Catalyst Summer 2016

The Long Road to State Renewable Energy Standards

Wind turbine

Photo: Creative Commons/Lance Cheung (Flickr)

By Pamela Worth 

The verdict is in: a recent study by the US Department of Energy found that state level policies called renewable energy standards not only promote the use of clean energy, but also help save money, create jobs, improve public health, and are great for the environment. A renewable energy standard (RES)—sometimes also called a renewable portfolio standard—is a market based policy that requires electricity providers to gradually increase the amount of wind, solar, and other renewable energy resources in their power supplies.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has worked with state legislatures and other organizations to pass and strengthen renewable energy standards for the past two decades; today, 29 states and the District of Columbia employ them. According to the Energy Department study, in 2013 alone, RES policies generated $7.4 billion in public health benefits from the reduction of power plant carbon emissions, supported nearly 200,000 well-paying jobs in renewable energy, and saved energy consumers $1.2 billion—among other benefits. Equally important, they are the impetus for most new renewable energy development nationally.

As powerful and effective as RES policies are, they almost didn’t happen. While UCS research clearly demonstrated that these standards could hasten the transition to clean energy, as a new and relatively untested strategy they didn’t catch on immediately

Spotting an Opportunity

In the 1990s, deregulation of electric utilities put the future of renewable energy in jeopardy. As deregulation took hold, state governments had much less authority to require utilities to fund the research and development needed for wind and solar power to thrive across the country. Without pressure from regulators, electricity companies could go about their business as usual—putting at risk the best chance to minimize carbon emissions from a sector of the economy responsible for nearly 40 percent of the US total.

A group of energy researchers in California hatched the idea of creating renewable energy standards as a market-friendly mechanism to ensure investment in renewable energy. Advocates and analysts at UCS soon saw the idea’s potential and began a campaign to implement RES policies closer to home, in Massachusetts. UCS performed detailed analyses of the costs and benefits of renewable energy, and presented a compelling case to state legislators—who then insisted on an RES as a condition of utility deregulation. In 1997, Massachusetts became the first state in the country to implement an RES in this way.

Over the next 15 years, UCS and its allies steadily built on this success, conducting research and analysis on the renewable energy capacity of dozens of individual states—and on the consumer, job, environmental, and health benefits associated with implementing an RES. Working with state partners across the country, UCS pushed for widespread implementation of renewable energy standards, providing data, modeling, and any other support that could help legislators implement them.

The idea quickly caught on between 2004 and 2009, when the standards spread from New Mexico to New Jersey. These early adopters helped build the case that an RES could be affordable and achievable. Soon, more states signed on, even during the years of the George W. Bush administration when federal action on climate change was negligible.

Reaping the Rewards

Today, thanks in large part to the success of state RES policies, renewable energy is gaining ground across the country. US wind power capacity grew eightfold between 2005 and 2015 while solar power capacity grew by a factor of 12 in the same period. Renewable energy has also become cheaper and more competitive: as more states adopt policies promoting technologies such as wind and solar power, the costs of producing it drop dramatically. Wind energy has seen a 66 percent decline in cost since 2009, and the average price for large-scale solar photovoltaic installations has dropped by more than 82 percent in thesame period. (For a recent, striking example of the consequences of this decrease in cost, see “Startling Texas Forecast Highlights Solar’s Growing Role.”)

Unfortunately, efforts to help additional states adopt an RES have met with resistance. Some state legislatures have deep ties to fossil fuel companies, and choose not to act on renewable energy in order to avoid alienating those interests; some resist nearly all regulatory intervention in business. And although UCS has supported efforts to implement a national RES, a federal plan has not yet succeeded.

Nonetheless, while the number of states with an RES seems to have peaked for the moment at 29, markets for renewable energy continue to expand, as many of the 29 have chosen to strengthen their standards. California is the most notable of these success stories: it began with an RES requiring that 20 percent of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2017, bumped that up to 33 percent by 2020 a few years later, and just last year reset the target to 50 percent by 2030. It’s an impressive requirement, especially given the size of California’s economy. But it is not the most ambitious—that honor goes to Hawaii, which has adopted an RES requiring 100 percent of the state’s electricity be derived from renewable energy by 2045.

Someday, when clean, renewable energy predominates across the United States, the RES may become a footnote in the history of our energy policy. But we’re not there yet. In the meantime, UCS is actively pushing to expand the use of what has proven to be one of the most powerful tools we have to get us closer to a fossil fuel-free future.