Environment America, an environmental advocacy group, today unveiled an effort to establish residential solar mandates — similar to the requirement that went into effect this year in California — in 10 states across the country.
The environmental group, which is made up of a “federation of state-based organizations,” said it plans to push forward legislation, regulations or municipal-level policy in a group of states including Texas, Minnesota and New Mexico. The structure and details of those efforts will depend on local political and legislative variables, said Bronte Payne, director of the organization’s solar campaigns.
“Our state directors…know their states really well and are on the ground thinking about what policies would be best to advance their goals,” Payne told Greentech Media.
California's requirement that solar be installed on most new-build homes was imposed via the state’s building codes, which are updated every three years. Environment America may use a similar strategy in some states while pursuing legislation in others.
In addition to working with local partners and grassroots organizers in each state, Payne said the groups will work to find strong policymaker sponsors for any bills that do move forward.
“It’s not always just about getting a bill introduced, but who’s ready to prioritize and really push forward a bill,” said Payne.
Payne divides the states Environment America will pursue into two categories: those like New Mexico that are already pursuing clean-energy goals and those like North Carolina where solar has significant support and a healthy market. The group hopes to succeed in getting state-level legislation introduced in several states over the next two years.
In Pennsylvania, the organization plans to focus on municipal-level efforts due to the timing of the state’s legislative session and its conservative-leaning legislature, said Payne. Though clean energy often garners bipartisan support, some conservative lawmakers have pushed back on an executive order in Pennsylvania for the state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an East Coast cap-and-trade program.
The local approach may also work in Maryland, another state involved in the group’s campaign. Kate Breimann, an advocate at state-level group Environment Maryland, said she prefers to pursue statewide legislation. But organizers are beginning to work with lawmakers as well as other environmental groups to determine what’s feasible.
“If it has to start at a more local level, we’re prepared to do that,” Breimann told Greentech Media. “But the ultimate goal is for it to be the law of the land in the state.”
In 2019 Maryland passed legislation requiring the state to reach 50 percent renewable electricity by 2030, which Governor Larry Hogan said was not aggressive enough. Hogan has articulated a desire to join states such as California and New Mexico in pursuing 100 percent clean electricity.
Environmental groups have pressured the governor to move more quickly, however. In 2019 the Hogan administration included its 100 percent goal in a draft plan of measures designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030, and environmental groups including Environment Maryland pushed for a stronger plan.
Breimann contends that Hogan’s plan lacks specificity, and she’s also concerned that Maryland — traditionally a leader in distributed solar — may be falling behind on installations. In 2019 Maryland ranked 16th in residential solar installations. In Q1 2020 the state ranked 23rd, according to analysis from Wood Mackenzie and the Solar Energy Industries Association.
“We should be moving up that list; we shouldn’t be moving down,” Breimann told Greentech Media.
A bill now in the Maryland state legislature, called the Climate Solutions Act of 2020, requires that all new buildings with more than 20,000 square feet of roof space install solar panels, but it’s unclear whether it will advance, as many state legislatures are focusing on pandemic-related measures. Democrats control both houses of Maryland's state legislature.
Environment America’s push comes amid a challenging time for the entire U.S. residential solar industry. Though many companies have begun reporting growing sales after they were negatively impacted by shutdowns and depressed economies related to the coronavirus crisis, the industry has not yet returned to pre-COVID-19 levels of demand. Like many clean energy advocates, Payne sees renewables as a key component of any plan for economic rehabilitation.
“Coming out of this pandemic, we still need to be focused on building for the future,” Payne said. “A really important part of that will be making sure that our homes are set up to be built for 100 percent renewable energy.”
Analysts at WoodMac expect California's mandate to augment the state's expected installations by between 123 and 334 megawatts per year through 2024. In 2019, the state installed more than 1 gigawatt of residential solar. That suggests new installation requirements won't entirely remake state solar markets, but groups such as Environment America assert that those installs should help states reach climate goals.