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States lead the way on pivotal shift toward renewable energy after midterms

The election of pro-clean energy governors raises hopes of wind and solar industry sectors.

Wind turbines and solar panels in California. CREDIT: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Wind turbines and solar panels in California. CREDIT: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The shift in the political balance at the state level following the midterm elections will produce far more benefits for the renewable energy industry — at least in the next few years — than the Democratic takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives, according to clean energy experts.

Voters in several states elected Democratic governors in previously Republican-controlled states, shakeups that could lead to a more rapid advancement of clean energy policies. The Democratic Party also seized control of seven state legislatures, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, a shift that could make it easier to pass laws favorable to renewable energy.

Speaking Friday at a clean energy forum in Washington, D.C., Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), a nonprofit trade group that advocates for the growth of renewable energy, referred to the results of the November 6 elections as a “seismic shift” in the political landscape.

But it’s primarily at the state level, according to Wetstone, that the political changes will improve the fortunes of the wind, solar, and other renewable energy sectors.

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A trend that started more than a dozen years ago — the creation of renewable energy standards and the establishment of clean energy incentives — could gain even more momentum due to what happened in the governors’ races and in state legislatures, he predicted.

Although renewables legislation used to be more bipartisan, Democrats have been far more likely to support renewable energy-friendly policies than Republicans since the rise of the Koch Brothers and other pro-fossil fuel political funders a decade ago.

At the federal level, Wetstone and the other panelists at the event, titled “Election 2018: What’s Next for Clean Energy Policy,” didn’t completely discount the importance of at least 36 seats swinging to the Democrats in the U.S. House in the midterm elections. But they weren’t optimistic about any immediate major federal policy changes that would benefit the renewables industry or address climate change.

“We have a tremendous opportunity to make progress at the state level,” said Wetstone. “But we don’t want 50 different state approaches to carbon. We want a national approach.”

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Tackling climate change, Wetstone explained, will require bipartisan movement at the federal level. “Carbon is the biggest externality in the history of economics,” he noted, referring to the high societal costs of burning carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

In the next Congress, there could be opportunities for the passage of bipartisan legislation, but nothing on the scale needed to adequately address the climate crisis.

Hal Harvey, CEO of energy and environmental research firm Energy Innovation, told the forum that he met with more than two dozen Democratic members of Congress last week, many of whom said there’s an opportunity for the passage of bipartisan bills, but only on a small scale.

The House is more likely to pass “sensible, incremental policies that could find favor in the Senate,” the lawmakers told Harvey, who added, “They’re not looking for a dramatic change.”

Some of those modest steps, such as providing additional federal incentives for the deployment of offshore wind energy, could turn out to be important for the advancement of renewables. “We’re going to see an opportunity for comity between the parties to get some incremental things done,” he said.

Modest policy steps are not what many Democratic House newcomers promised in their successful election bids. Many made fighting climate change one of their top legislative priorities, especially in light of the recent United Nations’ report that gave the world 12 years to take the necessary steps to avert a climate catastrophe.

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Climate activists are rallying behind Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who is pushing a “Green New Deal.” The plan calls for a massive national mobilization to transition the U.S. economy away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy while creating green jobs and infrastructure.

Environmental activists are also pushing for passage of the Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act (OFF Act), a major piece of legislation introduced in September 2017 by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) which currently has 45 co-sponsors. The bill mandates a transition to 100 percent renewable energy in electricity production, with 80 percent of that shift happening within 10 years.

With Democrats now controlling the House, such legislation, which would have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions, could get passed — and then the future of climate legislation would then be in the hands of the Senate.

In the Republican-controlled Senate, though, the passage of any meaningful climate legislation will have little chance.

Even on the Democratic side of the Senate, the news is not rosy. Wetstone warned that Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) could give up her ranking spot on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to become the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee. Such a move would open up the top Democratic spot on the energy committee to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), a strong supporter of the fossil fuel industry, especially the mining and burning of coal for power generation.

“That’s not exactly the ideal scenario for renewable power, to be clear,” Wetstone said of Manchin’s possible promotion.

All in all, though, the tone of the forum was a positive one.

Elias Hinckley, an attorney at forum host K&L Gates, kicked off the event by offering an optimistic view of the midterm election’s impact on the growth of renewables. “I really do think this is the moment when things change,” Hinckley said.

At the state level, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, Maine, and Wisconsin all switched from Republican to Democratic governors. In 14 states, Democrats will have control of the governor’s office and control of both houses of the legislatures, with Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, Nevada, Maine and New York joining eight other states.

The failure of two ballot initiatives — the carbon fee proposal in Washington state and the 50-percent-renewables-by-2030 proposal in Arizona — did not overly concern the panelists.

“Does the loss in two states on ballot initiatives cause me great heartache? No, because I think the rest of the election shows that there’s broad support” for clean energy, said Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Polls show that Americans strongly support a major expansion of renewable energy deployment, with a large percentage willing to pay more for clean energy, she said.

The extent to which voters elected officials who support clean energy at the state level “should not be understated — that is a huge outcome,” Hopper said. “Now let’s go from talking to action.”