LAS VEGAS – Despite federal rollbacks of Obama-era environmental and energy policies, states from both sides of the political aisle – and both sides of the country – are leading the charge toward renewable energy.
Both Republican and Democratic states are pushing policy and investments in green technology to reduce their energy consumption and drive economic growth, despite partisanship in Washington, D.C., that has divided climate and clean energy issues along party lines. Electric cars, clean energy storage and affordable solar panels are among the top recent innovations in states pushing clean energy, governors said during a panel at the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas Oct. 13.
Western states including Nevada have led the way in integrating clean energy innovation, which Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, called an “irresistible force” during the summit. The state’s renewable energy production has nearly doubled since 2009, he said, and its clean energy workforce has grown 9.5 percent over the past year, more than three times faster than other Nevada industries.
“We have invested $734 million in incentives,” Sandoval said. “I’m the first to acknowledge that’s a big investment, but that has attracted a return of $7 billion.”
Another of Nevada’s major energy initiatives is an electric highway that will connect Las Vegas to Reno – some 450 miles away – by early 2018 to assuage “range anxiety” for drivers of electric cars, Sandoval said.
Sandoval also signed three energy-related bills into law in June, including one that resurrected “net metering,” which requires utilities to buy back excess power from residents’ rooftop solar panels, a measure seen as a key to making renewable energy affordable for homeowners.
“Nevada has the potential to become the solar giant, and Nevada energy is moving in the right direction,” says Hal Harvey, CEO of Energy Innovation, an environmental and energy firm based in San Francisco.
While Nevada ramped up its clean energy initiatives about a decade ago, other states have followed suit in more recent years.
Hawaii was once among the most oil-dependent states in the nation, spending $6 billion annually importing fuel. In 2015, to keep that money in the state, Gov. David Ige was the first U.S. governor to commit to getting 100 percent of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2045. State and federal tax cuts have driven down the cost of solar panels, making them more accessible for Hawaii residents, and 30 percent to 40 percent of the state’s construction activity in the past few years has been driven by renewables, Ige said.
“I do believe that states lead, especially in the area of clean energy,” Ige, a Democrat, said during the panel. “It is an opportunity for us to change the nature of our economies, create jobs – high paying jobs, as you know – but more importantly, to have a long-term strategy for economic growth that would be tied to a clean energy future.”
While western states with an abundance of resources are successfully harnessing solar, wind and geothermal energy, states with fewer resources are also pushing innovative energy policies. In Massachusetts, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker announced a state plan to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent, relative to 1990 levels, by 2050. And by the end of 2018, 70 percent of all street lights in Massachusetts will use low-energy light emitting diode bulbs, or LEDs.
The state is also investing about $10 million into research on energy storage technology, which Baker said would “literally completely change the pricing model for people who live in places that are both cold and hot,” such as Massachusetts, where winter temperatures regularly dip below freezing and summers top 80 degrees.
“You could store energy during low price, low peak periods, and then access that stored energy during periods of high price, high peak,” Baker said. “That has tremendous benefit from an efficiency point of view, a price point of view and a use point of view, and I think we’re a lot closer to that than most people realize.”
States that are less wealthy or lack resources don’t have to be losers in the shift toward renewable energy – they just have to get creative, Harvey says. States that have traditionally relied on fossil fuel and coal to power their economies should change their approaches to keep up with the changing industry, whether that’s by diversifying their energy portfolios or partnering with other states, he adds.
He points to Wyoming, which produces more coal than any other state in the nation, but will begin construction in 2019 on a transmission line to sell its wind energy to markets in California and other states.
And while federal rollbacks on energy and environmental policy have “created uncertainty, which is always hard,” Harvey says the consequences will be less severe than many realize because state leadership and energy markets are already headed toward renewables and away from fossil fuels, a trend federal policy changes won’t deter.
Case in point: Although the White House moved to scrap the Clean Power Plan Oct. 10, half of the states are on track to outperform the plan’s required power plant carbon emissions reductions by 2030, The New York Times reported. Of those 25 states, 13 have Republican governors and 12 are led by Democrats.
Over the next year, states will be focused on going green in a variety of ways: Ige said the Hawaii legislature will be considering an all-electric car future in the state, and in Massachusetts, Baker said he will be focused on effectively implementing hydroelectric and wind energy; the state is reviewing bids for two plans to generate about 2,800 megawatts of combined renewable power.
“The thing that drives it primarily is every year doing better than you did the year before on the energy drop,” Baker said. “You’ve got to set the target, and then build the programs and go chase it.”