By - Jim Vess

States take the initiative on energy policy and legislation while gridlock reigns in Washington

Energize Weekly, October 11, 2017

Energy policy, legislation and initiatives are alive and bipartisan in the state houses across the country even as they are bogged down in the nation’s capital, according to the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University.

More than 12,500 energy bills were introduced in state legislatures between 2013 and 2016, with 1,926 passing, according to the center’s Advanced Energy Legislation Tracker. In 2017, 3,046 bills have already been introduced with 350 passing.

 “If you look at the combination of what is happening in blue and red and purple states, there is far more happening than is happening at the federal level,” Bill Ritter, the center’s director and former governor of Colorado, told Energize Weekly in a wide-ranging interview.

“We track every piece of legislation introduced at the state level until it dies or becomes law,” Ritter said. “What is so interesting, so different from what is happening in the United States Congress and the Trump administration is that there is a real bipartisan flavor to what is happening at the state level.”

In Michigan, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican legislature passed a sweeping energy plan, which will replace aging coal-fired power plants and increase natural gas generation, renewable energy and energy efficiency programs.

“It’s a very conservative place, with conservatives in charge,” Ritter said. “But they import 100 percent of the coal they use. It was about 60 percent of their portfolio, and now they have a plan to end that all together and over time replace that with wind, solar and natural gas.”

Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner in December signed the Future Energy Jobs Bill, passed by a Democratic legislature, which focuses on energy efficiency, renewable generation and offers some relief to struggling nuclear power plants. The bill is expected to bring more than $12 billion in private investment to the state.

Nevada also has a Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, and a Democrat-led legislature. The two combined to pass a series of energy bills this year, including ones to promote the development of energy storage resources and electric vehicles, and to standardize wind turbine siting.

Sandoval also signed a bill restoring net metering—the credit rooftop solar units get for putting electricity on the grid. He vetoed two bills, boosting the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard and creating a new community solar garden program.

The governor citied uncertainty around the state’s pending shift to an open and competitive energy market as the reason for his vetoes. “I understand why he vetoed those two,” Ritter said. “Still, he signed nine pieces of energy legislation and made energy innovation a theme.”

In Ohio, Republican Gov. John Kasich vetoed a bill that would have extended a freeze on the state’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards. “That tells you something. These are card-carrying conservatives,” Ritter said.

Similarly, the governors of New Hampshire and Massachusetts, both Republicans, are “sensitive to energy issues in their states,” Ritter said. “This is far different than the U.S. Congress where it seems to be a more partisan issue.”

While thousands of energy bills are filed in state houses every year and state’s map comprehensive energy plans, Ritter noted that there hasn’t been comprehensive federal energy legislation since 2007.

Why such a stark difference between the federal government and the states?

“People at the state level have to pay so much more attention to job opportunities,” said Ritter, whose center works directly with states and state legislators on energy programs. “You can be in the United States Congress and talk about jobs and job creation. If you create jobs that’s good, but if you don’t, you are probably going to survive the next election. Governors measure themselves on job creation.”

For example, the Illinois energy legislation was crafted as a jobs and investment bill.

“So, if you are concerned about job markets, that’s one reason,” Ritter said. “The second thing is economics, because of cheap natural gas, cheap solar, cheap wind, it only makes sense for consumers in your state to benefit from those downward price declines.”

In Michigan, the energy plan will replace coal shipped by train with resources in state, including wind, solar and natural gas, that can create local jobs and generate electricity more cheaply, Ritter said.

The Trump administration announced in June it was taking the United States out of participation in the Paris climate accord, the 195-nation, international agreement aimed at reducing emissions of greenhouse gases linked to climate change. The withdrawal has become a political issue.

Democrat-controlled states are being even more aggressive, Ritter said. Oregon recently adopted a target of getting 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. California has a 50 percent standard and is considering raising it to 100 percent by 2045. Hawaii was the first state to adopt a 100 percent renewable portfolio standard in 2015.

States such as New York and Minnesota have also launched initiatives to revamp their electricity systems.

“Democrats talk about climate change and its risks,” Ritter said. “There are Republicans being as aggressive about clean energy that will never mention climate change, but are looking at the economic opportunities and low prices that their consumers will pay.”

To be sure, clean energy initiatives have their skeptics and critics. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which lobbies and promotes legislation at the state level and is funded by large corporations, has waged a campaign against renewable energy standards and net metering across the country.

“It is all candy and flowers,” Ritter said. Still, he maintains there are more wins than losses.

One target of ALEC-inspired legislation was a freeze on renewable energy standards in North Carolina. “Think about the fact that this effort to reduce the renewable portfolio standard in North Carolina lost even with a Republican-controlled Senate, Republican-controlled House and a Republican governor,” Ritter said.

Energy initiatives aren’t just happening at the state capitals. There is a drive among cities to develop 100 percent renewable energy programs. Forty cities have already adopted the goal of shifting to all clean energy. “You take what is happening in cities, and it is even a more significant story,” Ritter said.

State public utilities commissions (PUC) are also taking up many of these issues from net metering to renewable energy standards to grid modernization. “We hear discussion at the PUC level we’ve not heard before,” Ritter said.

“It gives you hope that what we call the sub-nationals, states and cities, can make a difference in the push for a clean energy agenda even as the Trump administration tries to claw it back,” Ritter said.

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