Inside Clean Energy: Here Are 5 States that Took Leaps on Clean Energy Policy in 2021

While federal policy fell short of expectations, many states had high ambitions and delivered results.

Power lines and power generating windmills rise above the rural landscape on June 13, 2018 near Dwight, Illinois. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Power lines and power generating windmills rise above the rural landscape on June 13, 2018 near Dwight, Illinois. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

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It’s understandable if people are feeling dour during this unseasonably warm December when, once again, the U.S. Congress has failed to pass major climate legislation.

But while the federal government might have failed in pushing through the Build Back Better bill, with its many climate provisions, 2021 has seen some long-awaited successes in the states.

Five states (Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon, North Carolina and Rhode Island) passed laws requiring a shift to 100 percent carbon-free electricity or net-zero emissions. And Washington State passed a law that takes steps to implement its 2019 and 2020 climate and clean energy laws.

Several other states moved forward, even if they didn’t pass their own versions of “100 percent” laws. Colorado and Maryland are examples of states that are making progress on climate and clean energy through a series of smaller, targeted actions, rather than swinging for the fences on single pieces of legislation.

Expanding the '100 Percent' Club

Sarah Steinberg, a principal at the trade group Advanced Energy Economy, told me that 2021 might be the biggest year she’s seen for significant clean energy legislation at the state level.

“A lot of these states have been gearing up to pass something for a long time,” she said.

This was especially true in Massachusetts and Illinois, where bill-signing ceremonies this year were preceded by years of false starts and disappointment before lawmakers were finally able to come to agreement.

Here are the states and their legislation:

Massachusetts, Senate Bill 9, signed on March 26: The law requires the state to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, with interim targets in 2030 and 2040 to make sure the state is making adequate progress. Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed this after having vetoed a previous version because of concerns about costs and the potential effects on the housing industry. The Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, worked with the governor to come up with the version that he signed.

Rhode Island, House Bill 5445, signed on April 10: Like the Massachusetts law, this one in neighboring Rhode Island requires the state to reach net-zero emissions across the economy by 2050. But this law is lighter on specifics than the one in Massachusetts, and some environmental advocates are frustrated that the state will need to wait until 2025 for a newly created state panel to release its plan for how to get to net-zero.

Oregon, House Bill 2021, signed on July 27: The law requires the state’s two largest utilities to get to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040. “We will reduce carbon emissions,” said Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, at a signing ceremony. “And we will make sure the economic, environmental and health benefits of our clean energy economy reach all Oregonians, especially those who have been disproportionately impacted by climate change and pollution.”

Illinois, Senate Bill 2408, signed on Sept. 15: After years of trying to pass something and coming up short, Illinois became the first Midwestern state to require a transition to 100 percent carbon-free electricity. The law is notable for provisions that try to make this an equitable transition, with programs aimed at making sure that low-income communities and communities of color get a share of the benefits of clean energy.

North Carolina, House Bill 951, signed on Oct. 13: North Carolina is now the first state in the South to require a transition to 100 percent carbon-free electricity, part of a bill that mostly deals with electricity rates and regulations but also has some climate and clean energy provisions. Critics of the law say it is a giveaway to the state’s largest utility, Duke Energy, giving the company leeway for rate increases. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, insisted that the Republican-controlled Legislature include the clean energy provisions, which turned this utility regulation bill into something much more substantial.

The law passed in Washington is in a different category, but it’s a big deal. Washington passed its requirement for 100 percent carbon-free electricity in 2019 and followed up in 2020 with a law requiring an economy-wide cut in emissions. This year, Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, took the next step by signing Senate Bill 5126 to create a carbon trading program that cuts emissions. Washington’s succession of laws show how the state is doing the heavy lifting to make sure that its climate requirements can be achieved.

Steinberg pointed to Oregon and Washington as national leaders in taking a comprehensive approach to climate and clean energy. She wrote about those two states and many others in an incredibly detailed blog post about state legislative actions in 2021.

Greg Cunningham, director of the climate and clean energy program at the Conservation Law Foundation in Massachusetts, has been pleased to see that the struggles to pass major legislation have ended in success in many places.

