Catalyst Spring 2017

Clean Energy Takes Hold

New UCS analysis shows that renewable energy is riding a wave of momentum in states across the country. Which states are leading the way to a cleaner future?
Wind turbine

Photo: Joe Vogan/Alamy Stock Photo

By Bryan Wadsworth

Across the United States, falling costs and improving technology are driving record growth in renewable energy. Consider the astounding surge in solar power: in 2016, the amount of new solar power coming online nearly doubled from the previous year—enough to power 2 million typical US homes. For the first time ever, solar energy accounted for more new electricity generating capacity than any other resource. And with more than 50,000 new jobs added last year, solar energy now accounts for nearly twice as many electricity sector jobs as all fossil fuels combined.

Recent analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists crunches all these numbers—and many more—to determine which states are driving clean energy momentum. One key finding: support for renewable energy transcends our nation’s divided politics. The Trump administration may have installed former fossil fuel industry insiders in key positions of power, but the decisions states have made about their energy future tell a very different story about where our electric sector is headed.

Wind and solar energy are winning in the marketplace even in states whose leaders haven’t explicitly championed the health and climate benefits. To be sure, many coastal, urban states are showing strong clean energy growth. But solid-red states in the heartland—Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, North and South Dakota, and Wyoming—also rank among the clean energy leaders by some measures.

Hawaii leads the nation in residential solar power projects. Tapping into renewable energy not only reduces electricity costs but also creates jobs in local communities.
Photo: NREL

Texas offers another powerful example. Politicians in the Lone Star State sought to encourage competition in 1999 by deregulating the state’s electricity market, setting a modest target for clean energy generation. The boom in wind power they spurred led state legislators to raise the renewable electricity standard in 2005, and Texas sped past that revised target 15 years ahead of schedule. It now leads the nation in wind capacity, with almost three times as much as any other state. And last year, when the Texas electric grid operator looked at a range of scenarios to determine its cheapest source of electricity for the next 25 years, solar power came out on top in every scenario. In other words, the people responsible for supplying Texas with its electricity are now predicting that the state can meet its electricity needs without adding any new fossil fuel capacity.

In Texas and elsewhere, states are finding that shifting from dirty fossil fuels to renewable resources brings real benefits: new revenue and jobs for communities in need of both (see the sidebar), improved public health through better air and water quality, and a more stable climate. What’s more, smart clean energy choices can lessen the negative impacts of fossil fuel power that are particularly felt among communities of color and low-income households, which are often located close to polluting power plants, more sensitive to energy price spikes, and vulnerable to flooding.

Ranking the States

Accurately charting state momentum on clean energy—to determine who the leaders are—is a bit trickier than it might seem. You could of course measure how much installed renewable energy capacity a state has already put into place. But to get a sense of where a state is headed, you also need to track how much renewable energy has come online recently, and how much capacity is being built. A variety of other measures merit consideration too, such as whether a state has an ambitious renewable electricity standard, how many clean energy jobs it has added, or even the amount of airborne pollution a state has managed to reduce through its energy choices.

The new UCS analysis, Clean Energy Momentum: Ranking State Progress, takes an in-depth look in order to give credit where it is due on a range of variables. The result is a unique, easy-to-understand scorecard that assesses all 50 states on 12 different metrics—and finds a heartening amount of clean energy momentum even in some surprising places.

Here are some highlights:

Largest increase in percentage of renewable energy: Kansas tripled its wind power production between 2011 and 2015. Wind power also propelled Maine, Iowa, and Oklahoma to top rankings by this measure.

Renewable energy capacity now being built: Wyoming leads the nation with 1,600 watts of new renewable energy capacity per capita under way, followed closely by North Dakota with 1,200 watts.

Increases in state renewable electricity standards: New York and California rank first, each having pledged to produce an impressive 50 percent of their electricity from clean energy sources by 2030.

Residential solar capacity per household: Hawaii is the runaway winner, as abundant sunshine and the highest electricity prices in the nation have encouraged one in seven Hawaiian households to install rooftop solar panels. California comes in second and boasts the nation’s highest total capacity of residential solar power. It’s also worth noting that some states not known for their sunshine, such as Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont, also rank in the top 10.

