Catalyst Summer 2016

Building a Clean Energy Nation, State by State

Map of states

Photos: © Jamie Grill/Getty Images (map); © subjug/iStock (thumbtack)

Undaunted by partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill, UCS is working in states across the country to boost renewable energy and climate preparedness

By Pamela Worth 

When it comes to national action on clean energy and climate change adaptation, we at the Union of Concerned Scientists anticipate a challenging political environment in the years ahead, regardless of the outcome of this year’s presidential election. To put it plainly: despite significant advances through executive action, the US Congress has been largely AWOL on climate change. We’ve tried to pass legislation at the federal level, and we will keep trying. But we don’t let congressional gridlock stop us. We’ve proven over the years that we can get around partisan barriers to draft and enact sensible science-based policies and safeguards.

Today, UCS experts are working on the ground, state by state and in tandem with UCS members and other local partners, to implement the changes we need. Our strategy is to build momentum toward national action on climate change by creating a tide of local victories across the country.

And we’re making remarkable headway.

Phasing Out Coal in Oregon

UCS has expanded its presence in the Pacific Northwest, sending experts to testify in state legislatures in Oregon and Washington, conducting state-specific renewable energy analyses, and forming partnerships with community groups.

This groundwork paid off when the Oregon legislature recently began considering a statewide transition to clean energy that would phase out the use of coal. UCS staff members were ready to act, holding meetings with policy makers to supply evidence for how such a transition would benefit Oregonians, drafting a letter signed by prominent scientists and experts (including Jane Lubchenco, former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), and spurring thousands of emails and phone calls to legislators in support of the plan.

Boardman coal plant

The Boardman coal plant in Oregon will close as a result of a new policy, passed earlier this year, that completely phases out coal in the state’s electricity mix.
Photo: Creative Commons/Ted Timmons (Wikimedia)

Thanks in part to our supporters’ efforts, Oregon signed into law a new clean energy plan this spring that makes the state the first in the country to phase out coal completely. According to the new plan, 50 percent of Oregon’s energy must be supplied by renewable sources by 2040.

“UCS members have much to be proud of in this effort,” says California and Western States Director Adrienne Alvord. “Our months of lobbying on climate, energy, and transportation issues, our interactions with the media, and our citizen action events—they all helped build the case for this law.”

Blazing the Trail in California and Massachusetts

States are often highly effective incubators for policies that become models for the nation. For years, UCS has worked closely with officials in California and Massachusetts—two longtime leaders in clean energy—to pioneer such landmark policies. (For more on the history of UCS involvement in state renewable energy standards, see “Then and Now.”)

Last year, UCS worked with California legislators and Governor Jerry Brown’s staff to achieve a precedent-setting renewable energy standard that calls for 50 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030. UCS addressed the question on so many policy makers’ minds of whether the electric grid could operate reliably with that much solar and wind energy. And we showed that it can be done. Given the vast size of California’s economy and the powerful model it offers for other US states—and even other nations— the victory represents a huge step forward for clean energy.

In Massachusetts, meanwhile, UCS recently issued a report that influenced the state’s recent energy bill by outlining a suite of forward-looking renewable energy policies that can help the state decrease carbon emissions, reduce its natural gas dependence, and become a national leader in offshore wind power—all while accruing regional and global health benefits of more than $350 million in 2030 alone.

Pushing Ahead in the Rest of the "Power 19"

The Clean Power Plan, drafted by the Environmental Protection Agency with key input from UCS, is intended to cut roughly one-third of all carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 2030. While the plan remains held up by the Supreme Court as of this writing, the court has yet to rule on the merits of the case—meaning there’s nothing stopping interested states from complying with the plan. There’s also nothing stopping UCS from working to help states meet their clean energy targets.

