The Loophole That’s Letting Conservatives Manipulate Renewable Energy Standards

By Tiffany Germain and Matt Kasper

As the Heartland Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, continue to target states’ renewable energy standard (RES) with their model legislation — the Electricity Freedom Act — conservative lawmakers are using other unethical tactics to weaken or repeal standards.

Currently, at least five states — Connecticut, Missouri, Montana, Oregon, and Washington — have introduced legislation that would include hydropower as part of the calculation utility companies use to comply with state RES standards. Many laws already allow small hydropower facilities to be counted. But alterations allowing the inclusion of larger or already existing hydropower generating facilities essentially lowers a state’s renewable energy target — allowing utility companies to avoid investing in new wind or solar facilities, or having to buy renewable energy credits from other companies with those facilities.

Including hydropower in renewable energy standards should not be detrimental to new renewable energy projects. When produced responsibly, hydropower benefits local communities by creating jobs and is an essential part of the solution to climate change. In fact, it is the leading renewable energy source used by utilities in the United States.

However, conservative state lawmakers are not interested in developing hydropower. Their goal is only to repeal the state renewable energy standards by any means necessary. If lawmakers were truly concerned about increasing hydropower in their state, then they should add hydropower as an eligible technology and increase the percentage of the renewable energy standard by the comparable amount.

Yet bills like SB 31 in Montana, sponsored by state senator Debby Barrett, would wipe the renewable energy standard out entirely by including existing hydropower facilities. According to the Independent Record, Montana has seen more than $1.6 billion of capital investment in renewable energy, the creation of 1,500 high-paying construction jobs, 100 permanent jobs, and 650 megawatts of newly installed renewable energy since the creation of their RES. This legislation passed the state Senate 32-18 on January 31, and has been transferred to the Republican controlled House where it is expected to pass. A similar bill was vetoed last year by former Governor Schweitzer. It is unclear if current Democratic Governor Steve Bullock would do the same.

The purpose of renewable energy standards is to encourage new renewable energy development in states. Washington state lawmakers understood that when the Energy Independence Act was passed in 2006, establishing a 15 percent standard by 2020. Since the state already receives the bulk of its power from hydroelectricity — currently 66 percent of total generation — the law sought to diversify Washington’s energy portfolio. SB 5431 not only weakens the standard, but also harms the businesses that made investments in renewable energy projects, believing the law would provide reassurance for investing.

In fact, capital investments to date in Washington’s wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass exceeded $7.9 billion, according to data released this month by the Renewable Northwest Project. With stable policies in place, the renewable energy industry can continue to develop and create local manufacturing jobs. But if policies such as state renewable energy standards are weakened or repealed, then the future of renewable industry businesses and capital investments in the state are at risk.

Business leaders throughout the nation have come out in support of renewable energy standards. Julie Gorte, Senior Vice President for Sustainable Investing at Pax World Investments, wrote in the Denver Post:

In every sector, investors and businesses look for policies that are long-term, that provide a strong signal to invest and that don’t generate uncertainty by changing frequently. In other words, investors prefer policies that are long, loud and clear… Other groups are trying to paint renewable energy policies as anti-business. Our firm manages more than $2 billion in assets, and that’s not what I hear from executives at the companies we invest in. Instead, they are finding opportunities in renewable energy, not burdens.

The following are the five bills that would allow hydropower, or increase the amount of eligible credits for hydropower, to be included in a state’s renewable energy standard — ultimately gutting the law:

  • Connecticut HB 6086 was referred to the Joint Committee on Energy and Technology on January 25.
  • Missouri HB 44 passed the House on February 28.
  • Montana SB 31 passed the Senate on January 31.
  • Oregon SB 121 was referred to the Environment and Natural Resources Committee on January 16.
  • Washington SB 5431 was referred to the Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee on January 31.

None of the five bills has a single Democratic co-sponsor.

Tiffany Germain is the ThinkProgress War Room Senior Climate/Energy Researcher. Matt Kasper is a Special Assistant for the Energy Policy team at the Center for American Progress.

4 Responses to The Loophole That’s Letting Conservatives Manipulate Renewable Energy Standards

  1. I disagree. We should include hydropower – in those parts of the nation that have heavy precipitation (not states like Arizona, obviously) but we should also raise the RPS/RES to account for that inclusion, so that the RPS/RES is always going up.

    A more serious problem is that in many other states – counting just NON hydro – the 2010 requirements have so easily been met, and the 2015 ones are so unambitious that there is no incentive left now to seek out more renewables in general.

    Among these, Colorado and California have met (have contracts for buying power from) their 2020 targets as well – both targets of 30% or more. So there is no further growth and there could be.

    It’s a bit like how easily the EU met its Kyoto requirements and lowered its GHGs and now as a result its carbon price has dwindled to nothing, now severely limiting further incentive.

  2. Randy Brown says:

    I undertand hydropower is renewable but the organic sediment at the botom of the reservoir generates methane anaerobically and less carbon dioxide due to the lack of oxygen normally present in a turbulant,oxigenated stream or river bed. If my understanding is correct does it impact the fight for or against hydropower’s inclusion as a renewable?

  3. SSPP journal says:

    See also SSPP Blog Post, “Canada’s Less Controversial Energy: Hydropower Can Reduce Greenhouse Emissions”

  4. Phil Kerckhoff says:

    In Wisconsin, AB 34 seeks to reclassify nuclear power as renewable energy.