The biggest fight over renewable energy is now in the states

March 25, 2013

Nowadays, a huge chunk of the action on clean energy in the United States is happening at the state level. Some 29 states and Washington D.C. have renewable energy standards requiring electric utilities to get a portion of their power from sources like wind or solar.


(Washington Post)

Those state-level standards have played a big role in doubling the amount of renewable-energy capacity in the United States in the past four years. And current standards are projected to add some 76,750 megawatts of new renewable power capacity by 2025 — enough, in theory, to power 47 million homes.

Yet those state laws are now facing a fierce backlash from both conservative advocacy groups and fossil-fuel interests. "At least twenty-two of the 29 state renewables standards have been attacked by legislators or regulators in the last year," writes Herman Trabish of GreentechMedia. He's got a comprehensive new analysis that breaks down these challenges by the numbers. That includes:

Serious challenges to state laws. State renewable standards have faced the prospect of being weakened or repealed outright in Ohio, Michigan, Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland, and Wisconsin, among other places.

For example, Kansas currently has a standard that requires utilities to get 20 percent of their electricity from sources like wind by 2020. Recently, Republicans in the state legislature proposed a bill that would give power companies more time to comply. Among other things, the lawmakers argued that electricity bills have surged 37 percent since 2008. (The bill ultimately failed in committee.)

In November, my colleague Juliet Eilperin reported that many of these repeal efforts were being coordinated by the libertarian Heartland Institute and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC has even crafted model legislation, the Electricity Freedom Act. Both groups argue that the renewable standards are costly to consumers, since wind and solar are often more expensive than coal or natural gas.

There's also fossil-fuel money associated with these repeal efforts. "In many cases," Eilperin wrote, "the groups involved accept money from oil, gas and coal companies that compete against renewable energy suppliers."

Attempts to weaken renewable laws through a "hydro loophole." Trabish notes that hydro-loophole fights have transpired in Washington, Oregon, Montana and Maine. This is a more subtle legislative maneuver to loosen the clean-energy standards.

Take Washington. The state already gets 66 percent of its electricity from hydropower. And, in 2006, voters approved a law requiring utilities to get an additional 15 percent of electricity from new renewable sources. But one Republican lawmaker is now pushing a modification that would allow utilities to satisfy the requirement through existing hydropower — a tweak that would significantly curtail the impact of the original law.

While this hydropower tweak is unlikely to pass in Washington, a similar bill just passed the Montana state house, and could reach the governor's desk for the second year in a row (it was vetoed by Democratic governor Brian Schweitzer last time around).

Legal challenges and other attacks. There's a lawsuit against Colorado's renewable standard (30 percent by 2020) charging that the rule violates the Commerce Clause. Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, conservative lawmakers are trying to pull the state out of RGGI, the regional cap-and-trade system for electric utilities, which could undermine the state's renewable market.

You can read a full list of the challenges in the GreentechMedia report here. It notes that renewable standards have largely been left alone in deep-blue states such as California, New York, Illinois and New Jersey.

Related: For a more detailed look at state renewable standards, here's the always-helpful Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency.

UpdateFor an extremely thorough look at the fight over renewable standards in the states, I highly recommend Maria Gallucci's report for InsideClimateNews. She has an even more comprehensive breakdown of challenges to state laws:

Many of these attempts have fizzled, but some are being revived this year. In total, 42 separate efforts are wending their way through legislatures and courts in more than two dozen states, according to the North Carolina Solar Center, a clearinghouse for state renewable energy policies.

"The danger of some of these [RPS laws] being repealed is a little bit greater this year than it was last year," said Justin Barnes, a senior policy analyst at the center.

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