State-by-state look at proposals dealing with renewable energy reveals bipartisan collaboration for cleaner electricity, as Republican backlash in Washington grows.
Lawmakers in state legislatures across the nation have proposed hundreds of bills this year relating to clean energy. While many propose to grow alternative energy resources, others work to impede them, creating a chaotic map of countervailing efforts.
State politicians have introduced measures to dramatically expand renewable electric power in nearly a dozen states in the first three months of 2017, some as ambitious as aiming to run entirely on renewables within a few decades; some would launch smaller-scale community solar ventures, like a pilot in Virginia; others would add tax breaks for solar users in South Carolina and Florida.
But other state legislatures are resisting the advance of clean power as it begins to transform the energy landscape. Less a new assault inspired by the Republican-led backlash against green energy under way in Washington, D.C., it’s the continuation of campaigns by conservative groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, Americans for Prosperity and the Heartland Institute with ties to the fossil fuel billionaires, the Koch brothers. Members of traditional energy companies, including utilities and fossil fuel companies, have also supported some attacks.
There are proposals to end the popular solar financial arrangement known as net metering in Indiana, Missouri and elsewhere. There are moves afoot to roll back statewide clean energy targets in North Carolina, New Hampshire and Ohio. There was even a bill to effectively outlaw utility-scale wind and solar in Wyoming, and a defiant measure seeking a two-year moratorium on new wind projects in North Dakota.
But many clean energy policy experts and advocates told InsideClimate News that despite the challenges, they remain encouraged by the conversations playing out at the state level. That’s because they are seeing examples of bipartisan collaboration for clean energy and polls showing widespread support for cutting emissions from the electric grid. And there is widespread business support for a cleaner energy marketplace and for the Paris climate agreement generally.
“I would say that bills like the ones in Wyoming and North Dakota that are trying to fight wind are more the outlier,” said J.R. Tolbert, vice president of state policy at the research and lobbying group Advanced Energy Economy. “The policy debate [in states] is actually a healthy debate that’s going on across the country right now.”
The tumult at the state level will help resolve the direction the nation takes at a time when the world’s progress toward meeting long-term climate goals appears to be in jeopardy.
The direction states are taking, however, is not always driven by which party is in power. Other factors like local geography, resources, politics, legal codes and competing public interests complicate the picture.
Based on conversations with more than a dozen clean energy analysts and supporters, InsideClimate News has identified the top five emerging trends related to state legislation on clean energy to watch this year:
On Clean Energy Targets, Proposals Shift Toward Bolder Action
At least eight states—California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont—are considering legislation to dramatically boost their reliance on clean power in the coming decades. These bills specifically call for increasing the mandate to obtain electricity from sources like wind and solar, a common form of escalating quota called a renewable portfolio standard (RPS). Currently, 29 states in the nation, along with Washington, D.C., have them and eight others have voluntary targets.
“We’ve now had a number of state renewable portfolio standards mature,” where several mandates have been met and, in some cases, even exceeded, said Todd Foley, senior vice president of policy and government affairs at the American Council on Renewable Energy. “I would say there’s a bit of a trend to build on the earlier standards and increase them. We’ve seen proposals in blue and red states in this regard.”
The most progressive legislation is being offered in blue states with a history of climate and clean energy leadership. Massachusetts lawmakers are considering making the state’s electricity entirely fossil-free by 2035, and then phasing out fossil fuels from other sectors such as transportation by 2050. There are also four other bills proposing to grow the state’s RPS goals. Meanwhile, California legislators are mulling a measure to get the state’s electricity entirely from renewable sources by 2045.
Goals like these are especially notable to the extent that they would supplant even natural gas, which is abundant, cheap, flexible and widely used to replace old coal plants as they become uneconomic and shut down.
In Maryland, legislators pressed ahead with a proposal that got vetoed last year by Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, to have a quarter of the state’s energy come from renewables by 2020. Undeterred, the Democratic-led legislature passed it with a veto-proof majority in February. The standard is now law.
That makes Maryland the latest state to officially ramp up its renewables targets, following a string of similar legislative successes last year in Illinois, Michigan, Rhode Island, Oregon and Washington, D.C.
While the overall trend is towards advancing these statewide targets, some proposals seek to go in reverse. North Carolina lawmakers filed a bill on March 7 that would roll back the state RPS, from having 10 percent of retail sales in electricity come from renewables by 2018 to 8 percent. Ohio lawmakers have introduced a bill that would turn the mandatory state RPS goals into voluntary ones. A similar measure passed both state chambers last year, but was vetoed by Gov. John Kasich. It’s unclear if there’s enough support to pass this new bill with a veto-proof majority.
In New Hampshire, bills seeking to repeal the state’s RPS or water it down have effectively died in committee. The repeal bill was proposed by Rep. Bart Fromuth, a Republican lawmaker who is the chief operating officer of a local utility conglomerate that would be affected by the legislation. Fromuth reported his conflicts of interest weeks after submitting the bill. At the bill’s hearing, the key supporter was a representative from Americans for Prosperity.
