By: Clint Wilder
American innovation and enhanced competitiveness in the world economy. Quality, skilled, well-paying jobs. Cleaner air and water. And the reduction of carbon emissions in the challenging fight against global climate change.
All of those benefits came under ostensible assault last week, when President Trump issued his long-expected executive order to halt the review process of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) for CO2 reductions by utilities, remove coal mining restrictions on federal lands, and promulgate other fossil fuel-friendly measures. Even though the CPP repeal must go through a legal morass that makes a rollback unlikely to happen, the symbolism of Trump’s move to other nations – that the leadership of the world’s largest economy wants to abandon carbon reduction efforts – is deeply troubling.
For more than 15 years at Clean Edge, we have tracked, analyzed, and benchmarked the myriad of clean energy-related industry sectors that produce the benefits outlined above. As anyone in the industry knows, it has been a bumpy ride. Trump’s executive order has created another potential bump, but in the overall arc of U.S. clean-energy industry progress, I think it will prove to be just that, and not a major roadblock.
That’s because at the government level in the U.S., with some notable exceptions such as federal tax credits, state and city-level policies matter most in driving the growth of clean energy. We have seen this under both Republican and Democratic administrations. It’s a big reason why, at Clean Edge, we annually track and rank state and metro area-level clean energy deployment, policies, and capital flows in our U.S. Clean Tech Leadership Index; we will release the eighth annual edition next month. We also benchmark state leadership in grid modernization efforts and corporate clean- energy procurement policies and deployment.
“Energy markets are local, so states really are the key,” says Bernadette del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association. California is by far the leading state for solar power, but del Chiaro was speaking in Brooklyn, N.Y. at last month’s Intersolar Summit USA East focusing on Northeast states. The progress of solar (mainly distributed) in the Northeast is a good showcase for how state policy can drive significant clean-energy deployment in a region without significant solar resources. “California really embraces a race to the top with New York and New England,” del Chiaro said. Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York all ranked in the top five states in distributed solar generation in 2016, with Connecticut not far behind at #11, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And Vermont ranked #3 in distributed solar as a percentage of total generation.
Policy changes affecting solar in New York, which totaled 892 GWh of distributed solar generation statewide in 2016, are being particularly closely watched, as they are part of the state’s pioneering Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) initiative to restructure New York’s electricity markets. The wide-ranging REV goal is to incentivize efficiency, distributed generation and storage, and resiliency as well as renewables. Last month, the New York Public Service Commission approved the first phase of the state’s “value of distributed energy resources” (VDER) tariffs that will replace standard net metering rates with solar credits accounting for location, time, and overall grid needs. (As a transition phase, current residential and small commercial solar customers will be grandfathered in under current net metering rates through 2020.) “With the VDER policies, New York is really out ahead in trying to go beyond net metering to determine the true value of solar to the grid,” says Valessa Souter-Kline, policy coordinator of the New York Solar Energy Industries Association.
Expanding solar is a key component to reach New York’s renewable portfolio standard of 50% by 2030, which is one of the most aggressive in the nation – and just happens to match California’s. In response to Trump’s executive order, the two states’ governors, Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo, issued a joint statement reaffirming their states’ commitments to clean-energy advancement and greenhouse gas reduction. They also noted that their states together comprise a population of 60 million people, and account for a full 20% of the nation’s GDP.
Having that big a piece of the nation’s economy so committed to clean energy is just one irony of the official name of Trump’s order: “Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth.” In addition, the expansion of clean energy jobs is far outpacing those in fossil fuels. As my colleague Ron Pernick noted in last month’s View, solar jobs in the U.S. grew by 25% last year, and the nearly 475,000 jobs in solar and wind power generation are nearly triple those in coal power generation.
On the metro area leadership front, more than two dozen U.S. cities have now committed to, or are working toward, being 100% powered by renewable energy by joining the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign, either for municipal operations or the entire community. On the theme of bridging the “Divided States of America” red/blue schism, these include red-state municipalities such as Kansas City, Salt Lake City, and St. Petersburg, Fla. One of the newest members is the town of Abita Springs, La., deep in oil and gas country, in a parish where 73% of voters chose Trump in the 2016 election.
Mayors and other city leaders across the country also responded to Trump’s actions. I particularly liked the following assertion, part of a statement signed by the mayors of five major West Coast cities and the governors of the three coastal states: “We will assert our own 21st century leadership and chart a different course.”
We have known for some time that policies and deployment at the state and metro level are the keys to moving the U.S. towards a clean-energy economy. From RPSs to solar incentives to building codes to renewable fuel standards to hundreds of other key policies, they are more important than ever. If there was ever a time for U.S. states and cities to assert their leadership on clean energy – as our president so strongly reminded us last week – this is it. And it appears that they have every intention of doing so.
Clint Wilder is Clean Edge’s senior editor, a blogger about clean-tech issues for the Green section of The Huffington Post, and co-author of Clean Tech Nation and The Clean Tech Revolution (both with Ron Pernick). E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @Clint_Wilder.