by Julia Pyper
February 23, 2018

The U.S. solar industry saw employment fall for the first time last year since the Solar Foundation started collecting jobs data in 2010. This year, the Solar Energy Industries Association is forecasting additional job losses of roughly 23,000 due to new import tariffs on solar cells and modules.

One of the ways for states to stave off job loss is to approve ambitious renewable energy mandates that require utilities to continue investing in solar and other low-carbon resources -- which is precisely was renewable energy advocates in several states are looking to do.

This week’s column looks at the latest efforts to boost renewable portfolio standards (RPS) in states across the nation -- starting with legislation in New Jersey that would also provide support for nukes. 

New Jersey considers $300 million for nukes, plus RPS boost

New Jersey lawmakers advanced a bill this week that would boost the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard, in addition to providing $300 million in ratepayer funds to shore up nuclear power plants owned by Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG).

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee and the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee approved the legislation (A2850/S 877) after a four-hour joint hearing on Thursday. The AP reports there was opposition to the bill from all sides, with many Republicans abstaining from the vote, citing concerns the renewable energy components would be costly to consumers. On the other end of the spectrum, Sierra Club New Jersey director Jeff Tittel said he sees the proposed increase to the state’s renewable energy requirements as a “veneer.”

"The only thing green in this bill is the amount of money PSEG is going to make," said Tittel told the AP.

In its current form, the bill would increase New Jersey’s renewable portfolio standard to 35 percent of the electricity supply by 2035. The legislation would also modify the state’s RPS Solar Renewable Energy Credit obligation to require 5.1 percent of New Jersey’s electricity to come from solar by 2021 -- up from 4.1 percent. And it would establish a community solar program available to renters, low-income residents and small businesses.

These changes were added last minute at the request of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and with strong support from the solar industry.

The New Jersey legislature has taken “the right initial steps” with this bill, said Sean Gallagher, SEIA's vice president of state affairs. 

"While a few key changes were left out of the final bill, including provisions to close out the current Solar Renewable Energy Credit program in an orderly manner, this bill provides both short-term fixes to the RPS and the authorization for community solar that the industry has been seeking,” Gallagher said in a statement. “This legislation is particularly important as the federal government imposes misguided tariffs on solar cells and panels.”

New Jersey is currently the fifth largest solar state in the U.S. with 2,234 megawatts of cumulative solar capacity installed. The state’s solar industry employs more than 7,100 workers, putting New Jersey eighth in the nation for solar employment. SEIA has warned that jobs could disappear as the solar industry copes with the economic impact of new solar tariffs. Strong renewable energy mandates at the state-level would help to reduce that risk.

Whether or not to approve ratepayer support for aging nuclear power plants has become a nationwide debate. Illinois and New York have already approved zero emissions credits for nukes and several other states are considering similar action – but with significant opposition

The New Jersey funding for PSEG is also facing pushback, including from ratepayer advocates, environmentalists, and PSEG competitors that say the utility is getting preferential treatment. PSEG argues the shuttering its nuclear plants would result in the loss of thousands of jobs and a zero-carbon-emitting energy source. 

The Senate version of the bill is scheduled for a vote on Monday.

Nevada ballot initiative seeks 50 percent RPS by 2030

A new group called Nevadans for Clean Energy Future, with backing from billionaire Tom Steyer, has filed a ballot initiative that would amend Nevada’s Constitution to increase the state RPS to 50 percent by 2030. The state’s current RPS target is 25 percent by 2025.

Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed a measure approved by lawmakers last year that sought to raise the state’s RPS to 40 percent by 2030. Sandoval said the measure was “premature” given Nevadans are currently considering a separate ballot initiative on energy choice later this year.

To boost the RPS target, voters will have to pass the ballot initiative in November 2018 and again in 2020. If approved, the renewable energy requirements would increase in tiers over time:

  • 26 percent for calendar years 2022 and 2023
  • 34 percent for calendar years 2024 through 2026
  • 42 percent for calendar years 2027 to 2029
  • 50 percent by 2030 and afterwards

Steyer said Nevada is “the Saudi Arabia of solar energy in the United States,” which is why he chose to get involved in the ballot initiative, although he did not disclose how much he’s spending on the effort. Steyer is also funding a similar ballot initiative in Michigan.

Michigan ballot initiative would mandate 30 percent renewable electricity

Renewable energy advocates in Michigan have launched a ballot initiative that would mandate the state’s utilities to get at least 30 percent of their power from renewable energy sources by 2030. 

Clean Energy, Clean Michigan, the group advancing the effort, will need to gather at least 252,523 valid signatures within 180 days in order to see the proposal put on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. An earlier ballot initiative to boost the state’s mandate to 25 percent renewables by 2025 was voted down in 2012. Advocates say greater public awareness of renewable energy cost declines coupled with the health benefits are likely to win the new measure more support.

The state’s two largest utilities, DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, are not on board though. Utility representatives say they’re already boosting renewable energy procurement and that an inflexible mandate could lead to higher costs for electricity customers.