Renewable energy jobs: Nevada leads in solar power jobs per capita, North Dakota in wind power jobs, and Vermont in energy efficiency jobs. Massachusetts, however, ranks first in clean energy jobs overall based on strong results in both solar and efficiency.

Reducing pollutants: New Hampshire and Delaware lead the nation in percentage reductions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which contribute to toxic smog, while Rhode Island and New Jersey boast the lowest per capita emissions of these pollutants. Vermont has the most aggressive target for reducing the heat-trapping carbon emissions that drive global warming—a 60 percent reduction below 2005 levels by 2030—followed by Oregon at 50 percent.

Adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrid vehicles: California is miles ahead, with EVs or plug-in hybrid vehicles now accounting for more than one of every 30 new cars sold last year in the state.

Top Ten States Leading the Way in Clean Energy

Top ten clean energy states

To determine the clean energy momentum state ranking, UCS analyzed the 50 states on 12 metrics, such as job creation, pollution reduction, renewable energy in the electricity generation mix, and policies to advance clean energy. California leads the way, with strong showings on eight metrics and the number one position in electric vehicle adoption. (A state's overall score is the total of their metric scores. The highest possible score is 120.)
Image: Union of Concerned Scientists

Putting It All Together

As these data show, clean energy is taking hold around the country. But which states are showing the most progress overall? That requires further analysis. For instance, despite Texas’s unquestionable success with wind power and its status as a clear national leader in total wind capacity and jobs, the state does not rank among our winners because it has more work to do to boost clean energy as a percentage of its overall electricity mix. And, in the years since Texas met its renewable electricity target well ahead of schedule, it has failed to set a new, higher target, costing it momentum. The lesson: policies matter, and state leadership is vital, especially now in the face of a Trump administration that, as UCS President Ken Kimmell put it, appears to have created a government “of, by, and for the fossil fuel industry.”

The good news is the new UCS analysis demonstrates that any state can become a leader and reap all the economic and environmental benefits that clean energy brings. All that’s needed is to establish a suite of strong clean energy policies that allows for multiple approaches and technologies.

Our overall state leaders in clean energy perform well across a range of metrics (see the figure above). First-place California and runners-up Vermont and Massachusetts, for example, each rank in the top 10 on at least eight separate metrics. These and other state leaders show how smart energy policies can yield swift and demonstrable results for their residents. They also point the way forward for others. As clean energy continues to take hold across the United States, we need to ensure all Americans share in its benefits.

Can President Trump Stall Clean Energy’s Momentum?

In March, President Trump signed an executive order aimed at dismantling the Clean Power Plan, a 2015 policy that had incentivized the growth of renewable energy by requiring states to lower carbon emissions. It's unclear how effective this effort will ultimately be but, no matter what, it can't change the reality that clean energy is a bright spot for the US economy, providing more full- and part-time jobs in the electricity sector than natural gas and more than twice as many as coal. The rapid expansion of solar power jobs is particularly noteworthy, tripling since 2010.

Equally important, these are good-paying jobs that benefit people in all walks of life: solar installers earn on average $26 per hour, and wind turbine technicians—projected to be the fastest-growing occupation from 2014 to 2024—earn on average $48,800 annually. Neither job requires a four-year college degree, and they are available to people in rural and low-income areas. Solar and wind power also employ Hispanic or Latino people and veterans at higher rates than the overall US workforce. Plus, the solar and wind sectors are winning support in diverse quarters. Farmers and cattle ranchers, for instance, like that they can continue to run their businesses while generating substantial extra revenue by leasing small pieces of their land for wind turbines.

Backing like that helps boost bipartisan support for clean energy and keep its momentum going. On February 13, a group of governors comprising 12 Democrats and eight Republicans sent a letter to President Trump asking him to “strengthen America’s energy future” by extending government support for a modernized electricity grid, offshore wind, and more research. The letter noted that 70 percent of US wind farms are located in counties with below-average incomes, and urged that any major infrastructure bill put forth by the Trump administration include funding for an electricity grid that is more secure and can accommodate more renewable energy.

Given the foothold solar and wind power have gained in solidly red states, the president could pay a steep political price if he doesn’t heed the governors’ advice.