Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Conservative Attacks on State Renewable Energy Policies

Amy Plovnick graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 2012
with majors in Political Science and Environmental Studies. While at Wash
U, spurred by a concern about climate change, she became interested in
issues related to energy and environmental policy, and conducted her senior thesis in political science on the effect of state-level renewable energy policies on wind power development. Amy recently completed a 6-month fellowship at the Sierra Club, and now continues to work on energy policy at the Association for Demand Response and Smart Grid in Washington, D.C.

Over half of U.S. states have passed a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), which requires a state to get a certain percentage of its electricity from renewable sources by a given date. These policies have helped to spur the growth of renewable energy throughout the country. However, there have recently been several attempts by state legislatures to scale back or eliminate RPS policies. This post refutes several common criticisms of RPS policies, and looks at why state legislatures are attempting to eliminate what have been largely successful renewable energy policies.

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With no comprehensive national policy to address climate change, many states have taken it upon themselves to pass laws that reduce carbon emissions and increase renewable energy use. One such state policy is called the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) or Renewable Energy Standard (RES). 29 states have passed an RPS, which requires the state to obtain a certain percentage of its electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar power by a given date (e.g., 20% renewable energy by 2020).
Taken together, these RPS laws will lead to a significant increase in renewable energy use around the country. The Union of Concerned Scientist found that state RPS laws will lead to 76,750 megawatts of new renewable power by 2025 – enough to power 47 million homes. This represents a 570 percent increase in renewable power over 1997 levels (excluding hydropower). This increase in renewable energy has allowed us to reduce the use of fossil fuels such as coal, and start reducing our carbon emissions.
However, state RPSs have come under attack recently. An analysis by Herman Trabish of Greentech Media found that at least 22 of the 29 RPSs have been attacked by legislators or regulators in the past year or are currently under attack. These challenges, most serious in states such as Kansas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Missouri, have come in the form of attempts to repeal the standards, push back the compliance date, weaken the renewable requirements, and insert a loophole that allows existing hydropower to count as a renewable energy resource.
Why has there been this sudden push to weaken laws that reduce carbon emissions and increase the use of clean, local power? Have 22 states all coincidentally decided to gut their renewable energy laws at once? It turns out that this pressure to reverse RPSs stems from national conservative groups such as the Heartland Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). According to the Washington Post, the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank that is skeptical of climate change science, has joined with ALEC to write model legislation aimed at reversing state RPSs. The “Electricity Freedom Act” that ALEC created is designed to be adopted by states to reverse their RPS law because the laws amount to a “tax on consumers of electricity” and will also threaten electricity reliability.
These claims could not be further from the truth. Renewable energy costs are continuing to drop, and in many places are at parity with fossil fuels. For example, the levelized cost of wind power is now in some cases cheaper than conventional fossil fuels, including coal.  The average price for solar PV systems dropped 27% in 2012 alone. When new EPA regulations or national legislation put a price on carbon emissions, the cost of renewable power will seem even more favorable. And that doesn’t even consider the billions of dollars we will have to spend to address climate change impacts if we do not drastically reduce our carbon emissions.
In addition, although some like to warn that the intermittency of wind and solar power will lead to reliability problems and blackouts, this is unlikely to become a reality. Strategies like reducing peak electricity demand through demand response, and new technologies such as battery storage and electric vehicles used for storage will mitigate the problem caused by intermittency of renewable resources.
So if renewable energy costs are falling and blackouts aren’t a major concern, why are these conservative groups challenging state renewable energy mandates? RPSs represent a form of regulation that goes against the free market ideology that these groups espouse. In addition, some of the funding for these groups, particularly the Heartland Institute, comes from fossil fuel interests such as Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries. Therefore, addressing climate change is not in their financial interest.
But if addressing climate change is an important concern, Renewable Portfolio Standards seem like the way to go. Yes, it would be better if we had a national policy that put a price on carbon, or a feed-in tariff like the one that has helped renewable energy grow in Germany. However, those are not viable political options in the U.S. right now. RPSs have been passed in over half the states, and have helped (and will continue to help) cut carbon emissions and increase local, renewable power use. Here’s to hoping that state legislatures let them do what they were designed to do.


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