DTE Energy Chairman and CEO Gerry Anderson told the Detroit Free Press he sees the ballot measure coming at a strange time. DTE, Consumers Energy and other large state utilities recently reached a mandated goal of 10 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2015, and state lawmakers passed a new energy plan in 2016 that boosts the portfolio standard to 15 percent by 2021.

"We just took a very visible step forward on this agenda and did it in bipartisan fashion," Anderson said. "I can guarantee you, as we look at our long-term plans, it's going to include more renewables. We're going to keep adding renewables because it's the right thing to do, both economically and environmentally."

In May, DTE announced a plan to eliminate its coal-fired power plants and reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Consumers Energy also announced a goal to end coal use and is planning to boost its renewable energy portfolio to 40 percent by 2040.

The Michigan Public Service Commission recently released its annual report on the implementation of the state’s existing renewable portfolio standard that found utilities are very likely to meet the 15 percent target. Midwest Energy News highlighted five other important takeaways from the report:

  • The cost of renewables is falling much faster than regulators expected, with the average price for renewable contracts plunging 38 percent between 2009 and 2016. 
  • Renewables come with costs, but so does everything else on the grid, like infrastructure upgrades.
  • Renewables are cheaper than coal by a long shot -- coming in at nearly half the cost of power from a new, conventional plant. Now renewables are closing in on natural gas.
  • Utilities aren’t as aggressive as their percentages indicate, because they can bank credits.
  • Renewable energy has created thousands of jobs under the standard, reaching 9,100 jobs in Michigan halfway through 2017.

John Freeman, who is leading the ballot initiative, argues Michigan’s renewable portfolio standard has been a very successful public policy tool and that boosting the mandate will give the market even greater certainty.

Meanwhile, DTE’s Anderson has not only come out against the ballot measure, but also who’s funding it. The Michigan ballot is being partially supported by California billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who Anderson called a political “lightning rod.”

Steyer’s involvement “is going to introduce partisanship and a fractious environment where we don't need it,” he said.  

Maryland reaches for 50 percent renewables

A set of bills introduced in Maryland this month, SB732 and HB1453, would double the state’s renewable energy target to 50 percent by 2030. The bills would also increase the solar carve-out, from 2.5 percent to 5.5 percent next year, and to 14.5 percent by 2028.

The new proposal comes just a year after the state legislature voted to up the RPS target from 20 percent to 25 percent by 2020 -- and overcame a veto by Gov. Larry Hogan to keep the 5 percent increase in place.

Climate and clean energy advocates launched a campaign for the 50 percent target on the first day of the 2018 legislative session, viewing it as a way for Maryland to reclaim a leadership role on clean energy from Washington D.C., reduce harmful emissions and to boost employment across the state. Instead of losing 800 jobs this year as a result of President Trump’s Section 201 solar tariff decision, solar advocates say Maryland could create 20,000 new jobs and attract $11 billion in investments if the bills are passed.

A hearing is scheduled in the House on March 5 and in the Senate on March 6.

Massachusetts strives for 100 percent renewable energy by 2050

Massachusetts state Senators Marc Pacheco and Jamie Eldridge have introduced a bill (S2302) that sets new renewable energy targets on the way to a goal of 100 percent renewables across all sectors by 2050.

Under the new bill, the state can have no more than 50 percent non-renewable energy by 2030, no more than 20 percent non-renewable energy by 2040. It also establishes interim limits on non-renewable energy in individual subsectors of the economy. “These interim limits shall maximize the ability of the commonwealth to achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2050,” the legislation states.

In the electricity sector, Massachusetts’ current renewable portfolio standard calls for 15 percent renewables by 2020, increasing 1 percent per year each year after. A bill summary states that S2302 would boost the renewable electricity target to 3 percent per year, putting Massachusetts on track to reach 45 percent by 2040. It would also establish a statewide solar target of 20 percent by 2020 and 30 percent by 2030.

S2302 goes even further by eliminating the state’s caps on net metering, providing the same benefits to low-income solar projects available to municipal solar projects, and would set a statewide deployment target of 1,766 megawatts of “cost effective” energy storage to be achieved by January 1, 2025. The bill would also place a 10-year moratorium on fracking in the state.

The bill has been reported to the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change and is expected to head to the Ways and Means committee next. The wide-ranging and ambitious proposals are likely to face pushback in both the House and Senate.

Hawaii reaches 27 percent renewables

In 2015, Hawaii became the first state to approve a 100 percent renewable energy target, and chose to set a 2045 deadline. Last year, Hawaiian utilities made progress toward that goal in gaining a percentage point toward a total of 27 percent renewables. Hawaii’s RPS requires utilities to reach 30 percent renewables by 2020.

Rooftop solar makes up a substantial portion of the state’s renewable energy mix, although growth has slowed since the state ended retail rate net metering in late 2015. Hawaiian Electric Co. and its member utilities are now looking to add more grid-scale renewable energy projects in order to reach their targets, including four large solar projects and a biofuel plant on Oahu, where demand is the greatest.