In the last four years, federal leadership on clean energy and climate change has stalled. That’s left much responsibility up to states, tribes and cities.
By many measures, they’ve risen to the challenge. In 2018, California became just the second state working toward a mandate of 100 percent clean electricity. Two years later, 13 states, Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C. and over 100 cities are now striving for the same goal.
In total, one-third of U.S. residents now live in a jurisdiction committed to 100 percent clean electricity, according to tracking from America’s Pledge, a subnational climate initiative led by former California Governor Jerry Brown and former presidential candidate and New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
Democrats had hoped to seize on that momentum in this week’s election, flipping state legislatures and realigning regulatory boards to create a smoother path for clean energy policies in even more states.
But as the week ended, those plans appeared to have gone unrealized. The election caused just one state to flip: Republicans won both the House and the Senate in New Hampshire.
Approval of a ballot measure in Nevada plus consistent bipartisan support for clean energy means some action is still possible. And former Vice President Joe Biden's presidential win provides clean energy advocates some support at the national level. But state government focus on pandemic relief, plus split or Republican control in many states, means that any legislation is likely to be more limited in scope than if Democrats were in power.
The Minnesota legislature remained the only divided state lawmaking body in the country, with a majority Republican Senate and a House controlled by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, the state’s version of the Democratic party.
A win for Democrats in both chambers would have given the party a trifecta, setting up the state for the possibility of a statewide 100 percent clean electricity mandate. Adopting one would make Minnesota the first state in the Midwest to set such a requirement.
Last year, Governor Tim Walz, a Democrat, introduced a initiative to get to 100 percent clean energy by 2050. It's a target Democrats support, Gabe Chan, a professor at the University of Minnesota focused on energy and climate policies, told the Energy News Network.
Republicans and Democrats have been unable to reach a consensus on wide-reaching clean energy legislation, though renewables are generally popular in the state. Minnesota is in the top 10 states for installed wind capacity and ranks 14th for installed solar capacity. The state was also an early leader in community solar and still hosts nearly double the capacity of the runner-up in that sector, New York.
Xcel Energy, the state’s largest investor-owned utility, was the first utility of its kind to establish a target of going carbon-free by 2050. That voluntary pledge has not yet been enshrined in state law.
Though votes are still being counted in Arizona, Republicans appear to be poised to retain control of the state's legislature as of Monday.
“There is a lot of political momentum for decarbonization in Arizona,” according to David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute. But without Democratic control of the statehouse, passing a clean energy bill in Arizona will be difficult.
Aside from the legislature, Republican Governor Doug Ducey poses a likely barrier. In 2018, Arizonans rejected a ballot proposition that would have mandated that utilities reach 50 percent renewables by 2030 but not before the governor signed a bill reducing financial penalties for utilities that don’t meet that requirement.
Momentum on clean energy has gained the most traction in the Arizona Corporation Commission, which will soon vote on a final plan to set the state on the course to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050. Earlier this month, commissioners approved a broad plan to reach that target, though the commission's makeup was reshaped by last week's election.
Early in 2020, utility Arizona Public Service set a voluntary goal to reach 100 percent carbon-free electricity by midcentury. Tucson Electric Power has said it will reach 70 percent renewables, supported by storage, by 2035.
North Carolina ranks behind only California in installed solar capacity.
Democrats had hoped to pick up enough seats in the state legislature to turn that bright spot into the potential for a statewide clean energy mandate. Instead, Republicans maintained control in both houses.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat who won a second term on Tuesday, has already endorsed an energy policy of being 100 percent carbon-neutral by 2050.
Last year, Duke Energy, the state’s largest investor-owned utility — and a prominent political force in the Southeast — also set an aim to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. While the utility will at least double its solar, wind and other renewables by 2025 to help get there, clean energy advocates remain skeptical of Duke’s near-term plans, which include the build-out of new gas infrastructure.
“Duke’s decarbonization plan is not really worth the paper it’s printed on,” said Pomerantz.
While Xcel plans to cut energy emissions 80 percent by 2030, for instance, Duke will reduce emissions "at least 50 percent" in that timeframe. A state policy could push the utility to develop a more ambitious target.
In an election year impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, many local governments have been focused on pandemic relief. That was one factor in fewer clean energy measures making the ballot.
