In 2018, Colorado was among a handful of states where energy and climate policy headlined state elections and led to Democrats seizing control of the state house, senate and governor's office. This year will be different.
It's not that anyone in Colorado has lost interest in these topics — discussions about net metering and fuel switching are ongoing, according to Mike Kruger, president and CEO of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association. But at the local level, he said, it's no longer a topic of contention thanks to bipartisan agreement about the need for a transition to clean energy.
“We don't have quite the tribalism that you see at the federal level,” he said. Even if Republicans gain control of the Colorado house or senate this fall, Kruger doesn't expect a dramatic change in the state's energy policy.
Although the pandemic has helped to dampen what was expected to be a heated debate about climate policy this fall, experts say that's far from the only reason why political conversations about energy are more subdued this year. Over the past few years, moderate and right-leaning state officials have joined their Democratic counterparts in advancing their own renewable energy initiatives, lessening concern about whether they will come to fruition.
Some who watch state-level energy policy say what happens at the federal level this year could disrupt the current delicate balance. In previous years, states assumed an active role in countering federal policies with which they disagree, divided largely along partisan lines. A Biden presidency, several analysts predict, could actually slow U.S. adoption of renewable energy if it triggers opposition among conservative-led states.
Concerns about federal 'overreach'
The current — albeit tenuous — bipartisan consensus in some states around renewable energy is a relatively recent development, one that follows several years of heated debate around energy policy and climate change that largely began during the Obama administration.
“One of the problems with the Clean Power Plan is it was a top-down approach,” said Frank Maisano, a senior principal at law and government relations firm Bracewell, referring to the Obama Administration's plan to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants. While the Clean Power Plan was intended to spur states to act on climate change, it ultimately did the opposite as conservative states sued to block the plan, slowing the adoption of renewable energy policy in those states.
Once Trump took office, his choice to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement triggered a similar but opposite action, prompting some Democratic states to signal their intent to enact policies them to act as though the U.S. remained a party to the agreement.
“A number of states feel that there's not really what they would call climate leadership on the federal side, so it's up to them to act,” said Glen Andersen, energy program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But as the furor surrounding the U.S. pullout from the Paris Climate Agreement has died down, states on both ends of the spectrum have gravitated toward a general consensus around the need to deploy more clean energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible, according to Charles Hernick, vice president of policy and advocacy at Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions.
At this point, a significant number of states have pledged to achieve 100% clean energy by 2050, 2040 or even 2030, according to Andersen. For many states, these goals are as much about domestic energy production as clean air — and they're often driven by market demand and a desire to spur economic development.
“Investment in clean energy results in economic gains for your state — more people employed, more taxes coming in,” said J.R. Tolbert, managing director of Advanced Energy Economy. “All of those are positive things you don't have to be a blue state governor to recognize. More and more we see conservative voters saying they want their politicians to support clean energy.”
The primary remaining difference between Democratic and Republican approaches to clean energy, Hernick said, is that Democrats prefer mandates while Republicans focus more on consumer choice and incentives. “That's going to be the biggest difference,” he said. “Both parties are focused on deploying clean energy.”
As Hernick sees it, the Trump administration's indifference toward climate change has “essentially created a wide-open playing field” for both policy approaches, which has enabled both sides of the spectrum to progress. So Biden, he said, may actually pose a greater threat to renewable energy adoption should his administration mandate a more narrow approach.
“These are really different things,” Maisano said. “You can be for renewable energy and innovation and things like that, and at the same time you may be against something like the Clean Power Plan or the Green New Deal because it takes some of the authority away from you.”
Federal policies like the Green New Deal or a carbon tax aren't likely to go too far, and if a Democratic administration were smart, they wouldn't push for something Republican states might consider overreach, Maisano said. Trying to force such policies would only serve to trigger opposition and partisanship on the topic of energy once again, which could in turn slow states' adoption of clean energy.
“I think we can stall on success if they try to overreach because that will push people back into their corners and states like Texas will say 'we're already doing all this stuff,'” Maisano said.
The opposition may not be limited to Republican states, either, according to Kenny Stein, director of policy and federal affairs for the American Energy Alliance. “I would say there would be opposition to Biden energy policies from both directions,” he said. “I think places like California will say Biden is not going far enough, and Republican states will resist. There will be a lot of lawsuits.”
State-level renewable energy progress at risk
Acting too aggressively could also risk the tentative progress Democrats made in traditionally red and purple states in 2018, Maisano said. Democrats picked up seven gubernatorial offices in previously red states that year, compared to one independent seat that went to a Republican. But many of those Democrats hold relatively moderate positions, and their constituents still lean conservative. They will be unlikely to follow the party line and support aggressive climate policies like the Green New Deal because they know they will lose their jobs if they do, Maisano said.
