States Will Drive Clean Energy Forward Until the U.S. Leads

2016 is expected to be the hottest year on record and trends on Arctic sea ice and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are increasingly alarming. But just as we need it the most, the future of U.S. climate leadership looks grim. As a candidate, Donald Trump said he wanted to “cancel” the historic Paris Climate Agreement and pledged to scrap the ground-breaking Clean Power Plan to cut dangerous power plant pollution. Trump has also claimed—falselythat wind and solar power don’t work “on a large scale.”  

Moving backward on climate and clean energy won’t actually advance Trump’s agenda. The President-elect has made building and repairing U.S. infrastructure a key priority. There’s no better way to build our economy than by putting electricians and plumbers to work retrofitting homes to make them more efficient and employing steelworkers and utility workers to build wind turbines and solar projects. Slowing clean energy will only cost America jobs and undermine our global competitiveness. In fact, clean energy is the ultimate infrastructure project.

If ideology wins out, and clean energy supporters need to move from offense to defense at the federal level, we can still make progress on climate and clean energy in states and cities. And we can use the momentum from this continued progress to press for the renewed leadership at the federal level that we need.

Clean Energy Momentum

NRDC just released its Fourth Annual Energy Report: Accelerating Into A Clean Energy Future. The report explains the transition to clean energy is well underway, driven by a combination of market forces, state and federal policies, technological advancements, and strong public support in red and blue states alike. 

Renewable energy has made dramatic progress across the country in recent years. In the span of just five years, solar generation in Nevada increased more than seven-fold, and North Carolina has seen its solar generation increase five-fold in the past two years alone. Iowa and Texas, which were already leaders in wind power back in 2010, have both nearly doubled their wind generation over the past five years, and both states are expected to continue their shift to a clean energy future over the next several years. These maps demonstrate this progress best:

Data source: Energy Information Administration.
Data source: Energy Information Administration. Solar generation only represents utility-scale projects.

In the transportation sector, fuel economy is at an all-time high, spurring automakers to invest in new fuel-efficient technologies and saving consumers billions of dollars at the pump. Electric cars are gaining popularity as longer-range, more affordable models come onto the market and car companies invest billions of dollars to produce even more models. Bloomberg has predicted an EV revolution, a real possibility given the nearly 400,000 people who earlier this year plunked down $1,000 deposits to reserve the next-generation, moderately priced Tesla. 

Clean Energy Jobs

The exponential growth in the U.S. clean energy has created a surge of jobs. According to the business coalition E2, more than 2.5 million people work in the U.S. clean energy sector across all 50 states. Energy efficiency is the largest sector, with 1.9 million workers, followed by renewable energy, with 414,000 workers in employed in the solar and wind power sectors, and nearly 170,000 workers in the advanced vehicle sector.

Bipartisan Support for Clean Energy

Support for clean energy crosses the political divide. Gallup earlier this year found Americans’ concern about climate change at an eight-year high, with both Democrats and Republicans expressing sharply higher concern. And large majorities of Republicans and Democrats support more solar and wind power, according to a Pew Research Center poll.  

Among the most outspoken wind energy supporters is Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, whose home state of Iowa will produce more than a third of its electricity this year from wind. Grassley, who authored the wind energy tax credit in 1992, called wind energy a boon to his state’s economy and warned that if President Trump seeks to eliminate the tax credit, "he’ll do it over my dead body." (Bloomberg New Energy Finance said that Congress’ extension last December of the solar and wind tax credits for five years will spur more than $73 billion in investment.)

Energy efficiency also enjoys bipartisan support. The legislation establishing the federal efficiency program was signed by President Ronald Reagan, a GOP icon, and the standards saved consumers $63 billion on their utility bills in 2015 alone and kept 2.6 billion tons of carbon pollution out of the atmosphere. Last year, lawmakers in often gridlocked Congress overcame partisan differences to pass the Energy Efficiency Improvement Act.

States, Cities and Business Can and Will Lead

While Congress and federal agencies like the Department of Energy play an important role in crafting clean energy policy and can help accelerate or slow clean energy progress, most clean energy decisions are actually crafted at the state level. Under our system of co-operative federalism, state lawmakers and utility regulators are charged with making decisions about what the energy mix in each state will be and how much will be invested in energy efficiency and renewable energy.

As a result, 29 states and the District of Columbia have established their own state-level renewable energy requirements, known as renewable portfolio standards. California and New York have committed to get 50 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2030. Oregon has set a goal of 50 percent by 2040. Vermont committed to get 75 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2032, and Hawaii promises a full 100 percent by 2045. The election can’t change this: each state makes its own decisions on renewable energy, independent of the federal government.

States are also been leading on climate action, through regional approaches like the Northeast nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which is poised for extension and strengthening, and California’s groundbreaking all-sector carbon reduction program.

Cities are also leading the way. A group of 39 mayors warned in a recent letter to President-elect Trump that climate change could cost the U.S. economy $500 billion annually by 2050 and urged him to "lead us in expanding the renewable energy sources we need to achieve energy security, address climate change and spark a new manufacturing, energy and construction boom in America." And the City Energy Project, an innovative initiative of NRDC and IMT, is now working to improve building efficiency in 20 cities across the United States.

An ever-growing number of businesses also are joining the clean energy stampede because of the business opportunities created by clean energy investment and the dangers to the U.S. economy from failing to confront catastrophic climate change. 

After the election, 365 businesses and investors wrote Trump warning that failure to transition to a clean-energy economy would put American prosperity at risk. A number of big-name businesses are working to achieve 100 percent renewables in their U.S. or global operations.

We Still Need Federal Leadership

But make no mistake, we still need federal policy to move us forward on climate and clean energy at the scale and speed that is required to meet our climate goals. We need the Clean Power Plan more than ever. We need to maintain the important tax policies that have helped to drive clean energy forward. And we need the federal government to move forward to make our cars and vehicles more efficient. 

If the president-elect and the new Republican-controlled Congress try to push a dirty energy agenda that puts climate progress at risk and attempt to put the brakes on clean energy, NRDC will stand up for what we believe in. We’ll stand up to protect our environment and health. We’ll stand up for our children’s future. And we’ll continue to forge ahead with progress on climate and clean energy at the state level until the United States is ready to lead again.

About the Authors

Kit Kennedy

Director, Energy & Transportation program

Roland Hwang

Director, Energy & Transportation program

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