According to Foley, the attacks on RPS bills have mostly failed.
Net Metering Fights Continue
One of the most controversial policies rewarding people for making their own power, such as through rooftop solar panels, is net metering. There are a wide range of 2017 legislative proposals addressing this issue, but so far the ones moving quickly through state chambers would end or limit the program in places with nascent solar markets.
Net metering allows homeowners to sell solar power back to the grid when they make more than they need—in effect, running the meter backward. Combined with dropping costs for solar panels and installation as well as generous tax credits, the policy has encouraged millions of people to go solar and save money.
But some utilities’ profits have fallen as a result and contended that the policy unfairly shifts costs of grid upkeep to non-solar users.
Net metering rollbacks have been debated in at least two statehouses this year. A Republican-backed bill in Indiana requiring the phase-out of net metering in five years has passed the state Senate and is now under review by the House. Multiple net metering bills have passed at least one chamber in Montana, a state with net metering available to any customers of investor-owned utilities. This includes one allowing utilities to potentially recover costs from net metering customers, among other changes to the program, and another limiting tax breaks. Meanwhile, a bill looking to expand net metering was tabled in committee.
According to a review using the Advanced Legislation Tracker, more than 40 net metering bills have so far been introduced in about 15 states. A few are likely going nowhere, including a proposal to end net metering in Kentucky that died of neglect at the hands of its own sponsor, who failed to bring it up in a committee meeting that he chaired.
Utility regulators are also leading parallel conversations about the fate of net metering in several states.
Southeast Steps into Clean Energy Spotlight
The Southeast has historically lagged on clean energy but this is starting to change. A new South Carolina proposal would exempt homeowners and business owners with solar panels from paying property taxes on their energy hardware, which the state Senate approved 38-4 in mid-February. Meanwhile, a Mississippi proposal to exempt solar panel buyers from paying sales tax on the purchase has died in committee. In Virginia, lawmakers in both chambers voted through a bill to launch a community solar pilot program, but failed to support two other community solar proposals. And more proposals, including one in North Carolina that would allow third-party solar providers and streamline the permitting of solar projects, could soon be coming down the pipeline.
“We’ve seen a lot of bills that would grow renewables,” said Autumn Proudlove, who tracks clean energy legislation in the southeast. “There may not be 50 percent RPS [proposals] like other states are doing, but they are taking steps forward,” she added. Proudlove is a senior policy analyst at North Carolina State University’s Clean Energy Technology Center.
One notable area of contention has to do with a solar bill proposed in the Florida House. On its surface, the measure would implement an amendment supported by more than 70 percent of Florida voters last August to give tax breaks to businesses seeking to install solar panels. But solar proponents have criticized the bill because it includes a laundry list of “consumer protections” that they say are unnecessary and burdensome to the solar industry.
Wave of Anti-Renewable Bills Fizzles Out
A string of anti-renewable bills proposed early this year have already flamed out. A Republican proposal in Wyoming to effectively outlaw the sales of electricity from utility-scale wind and solar to in-state customers didn’t make it past the first week of the legislative session. A Wyoming proposal to raise a state tax on wind energy also quickly dropped off the agenda.
In other cases, lawmakers have edited the most controversial sections of bills. For example, members of North Dakota’s state Senate deleted language calling for a two-year moratorium on new wind projects. A bill calling for the repeal of New Hampshire’s RPS was edited to instead impose some reporting requirements tied to the statewide energy target program.
“At the beginning of the year, it looked like there was a trend line towards legislation attacking clean energy,” said Tolbert from AEE. But that hasn’t continued to play out. He said, “I would say that trend line isn’t nearly as bad as it’s been in some other years.”
But Tolbert and other policy experts and advocates said they remain vigilant for new attacks on clean energy.
“We’re definitely watching and preparing to defend against whatever attacks may come at the state level to clean energy,” said Reuters at LCV.
Slow March of Progress on Energy Efficiency
There are dozens of state bills looking to expand energy efficiency and conservation programs, including a handful that have already passed at least one chamber.
Virginia lawmakers passed a bill to reduce the consumption of energy by retail customers 10 percent by 2022 compared to 2006 levels.
Additionally, the Maryland Senate in early March voted to direct utilities to decrease their energy use by at least 2 percent annually through 2020. The House previously passed the bill. Gov. Hogan has not said whether he plans to sign it.
In North Dakota, state Senators have advanced a bill seeking to foster energy conservation. The Hawaii house has also advanced at least two bills meant to improve energy efficiency — one to develop strategies for increasing the efficiency of homes, the other calling for a comprehensive plan that integrates efficiency standards into the state’s building code.
Among the many introduced bills, energy policy experts are closely watching the progress of one in Nevada that would require each electricity provider in the state to develop an annual energy savings goal.