s an undercurrent of support for clean energy.

Nov 5, 2020
Many Photovoltaik solar panels arranged as part of a solar powerplant. Credit: Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images

Many Photovoltaik solar panels arranged as part of a solar powerplant. Credit: Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images

Inside Clean Energy

For clean energy advocates who vividly recall breakthrough state elections across the country in 2018, this week felt like a letdown.

The results included small successes for renewable energy, like a constitutional amendment in Nevada requiring 50 percent renewable energy by 2030, and a ballot measure in Columbus, Ohio, that sets up a system for buying 100 percent renewable energy for residents.

But there was nothing nearly as big as the 2018 election of Democratic governors in seven states that previously had been led by Republicans (Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, Maine and Wisconsin) and the shift to Democratic control of legislative chambers in some states, changes that set the stage for landmark energy legislation in several of the states.

 

And this year, everything was overshadowed by the presidential race and the fight to contain the coronavirus.

"There's not a lot of oxygen left in the room with a singular focus on Covid and pro- and anti-Trump dynamic," said Adam Browning, co-founder and executive director of Vote Solar, an advocacy group.

"We're just at a moment in time right now when there are so many giant elephants in front of your face that it's hard to really get nuance and details about the path forward on a lot of things," he said.

But if we look beyond those immediate concerns, there is reason to be optimistic that states will soon resume making progress in passing laws that support a transition to clean energy.

Six states (California, Hawaii, New Mexico, New York, Virginia and Washington), plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., have passed laws requiring a transition to 100 percent carbon-free or renewable energy. Maine and Nevada also passed bills that, while not explicitly requiring that transition, set goals of getting to 100 percent renewables.

Map: The '100 Percent' Club

All the states have passed the laws since 2018, with the exception of Hawaii, whose law has been on the books since 2015. This shows clear momentum.

One of my big questions is which states will be next. Some of the possibilities are  Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

But there is little appetite to focus on energy issues when states are dealing with the ramifications of the pandemic, which is one reason that there was little discussion of energy in many of the races that were decided this week.

"This is an existential, personality-based election, and I think that energy has unfortunately taken a back seat," Nick Hylla, executive director of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, an advocacy group based in rural central Wisconsin.

He and Browning each said there is an undercurrent of rising support for renewable energy and candidates who understand energy issues, even if this didn't lead to any major breakthroughs in the election.

Note that I didn't list Minnesota among the states that are most likely to seriously consider major clean energy legislation, which I might have done before the election.

Minnesota Democrats, who already control the state's governor's office and the House, were confident that they were going to pick up enough seats this week to gain control of the state Senate. But it looks like Republicans will narrowly retain control while also reducing Democrats' majority in the House.

If Democrats had won control of the Senate, Gov. Tim Walz likely would have had a wide berth to implement his energy agenda, which includes wanting to pass a bill requiring 100 percent carbon-free electricity.

Now the state is more likely to continue on its current path, which is passing more modest measures to advance clean energy with support from Republicans.

"What we're likely to see on climate and energy are some incremental steps," said Annie Levenson-Falk, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota, a consumer advocacy group. "I don't think the '100 percent' legislation is going to move forward through a Republican Senate."

The situation shows why many Democrats and clean energy advocates are disappointed this week, not because they feel as if progress is being lost, but because they had high hopes that they were on the cusp of much more rapid progress.

Looking Way Down the Ballot in Arizona at an Important Clean Energy Race

While most people were closely watching Arizona's votes for the president and the U.S. Senate, I was taking occasional glances at the races for three seats on the Arizona Corporation Commission, the panel that sets the state's utility policies and rates.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Republicans were in the lead to win two of the three seats on the commission, which would give the party a 3-2 majority that would play a key role in determining how Arizona utilities make the transition away from fossil fuels.

Rooftop solar panels are seen in Mesa, Arizona. Credit: Bruce Gifford/Getty Images

Rooftop solar panels are seen in Mesa, Arizona. Credit: Bruce Gifford/Getty Images

Before I go on, I want to make clear that partisan differences do not determine how an official will vote on energy issues. There are plenty of Republicans who support clean energy policies, including two of the current members of the commission who are leaving office, as Ryan Randazzo reports in The Arizona Republic. But, in most of the country, Democrats are much more likely to support a transition to clean energy.

One of the Republican candidates for the open seats, Jim O'Connor, has said he would vote to reverse a recent commission decision to increase renewable energy and require a transition to 100 percent carbon-free electricity. He had a narrow lead over Democrat Bill Mundell, who supports the clean energy requirement, which could tip the commission against the rule. (I didn't include Arizona in my list of states with '100 percent' laws because the state's action was in the form of a regulatory order, which is often easier to reverse than a law.)

Once the results are clearer, we'll know the potential major ramifications for Arizona, which has some of the brightest sunlight in the country and a thriving solar industry.

Columbus Chooses Renewable Energy in a State Going the Other Direction 

Voters in Columbus, Ohio, where I live, overwhelmingly supported a ballot measure this week that says the city government will get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2023.

With a 76 percent to 24 percent majority as of Wednesday afternoon, voters are giving the city the ability to use the bulk-buying heft of its population of more than 900,000 residents to negotiate a deal with an energy supplier. The supplier would provide renewable energy at a price that is the same or less than customers would otherwise pay from the utility.

In this case, the utility isn't really losing any business. Most of Columbus is served by American Electric Power, which is based in the city. The city government has already selected AEP Energy, a subsidiary of the utility, to be the electricity supplier.

"It's good for the environment, it's good for jobs, it's good for the rate payers," said City Councilman Rob Dorans, who ushered the plan through the council to get it placed on the ballot, as quoted by The Columbus Dispatch. "Voters have recognized the unique opportunity on all those fronts."

Columbus' plan will be one of the largest bulk-buying clean energy programs in the country. It shows how city governments can take actions to expand the use of clean energy, even if they are in states, like Ohio, that are not leaders in developing wind, solar or other renewables.

Ohio is going through a bribery scandal tied to the Ohio General Assembly's passage of a bill last year that subsidized nuclear and coal power and got rid of requirements for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Despite the stink of the scandal—which has included indictments and guilty pleas and the recent firing of the CEO of the utility FirstEnergy—Ohio voters decided this week to re-elect the lawmakers who supported the bill, including the indicted former House Speaker Larry Householder.

Some of the people campaigning for Columbus' clean energy plan said it was an important counterweight to what's happening at the Statehouse, which is just a few blocks from Columbus City Hall.

Inside Clean Energy is ICN's weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org.

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