To date, only three states (Hawaii, New Mexico, and California) and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation mandating a transition to 100% clean energy. But there’s been a surge in interest among state lawmakers this year to expand clean energy targets.
UPDATE: Washington has just passed a 100% clean energy mandate, making it the fourth state to join the 100 percenters club.
I spoke with Ben Inskeep, senior analyst at EQ Research, a consultancy firm based in North Carolina that tracks clean energy policy across the U.S. EQ Research released a map last month characterizing clean and renewable energy legislation across the U.S.
Renewable vs. Clean
But first, let’s dip a toe into the semantics of these bills. Clean energy and renewable energy are not the same.
“There is a difference, and it does often get lost in the narrative” Inskeep told me.
“Clean energy” has become a catch-all phrase for energy generation sources that do not emit carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gasses. More controversial sources like nuclear and polluting systems that employ carbon capture techniques, are typically lumped together with solar and wind as “clean energy.”
But states that have adopted renewable energy portfolio standards tend to operate under more specific guidelines. “Many renewable energy portfolio standards in states don’t allow for nuclear and large hydro to count under the definition of ‘renewable’,” Inskeep said. “States vary, every state has a different set of resources that they count as eligible vs ineligible, so really you have to get down into the details. Some states have alternative portfolio standards that would encompasse things like waste coal or methane emitted from coal mines — things that a lot of folks wouldn’t consider to be renewable.”
Inskeep pointed to California, which has a 60% renewable energy by 2030 target and a 100% clean energy target by 2045. “That allows that other 40% balance to be met with other resources that wouldn’t fit under their current renewable portfolio standard definition,” Inskeep said.
New Mexico has also adopted a 100% clean energy mandate, while Hawaii and Washington D.C. have both enacted 100% renewable energy mandates.
Understanding the nitty gritty of states’ differing renewable portfolio standards (RPS) and renewable energy targets will become crucial to understanding what policies work and what don’t work moving forward, as we see more climate change and energy transition policies become talking points for politicians heading into the 2020 elections.
Energy mandates are on the rise
According to EQ Research, eight other states have introduced legislation in 2019 calling for a 100% clean energy mandate.
EQ expects another three states (Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Michigan) to introduce 100% clean energy targets this year.
The nuclear equation
Nuclear energy has emerged as a controversial topic in policy debates around energy transitions in the U.S. Nuclear power is incredibly unpopular among U.S. residents (thanks in part to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011). There are 31 states that currently generate electricity from nuclear power plants, but practically zero plans to build new nuclear power plants. (The exceptions: Southern Co.’s two reactors at the Plant Vogtle site in Georgia, which were proposed after Fukushima, and represented the first nuclear plans approved by the U.S. government in three decades; and two more reactors that were being constructed in South Carolina, before construction was halted and some $9 billion squandered).
The presence of nuclear power plants within a state is a relatively good predictor of whether the state’s energy mandates will focus on clean energy or renewable energy.
“One of the trends we’re noticing is that a lot of states that currently have existing nuclear plants are states that will then propose a clean energy standard,” Inskeep said. “In states that don’t have nuclear, but similar non-renewable generation, they might be shooting for a 100% renewable target.”
That, Inskeep said, indicates that nuclear energy stakeholders are lobbying state lawmakers to ensure their clean (yet unpopular) technology won’t be left behind during these energy transitions — and in fact there may be an opportunity to expand nuclear power generation under clean energy mandates.
We’re seeing this debate play out right now in Illinois, where lawmakers are considering a bill targeting 100% of the state’s electricity generation to come from renewable energy by 2050. Illinois generates just under 50% of its electricity from six nuclear power plants located in the state. According to NBC News, 95% of that power generated is emission-free.
The proposed Clean Energy Jobs Act would see the state transition its electricity generation to 100% renewable energy by 2050. It directs utilities to procure “cost-effective renewable energy sources” on a scheduled timetable: 25% by 2025, 45% by 2030, and 90% by 2045, in order to reach 100% by 2050.
But what would happen to nuclear energy under this scenario? The bill sets an interim target of 100% carbon-free electricity by 2030, but it seems that beyond 2030, the nuclear power sources would need to be phased out. This has spurred a vigorous debate between lawmakers, split largely down partisan lines. It has 45 Democrat co-sponsors at present, but may never make it out of committee.
EOs and political grandstanding
Other states have seen energy mandates coming from the top down. A handful of state governors have issued energy mandate executive orders in recent months, capitalizing on the growing concern among voters about U.S.’ response to climate change under the Trump administration.
Earlier this year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed his own executive order, calling for the state to transition to 100% carbon free electricity by 2040 — under the moniker of the “Green New Deal,” no less.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, meanwhile, signed an executive order calling for the state to generate 100% of its energy from clean sources by 2050. California’s Gov. Brown also signed an executive order directing the state to become carbon neutral by 2045.
I asked Inskeep what he thought of these executive orders, which can be popular among voters but are not legally-binding and therefore don’t have any teeth.
“I don’t think they’re meaningless,” he said. “I think executive orders can be an important first step towards policies such as a 100% clean energy standard, but they’re not the final word.”
He added that these orders can signal the governor’s priorities internally within the state’s executive branch the governor’s priorities, and externally to companies, stakeholders, voters and fellow politicians.
“Some executive orders are more explicit and more robust than others. But they’re one important tool that the executive branch has at the state level at its disposal to shape policy,” Inskeep said.