In the 19 states that have pledged publicly to work toward compliance with the Clean Power Plan despite the court case— and in some cases, even go beyond mere compliance—UCS has been busy. Our experts released six state-specific analyses in three months, and toured the country with the results, meeting with representatives from the governor’s office in Illinois, utilities and regulators in Minnesota, regulators and state legislators in New Mexico, and briefing dozens more decision makers in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

California Governor Jerry Brown signs a new law requiring the state to get half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. UCS played a key role in the law’s passage.
Photo: Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press

In Michigan, for example, we showed officials how renewable energy can generate nearly a third of the state’s electricity supply by 2030 at virtually no additional cost to consumers. In Minnesota, UCS is working with legislators poised to increase their state’s renewable electricity standard to 40 percent by 2030.

UCS Lead Midwest Energy Analyst Sam Gomberg says, “When it comes to the Clean Power plan, our message in these states is simply that compliance is achievable and affordable.” Indeed, UCS analysis shows that 31 states are already more than halfway toward meeting the plan’s targets, and 21 states are on track to exceed them.

Helping Coastal States Prepare for Rising Seas

US Military Bases: On the Front Lines of Sea Level Rise

With guidance from leading experts in the defense and security community, UCS sea level rise experts turned their attention this year to coastal military bases; specifically, how sea level rise and damaging storms could affect these installations in the years ahead. The resulting analysis, released this summer, examined 18 coastal US military bases to determine their exposure to land loss, storm surges, and chronic tidal flooding. We found that the military is at risk of losing research hubs, strategic sites, training and testing grounds, and homes for millions of personnel to rising seas.

Climate change—and sea level rise in particular— affects communities regardless of income level, ethnicity, or political persuasion. Through this work, UCS is reaching out to those deeply concerned about US security and the well-being of the men and women who serve in the US armed forces. We are also hoping to persuade legislators who have these bases in their districts but have thus far been silent on climate change that the problem needs to be addressed as an urgent nonpartisan priority.

Norfolk floodgates

Flooding is a serious problem at Norfolk Naval Base, pictured here, and other military installations in the United States.
Photo: Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein/

Among the key findings of this recent initiative:

LAND LOSS. By the end of this century, nearly half of the bases studied are projected to lose half or more of their land to the tidal zone (that is, to daily high-tide inundation).

FLOODING. Seventeen of the 18 bases studied could see tidal flooding of low-lying areas more than 100 times each year by 2050.

STORM SURGE. By 2070, a relatively minor Category 1 hurricane at most of the bases studied could drive as much storm surge flooding as a larger Category 2 storm does today.

Despite our best efforts, and those of many others, curbing carbon emissions state by state can’t prevent one of the worst consequences of climate change: sea level rise is affecting coastal communities in the United States with more frequent, extensive, and damaging flooding—and even more is expected in the years ahead.

Many leaders in these at-risk communities know something must be done to adapt to rising seas, but they need know-how, resources, and support to take action. UCS experts continue to travel along the East and Gulf Coasts to speak with small business owners, community groups, chambers of commerce, cultural institutions, mayors, legislators, and even the US armed forces (see the sidebar) about the inevitable effects of sea level rise and how communities can mitigate those effects to protect their residents.

As part of these efforts, UCS is working in partnership with several predominantly African American and Hispanic communities that are not receiving adequate funding for preparedness. In Florida, Louisiana, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Virginia, UCS analysis has supported local planners as they design climate adaptation measures for their cities and towns on the front lines of rising seas. The city of Norfolk, Virginia, for example, relied on data in the UCS report Encroaching Tides to help it secure $120 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to protect the region from recurring flooding.

Building Momentum

Our work with local partners is resulting in success stories all across the country. Our ultimate goal, of course, is to win bipartisan support for national policies that reduce carbon emissions and help Americans prepare for climate change. While UCS has won significant national victories such as landmark fuel economy standards for cars and trucks, we also know that Congress won’t move until constituents in blue and red states alike raise a call for change that can’t be ignored.

We’re working hand in hand with more people who understand that the future of energy is in renewables, that the effects of global warming must be planned for and mitigated, and that massive reductions in carbon emissions are the only way to protect ourselves and our communities. While Congress sits idle, we are busy building support in enough states to create a tipping point for national action.