Opinion

The Fastest Route to Clean Energy Progress Runs Through the States

By Warren Leon
November 17, 2020 at 5:00 am ET

With a Biden-Harris administration on the way and an imperative to quickly tackle both climate change and a crippled economy, there will undoubtedly be numerous proposals for how the federal government can lead a transition to clean energy. After all, such a transition would have major economic and environmental benefits. Many of the proposals will undoubtedly be compelling and will deserve to be implemented, even though it will be difficult to get ambitious legislation through Congress. 

Amid the visions of new federal initiatives, it will be important to remember that the quickest and most cost-effective way to make rapid progress will be to support the states that have been carrying the clean energy banner in recent years. Fortunately, some of the ways to provide that support will not require congressional action or may be palatable to a Congress in which the Republicans retain considerable power.

As highlighted in our report last year, “Returning Champions: State Clean Energy Leadership Since 2015,” states are facilitating a clean energy transition by setting aggressive goals for carbon-free electricity generation, by supporting markets for emerging technologies, by modernizing the electricity grid and by focusing on equity to ensure that low- and moderate-income households can access the benefits of clean energy. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has unfortunately become harder for the states to maintain momentum. 

One of the best things the federal government can do is to ensure that the states have enough resources to avoid staff layoffs and program cutbacks. Because of budget pressures, many states have already slowed program implementation or furloughed staff. Further reductions loom unless the federal government provides relief. Why launch new energy initiatives at the federal level while effective state clean energy programs are being cut? General financial relief for the states needs to be a top priority. 

It should also be a priority to sustain and strengthen what has been the most important positive climate change policy development of the past few years — states’ adoption of specific goals to convert 100 percent of their electricity supply to clean energy. Some states have done this through legislation, some through regulation, and others through a governor’s executive order.

The number keeps growing — just this past week, Arizona regulators approved a requirement that
electric utilities provide 100 percent clean energy by 2050. That means that 17 plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico currently aim to reach zero-emissions power. They are putting plans in place to achieve their targets and are working diligently to overcome the many obstacles. They are cooperating and sharing what they learn through efforts like the
100% Clean Energy Collaborative

Together, these jurisdictions include 42 percent of the U.S. population and their economies make up 48 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. They have a collective GDP larger than any country other than China and nearly twice as large as Japan, the next largest economy. If they can successfully navigate the transition to a clean energy economy, the impact would be immense.

The federal government should provide meaningful near-term support to these states, as well as to other states that want to hop on the clean energy bandwagon. In particular:

  • The Department of Energy and the national laboratories should provide additional technical assistance.
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission should remove regulatory barriers that impede implementation of state clean energy policies.
  • Congress should set aside money in the DOE budget for grants to states that are working towards deep decarbonization. Jigar Shah, Co-Founder of Generate Capital Inc., has suggested the federal government provide matching grants for state clean energy expenditures.
  • The federal government should make it financially attractive for additional states to work towards a clean electricity supply. 
  • States should receive help so that they can more easily strengthen workforce development programs and policies that will lead to an inclusive workforce and fair wages in the clean energy sector.

During the next four years, there can be a beautiful clean energy partnership between the federal government and the states, but only if the states have sufficient resources to be effective partners. 

Warren Leon is executive director of the Clean Energy States Alliance.

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