A wave of conservative political victories does not appear to have set off a fresh series of attacks against state renewable portfolio standards (RPS). The reason? Cleaner power is now mainstream, and competes in the energy marketplace.
"I would say the cat is out of the bag on this," said Todd Foley, senior vice president for policy and government relations with the American Council On Renewable Energy. "Renewable power is cost competitive and consumers love choice."
Research from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory largely bears this out. A report on renewable standards found costs were estimated to be equivalent to less than 2% of retail rates in 17 states, with 10 of these states having estimated costs equivalent to less than 1% of retail rates. And the study noted "six states estimated wholesale market price reductions that resulted from an RPS." Those studies generally found wholesale price reductions of about $1/MWh or less within specific markets (generation) or price suppression benefits of $2-$50/MWh of renewable energy generation.
Most states put their renewable portfolio standards (RPS) in place about 10 years ago, working to ensure more green energy and to encourage the development of the renewables industry. There have been recent attacks — one successful — on RPS policies in some states. But Foley said the issue is now largely bipartisan, with most challenges coming from far-right groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, which opposes all government energy mandates.
"There has been some push-back," said Foley. "But the renewable energy industry, when you look at it, it's really private sector investment. … Incumbent interests will always be working hard to maintain their market position. Renewables are the new emerging players in the market. This is nothing new."
Attacks overshadowed by new consensus
So far this year ACORE has noted just a couple of states which have considered pulling back on renewable standards, compared to 14 states which made an attempt 2013. Notable in this legislative session is Colorado, a state which by some estimates has 360 solar companies operating across the market chain.
There, Republican lawmakers opened their legislative session by proposing to drop renewables mandates from 30% to 15% in 2020. House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso said "it’s time this chamber recognizes oil, natural gas and coal not only provide clean, affordable and reliable power, but are economic drivers in many communities in Colorado."
"We can develop renewable energy and use our current natural resources at the same time," DelGrosso said. "Republicans support renewable energy, but we do not support stifling our economy and killing jobs to pursue an unrealistic agenda."
But those attacks will be isolated and overshadowed by the continuation of a "long bipartisan history" for renewable energy, Foley said. He points to prominent Republicans like Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, President George Bush when he was governor of Texas and Arnold Schwarzenegger when he led California.
Last week, Florida conservatives added a new initiative to the growing bipartisan consensus on renewables, announcing a 2016 ballot initiative campaign to boost solar energy in the state. The coalition of environmentalists, libertarians, tea partiers and mainstream Republicans wants to amend state law to allow solar power owners to sell power directly to consumers, removing the utility as a middleman. There, as in many other states, conservatives frame the issue as an expansion of the free market and consumer choice in energy.
"Bipartisan support remains important for our sector," Foley said.
Despite the attempts, there has been only one state to succeed in rolling back an RPS. Last summer Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed a Republican-sponsored and utility-backed measure freezing the state’s mandates for renewables and efficiency until 2017. The measure was opposed by consumer, business, and environmental coalitions.
When states do consider rolling back renewable standards, "it sends a chilling signal to the market," Foley said. In Ohio, "I'm not sure it's killing the industry there, but if businesses do dry up they probably don't come back."
This week, Pew Research released a study finding that, as Foley expected, the renewables mandate freeze is hampering clean energy investment in the state.
Efficiency standards still under threat
It may be a different story for energy efficiency mandates, however. Several states have recently pulled back from requiring utilities to meet efficiency targets, which could represent a serious shift away from progress made in recent years.
Martin Kushler, senior fellow at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, said the instances are "still fairly isolated, but even what has occurred recently is definitely a shift in overall pattern."
"The latter half of the last decade was a time of very strong growth for energy efficiency in the utility sector," Kushler said. "Things have been coasting along since then — nearly all states have been meeting or exceeding those targets. But really, within the last year there's been substantial pushback against these policies."
In Florida, regulators cut the energy efficiency targets of the state's largest investor-owned utilities, as well as allowing a solar rebate program to expire at the end of 2015. Ohio, in addition to jettisoning its RPS, also gutted its efficiency targets last year. Arizona regulators are considering a proposal to eliminate efficiency mandates, and in Indiana, a now-defunct efficiency program was saving the state $3 for every $1 spent on residential efficiency, according to analysis by regulators.
Many opponents in each state say they support enhanced efficiency, but cannot endorse government mandates for utilities to achieve it. That's unfortunate, mandate supporters say, because state incentives and benchmarks have been shown to drive utility behavior on efficiency programs across the nation. Either way, it appears that no noteworthy conservative discourse supporting efficiency mandates has yet emerged in the way it has for renewable energy policies.
"Entities that feel fossil fuels are, frankly, beginning to feel some pinch," Kushler said. Despite recent setbacks, though, he takes an enlightened view of it all. "It's kind of badge of recognition — that efficiency is working. ... Frankly, the recent pushback we've seen is really the highest form of proof that energy efficiency works."