Clean Energy Index Highlights the Role of States in Renewable Energy Development

Much of the renewable energy policy discussion and attention usually occurs on the national level, where progress (extension of the clean energy tax credits, for example) tends to be more sweeping, yet so are the occasional setbacks (the Renewable Fuel Standard ‑ the nation’s primary policy tool for reducing emissions from our transportation sector ‑ is constantly under attack).

But, like 25x’25, renewable energy advocacy is a grassroots phenomenon, starting with local citizens and innovators who carry their arguments to their local leaders and then to their state legislators and elected officials. And the most recent state clean energy ranking index from Clean Edge, a global research and consulting firm, shows city and state policies have become significant drivers of renewable energy development.

The U.S. Clean Tech Leadership Index tracks and ranks the clean-energy and clean-tech activities of all 50 states and the 50 largest metro areas in the United States, from renewable energy adoption to policy and investment activity.

The analysts say their 2016 edition comes at a time of “notable acceleration in the nation’s transition to a clean-energy economy,” especially over the last seven years when 14 states increased their power generation from non-hydropower renewable sources to comprise more than 10 percent of their respective total power generation. For perspective, in 2010 only one state had more than 10 percent non-hydropower renewable energy generation.

Iowa, which is already the leading biofuel producing state in the country, now gets nearly a third of its electricity from renewables, mostly wind. Elsewhere, California has become the first state to generate 10 percent of its in-state electricity from utility-scale and distributed solar, with Hawaii not far behind at 7 percent, Clean Edge says.

And the shift to renewables at the state level appears to transcend the political turbulence that often embroils renewable energy policy in Washington – among the top 10 states for utility-scale clean-electricity generation in Clean Edge’s 2016 Index, half were red states during the last presidential election (Idaho, Kansas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Dakota) and half were blue states (California, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, and Vermont).

A principal policy driver in accelerating renewable energy development at the state level is the Renewable Portfolio Standard (or a Renewable Electricity Standard), a regulatory mandate to increase production of energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar, biomass and other alternatives to fossil and nuclear electric generation. Currently, 29 states have RPS mandates (another eight have voluntary goals). These standards have produced clean electricity at prices comparable to – and even below – rates paid for power generated from coal, oil, and even natural gas.

Of course, clean energy generated by an RPS and other mechanisms that promote renewable energy at the state level, including net metering policies and tax credits, produce benefits that enhance our environment and create jobs.

A recent study by researchers from DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) offers “mid-range” estimates of $2.2 billion in benefits from reduced greenhouse gas emissions and $5.2 billion in benefits from reductions in other air pollution as a result of RPS policies in 2013, the last year for which pertinent data is available. Furthermore, the research shows national water withdrawals were reduced by 830 billion gallons and water consumption by fossil-fuel plants went down 27 billion gallons during that year as more of the power load was supported by renewable energy facilities.

In addition to environmental benefits, the study estimates that RPS policies supported 200,000 renewable energy-related jobs in 2013.

While the correlating numbers for current environmental and job benefits of state renewable energy policies have yet to be determined, they most certainly will be considerably higher, given the trend over the past two years of renewable energy development far exceeding the construction of fossil fuel power plants.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) this week released its first quarter 2016 infrastructure update showing that renewable power capacity – wind, solar, biomass and hydropower – added in the United States over the first three months outnumbered fossil-fuel based capacity by more than 70 to 1. Nearly 1,300 megawatts (MW), including more than 700 MW of wind and 500 MW of solar, came online during the quarter, compared to 18 MW of natural gas. No coal or nuclear additions were noted.

Renewable energy now makes up some 18 percent of the nation’s electrical generating capacity, not all that far behind coal (26 percent) and twice the capacity of nuclear (9 percent). (Natural gas continues to lead at 43 percent of U.S. capacity.)

States have helped make renewable energy the inevitable force it has become in the nation’s energy market and 25x’25 lauds those farsighted policy makers in state capitols across the nation. Given the political neutrality suggested by the Clean Edge survey in those states leading the nation in clean energy, we urge lawmakers in Washington to overcome the partisanship and fully recognize the role renewable sources of power can play in reducing emissions and creating jobs, and adopt the policies and funding mechanisms that can promote that kind of growth across the nation.

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