“To achieve the kind of goals [Democrats] want to achieve,” he said, “it's going to have to be a big tent.”
On the other hand, the impact of COVID-19 on state budgets means states may readily accept a federal clean energy package that included funding for state initiatives, according to Tolbert.
“The states that we work in, and states all over the country, are hemorrhaging cash and in dire financial situations, because the current president and senate will not provide local relief,” he said. “Inclusion of clean energy in a stimulus is not executive overreach. Utilizing the Clean Air Act … to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, that's something folks tend to think was overreach. There could be push back on that."
Regardless of what happens on the national stage, the impact of a new federal administration is unlikely to be felt at the state level this year, Tolbert said. This is primarily because of the limited number of gubernatorial elections taking place this year — only 11 states will vote for governor this fall.
“And, frankly, as we look at the subset of states that are on the ballot this year...there won't be a lot of change,” Tolbert said. “Montana is considered the most competitive of all the gubernatorial races.”
The more significant state-level decisions this year, Tolbert said, may actually be legislative races in states like North Carolina where Democratic governors are frequently blocked by the state's Republican-controlled senate or house of representatives. Sixteen states where the house, senate and governor's office are controlled by a single party may lose that status this year, while seven states could potentially attain trifectas in the coming elections.
The importance of state legislative races is evident in New Hampshire, where Republican Gov. Chris Sununu is up for re-election and seems likely to win based on high approval ratings, according to Madeleine Mineau, executive director of Clean Energy New Hampshire. The state's legislative representatives are all up for reelection as well, and that could change the state's energy landscape, according to Mineau.
The state's legislators have, for several years, tried to pass legislation to increase a cap on the size of solar systems permitted to participate in net metering, but the governor has to date roundly vetoed all successful bills. If the state's legislature were to achieve a supermajority in the coming election, Mineau said, it could put this long-running dynamic to rest.
“I don't know how possible that is,” she said. “New Hampshire is a very purple state, and it's likely to remain pretty mixed.”
The growing bipartisanship around state-level energy policies, driven by economic neccessity, could be another solution, and Gov. Sununu has signaled he's now open to consider a compromise on account of economic conditions, Mineau said.
“It remains an issue any time we talk about the economy, because our energy costs are high,” she said. “When we talk about wanting to attract new businesses, one of the things that almost always comes up is the cost of energy.”
But different politicians have differing ideas about how renewable energy fits into New Hampshire's economic landscape, Mineau continued. Some see potential for renewable energy and local generation to reduce New Hampshire's energy burden, while others worry it would drive up costs.
Michigan, which replaced a Republican governor with a Democrat in 2018, is expected to see a tight overall race within its House of Representatives. The Democrats may just slightly edge out Republicans this year, according to Laura Sherman, president of the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council. But while this may seem like it holds the potential to upset the state's balance of power, Sherman doubts it will have much impact on her work. Like Mineau, Sherman has found that local representatives on both sides of the aisle support policies that promote clean energy.
As in New Hampshire, high energy prices have helped to keep energy-related initiatives on the political map in Michigan, inspiring conversations about community solar, electric vehicles and the taxation of wind and solar development.
“I don't think [the consensus on renewable energy] is related to climate or any acknowledgement of that,” Sherman said. “For some people, it may be, but our message is very much about job creation, manufacturing, and good paying jobs. Those are the things we generally talk to folks about, and those arguments resonate on both sides of the aisle.”
COVID-19 has slowed many new policy initiatives in the energy sector this year, Andersen said, but in some states, where weather and natural disasters have interfered with grid reliability, the events of the past year have actually raised energy's political profile.
“In many states that's a big issue,” he said. “Those concerns have been clarified and raised this year, with drought and high temperatures and how the grid adapts, but also what role policymakers can play in potentially reducing things like that.”
Hernick said Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions is also keeping an eye on certain Republican-controlled states where political leaders have adopted relatively "aggressive" renewable energy standards despite their own conservative leanings and the strong conservative ideology held by their constituents. In Utah, for example, incumbent Republican Gov. Gary Herbert is retiring from office, opening the door to two new candidates. While there's little sense that Democratic candidate Chris Peterson is likely to win, it remains to be seen whether his Republican opponent Spencer Cox will continue Utah's current policy trajectory, where dozens of communities have opted in to a state-wide program targeting 100% clean energy by 2030.
“What we're interested in seeing is what will become of an aggressive reorientation toward clean energy,” Hernick said.