Inside Clean Energy: Here’s What the 2021 Elections Tell Us About the Politics of Clean Energy

Candidates who talked about clean energy had a big loss in Virginia, but won in some notable city races.

City Councilor Michelle Wu celebrates winning the election to become Mayor of the City of Boston on Nov. 2, 2021. Credit: Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

City Councilor Michelle Wu celebrates winning the election to become Mayor of the City of Boston on Nov. 2, 2021. Credit: Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

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Clean energy advocates couldn’t help but feel uneasy as the city and state election returns came in last week.

Virginia, a state that has been a national leader in addressing climate change, made a big swerve when its voters chose Glenn Youngkin, the Republican gubernatorial candidate who has said he would not have signed the state’s landmark 2020 clean energy law.

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who has embraced renewable energy, barely won re-election in a race that was closer than polls had predicted.

Those two contests, the only governor’s races in this odd-year election, indicate that the Democrats may be in for a rough 2022 when all of the U.S. House, 34 seats in the U.S. Senate and 36 governors will be on the midterms ballot.

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But beyond the statewide results, clean energy advocates had reason to celebrate because of city candidates who emphasized clean energy and climate change more than before, and won.

One example is Michelle Wu, who was elected mayor of Boston following a campaign in which she emphasized environmental justice, sustainable transit and the need to cut carbon emissions across the economy.

“Boston is ready to become a Green New Deal city,” Wu said in her victory speech on Tuesday.

Pete Maysmith, senior vice president of campaigns for the League of Conservation Voters, said the tone for this year’s campaigns ended up being set by the Biden Administration’s difficulties in passing its agenda through a closely divided Congress.

“One key lesson is that voters want to see results and progress,” he said. “While there’s been some progress out of Washington, there needs to be more.”

Among the highlights of the election, he pointed to Wu’s win in Boston.

And, Justin Bibb was elected mayor of Cleveland following a campaign in which he vowed to move the city-owned electricity utility to suppliers that would provide clean energy, which would be a shift from relying heavily on coal.

“That’s a big deal in the industrial Midwest,” Maysmith said.

Another notable race was for New York mayor, although it’s not clear whether Mayor-elect Eric Adams intends to make climate and clean energy major parts of his agenda.

Cities and states have taken substantial actions on climate and clean energy in the last few years, and this election was the first time that some of the officials and parties involved have had to face voters.

That did not work out well in the Virginia election, a race that my colleague James Bruggers covered for ICN. Gov. Ralph Northam, the Democrat who signed the 2020 energy law, was not on the ballot, but the Democrat who was, Terry McAuliffe, was also a clean energy proponent.

However, Gov.-elect Youngkin is limited in the extent to which he can undo existing energy laws because Democrats still control the Virginia Senate. 

“The Virginia election starkly reminds us that we can’t afford to leave any state behind, whether they are red, blue, or purple,” said Jeremy Symons, a consultant to environmental nonprofits who is based in Arlington, Virginia.

But Symons said he also has some hope that Youngkin might recognize the economic importance of clean energy, perhaps taking inspiration from the Republican governor next door, Maryland’s Larry Hogan, who has been a leader on clean energy.

“Elections matter and there is reason to be alarmed, but no governor can afford to ignore the economic engine that clean energy has become, and we have to find a way to turn this into an opportunity,” Symons said.

It’s also important to note that climate and clean energy were not leading issues in a race that turned on questions about the economy and schools.

Another city I was watching was Des Moines, Iowa, where the city council in January set a goal of getting to around-the-clock carbon-free electricity by 2035, a standard that has been adopted by companies like Google but is still a new frontier for most local governments.

The region’s utility, MidAmerican Energy, had warned that the plan could lead to rate increases and concerns about reliability.

Voters responded by re-electing Josh Mandelbaum, the city council member who was one of the leading backers of the plan. Rather than try to downplay his record on environmental issues, he campaigned on them.

“One of the things I’m most proud of are the actions we’ve taken from a sustainability and climate perspective,” he told me. “I ran very hard on those issues, made sure that voters knew about it, and they were issues that resonated with voters.”

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Maysmith is looking ahead to 2022 and is hoping that Democrats—who are much more likely to support clean energy and climate action than Republicans—can pass more of their agenda in the coming months, and can learn how to effectively talk about the benefits of that agenda.

“Voters want to know how their lives are going to be improved, how the problems that they’re seeing are going to be addressed,” he said.

Days after the election, and perhaps prodded by the concerning results, the U.S. House passed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that had been stuck for months in a dispute between liberal and moderate Democrats. The bill contains $80 billion in energy-related funding, including money for EV charging and interstate power lines.

The two factions within the party also seemed to come closer to an agreement on a nearly $2 trillion spending bill that contains funding for social programs, plus more than $500 billion for climate and clean energy programs. It would be a landmark, even though many of its energy provisions have been reduced or scrapped during months of difficult negotiations.

Maysmith said the best thing Democrats can do to help themselves in 2022, and help the climate, is to pass the spending bill as soon as possible, and then talk about its benefits nonstop.


Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week:

Congress Passed the Infrastructure Bill. Here’s What It Includes: The $1.2 trillion spending package has money for the kinds of energy projects that can draw bipartisan support, including nuclear, carbon capture, EV charging and improvements to the grid. Jeff St. John of Canary Media has a rundown of the energy provisions and some of the reaction to the bill’s passage.

Global Automakers Sign Pledge to Stop Selling Gasoline Vehicles by 2040: Ford and General Motors are among the automakers that are part of an agreement to stop selling gasoline vehicles by 2040. The pledge, announced at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, also includes Volvo, Daimler and China’s BYD, among others. But it doesn’t include some heavyweights like the top two companies in global sales, Toyota and Volkswagen, as Simon Jessop, William James and Nick Carey report for Reuters. India’s leaders were among the national groups that signed onto the agreement, but the leaders of other leading automotive markets did not, including China, Germany, Japan and the United States.

A Huge Solar Farm Coming to Indiana: Doral Renewables of Israel is developing what Indiana officials say will be the largest solar farm in the United States. The project, called Mammoth Solar, would cover 13,000 acres of Northwest Indiana farmland, with several sections that would total to more than 1 gigawatt of capacity. “If we need to be known for something, I don’t mind being known as the solar capital of Indiana and beyond,” said Lisa Dan, executive director of the county economic development office, in a story by Sarah Bowman of The Indianapolis Star. Northwest Indiana is a desirable location for the project because the region is on the border of two major grid regions, and power plants can sell their electricity in either region.

World’s Biggest Brickmaker Cuts Emissions and Boosts Profits: Wienerberger AG of Austria, the world’s leading brick manufacturer, says it has increased profits through measures that reduced energy use and emissions. The company’s CEO said the accomplishment is relevant for delegates at the COP26 climate summit who want to cut emissions and maintain economic vitality, according to Jonathan Tirone of Bloomberg Green

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.