“I would say that the last two years there has been more activity than I’ve seen in my 15 years of doing this,” he said.

He sees many of the actions as drawing inspiration from California’s Senate Bill 100, a 2018 law that requires a transition to 100 percent carbon-free energy, and then translating its ideas into what is appropriate and politically feasible in different regions.

As each state passes something, it creates different kinds of momentum. For example, Illinois showed what a Midwest-flavored clean energy law looks like, which could inspire actions in Minnesota, if Democrats are able to gain control of the Legislature and retain control of the governor’s office in 2022.

But I’m not expecting many, if any, significant state energy laws in 2022. Most of the states that were primed to pass major legislation have now done so and lawmakers tend to do most of their heavy lifting on energy policy in odd-numbered years.

State action is not an antidote to federal inaction, but it helps. About one-third of the country’s population lives in states that have laws requiring a transition to 100 percent carbon-free electricity, 100 percent renewable electricity or net-zero emissions. Those 11 states are California, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington. Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico also have “100 percent” laws.

If we expand the criteria to include states that have clean energy goals, as opposed to requirements (including Nevada and Maine) and states that took action through executive orders or regulatory actions rather than laws (including Minnesota and New Jersey, among others), then the total is more than 40 percent of the country’s population.

That’s a lot, considering that none of those laws was on the books at the beginning of 2015, the year Hawaii got things started with its renewable energy law.

Thank you for reading. This is the last Inside Clean Energy of the year. I’m going to recharge and will see everyone again in January.

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

EV Stocks Tumble After Manchin Rejects Biden’s Climate and Social Plan: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), said on Sunday that he wouldn’t support the Build Back Better legislation that would have been the most substantial federal climate action in a generation. Among the many ramifications is that electric vehicle buyers won’t get federal incentives of up to $12,500 per new vehicle. EV companies felt the pain on Monday as investors reacted by driving down stock prices for companies like Rivian and Tesla, as Michael Wayland reports for CNBC.

New York Bans Gas Heat and Stoves in New Buildings: Clean energy advocates who are trying to reduce emissions from buildings got a gigantic win last week when the New York City Council approved a measure to ban natural gas heat and stoves in new construction, as reported by Anne Barnard of The New York Times. The rules, which have the support of Mayor Bill de Blasio, are a “historic step forward in our efforts to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels,” said Ben Furnas, the director of climate and sustainability for the mayor’s office. “If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere.”

Florida’s Largest Utility Wrote Bill to Stifle Net Metering: Documents show that the utility Florida Power & Light was the original author of a bill that was later introduced by a Florida lawmaker that sought to reduce the ability of rooftop solar owners to earn money from selling excess electricity to the grid, as reported by Mary Ellen Klas and Mario Alejandro Ariza of the Miami Herald in a partnership with Floodlight. It’s not unusual for utilities to try to harm the economic viability of rooftop solar, but rarely does the public get to see how the utilities’ priorities get turned into legislation. 

This Was the Year When the Hard Climate Stuff Started Looking Doable: Some of this year’s most encouraging news about addressing climate change came from industries with some of the greatest decarbonization challenges. The steel, aviation and marine transport industries all showed signs of progress, as Julian Spector writes for Canary Media. “The point of all this is not that decarbonizing the tough sectors of society is suddenly taken care of,” Spector writes. “It’s going to require years of hard work and billions of dollars of investment. But in these three industries, and many others I’m not even getting into here, there’s increasing clarity around the path ahead, as well as funding and enthusiasm to make it happen.”

As Rivian Brings Clean Energy Jobs to Georgia, the State Lags on Climate Policy: Georgia scored an economic development coup last week when Rivian, the EV manufacturer, announced plans to spend $5 billion on a plant in the state. While Rivian and other clean energy companies invest in Georgia, the state has been a laggard in policies that support clean energy and reduce emissions, as Emily Jones reports for WABE radio in partnership with Grist. Georgia joins Louisiana, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming as states that are pursuing the economic opportunities of low-carbon industries despite lacking the ambition to address climate change at the state level, according to a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to