Nevadans, however, again passed Question 6, a constitutional amendment requiring the state to reach 50 percent renewable energy by 2030. It’s the second time voters in the state voted in favor of the measure; constitutional amendments in Nevada require approval in two successive even-numbered election years, and Nevadans voted on the same question in 2018.
The vote affirms a policy that Nevada lawmakers and Gov. Steve Sisolak have already begun work on: Last year, Nevada joined the ranks of states pursuing 100% clean energy by 2050, with an interim target of 50 percent renewables by 2030. But because Question 6 is a constitutional amendment, it provides more assurance that Nevada policy won’t turn back from that target if the political landscape shifts.
Utility regulators hold significant power in determining state-level energy policies. While governors and state lawmakers may lay out broad-stroke renewables goals, public utility commissioners have the power to decide how to get there and how to hold utilities accountable along the way.
Public utility commissions were once regarded as wonky, relatively nonpolitical agencies, but polarization over climate change has recently begun to dial up the drama in commission races. The election yielded mixed results for clean energy at the regulatory level.
New Mexicans voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that shifts the power to select utility regulators from voters to the governor, an office now held by Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham. In addition to changing who selects regulators, the amendment reduces the board’s size from five commissioners to three as of Jan. 1, 2023.
Supporters argued that giving the governor control will place more emphasis on commissioner qualifications, while critics said the measure reduces the agency of voters to select decision-makers.
Last year, Gov. Grisham signed New Mexico’s Energy Transition Act, which requires the state to reach 100 percent clean electricity by 2045 with interim targets of 50 percent renewables by 2030 and 80 percent by 2040.
Prior to the election, Democrats held a majority on the state's Public Regulation Commission. With two commission seats up for vote on Tuesday, the party maintained that advantage.
Arizona’s impending transition to 100 percent clean energy is an effort not generally divided along party lines. In early November, regulators approved a broad plan to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2050, with the support of two Republicans and the commission’s sole Democrat.
Three of five total Arizona Corporation Commission seats were up for grabs in last Tuesday’s election, and the results will shift the commission’s balance from four Republicans to just three.
Despite the gain by Democrats, the new makeup of the commission could imperil Arizona’s clean energy plans. Two Republicans who voted in favor of the measure were not running for those same seats in 2020. Republican incumbent Lea Márquez Peterson, who voted against the 100 percent plan, kept her seat. Arizonans also elected another Republican, Jim O’Connor, who has said he does not support the 100 percent plan.
Just one Democrat, Anna Tovar, was elected. She ran under a banner of “Solar Team 2020” along with two other Democrats. That group got millions of dollars in campaign support from Mike Bloomberg.
The commission vote held prior to the election was an important signal that Arizona plans to move forward with the 100 percent clean energy target it has discussed for years. But final approval of the plan, and determinations on what specific policies will guide the state toward that level, will be officially decided after the election.
Republicans won all three seats up for grabs on the Montana Public Service Commission. Regulators in that state have been grappling with the fate of its Colstrip coal plant, which provides power to utilities in the Midwest and the Northwest. With Washington and Oregon wringing coal out of their electricity generation mixes, the fate of Colstrip has been exceedingly uncertain even as Montana’s largest utility, NorthWestern Energy, tries to save it.
Watchers of Montana’s race saw it as a bellwether of the state’s willingness to move away from coal-fired power, which is linked to a significant number of jobs in some areas of the state. Democrats in the race had advocated for 100 percent clean energy and distributed renewables.
Bonus: Texans declined to elect a Democratic candidate who would have been the first in over two decades to serve on the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industries. While the Public Utility Commission of Texas has jurisdiction over electric utilities, the Railroad Commission monitors fossil fuels. A win for centrist Chrysta Castañeda, who received the support of the Sierra Club and Mike Bloomberg but ultimately lost her race, would have been unlikely to shift the overall trajectory of Texas oil and gas, according to analysts.
“She may have brought some additional transparency to the commission and could have joined with her Republican colleagues to move the ball forward on environmental concerns when they were willing, but there’s only so much one commissioner can do on a three-member commission chaired by the opposite party,” said Whitney Stanco, a senior energy analyst at policy and financial research firm Washington Analysis, in an email.
Castañeda’s loss shows the continued sway of the powerful fossil fuel industry in Texas, even as renewables have recently gained a stronger foothold in the state. Jim Wright, a Republican who denies the science behind climate change, will fill the seat.