Not presidential: Down-ballot victories propel clean energy advances

In the 2020 American elections, neither the Democrats nor the climate achieved the clear victory for which many of us wished. But across party lines, voters are demanding action to address the nation’s rapidly changing climate. In several cities and states, particularly out west—voters demanded energy progress. Given how divided Washington remains, these subnational decisions may enable regional carbon neutrality to progress faster while providing actionable models for the entire nation to follow. L. Michael Buchsbaum reviews the election results.

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Changing Demographics

In 2018, California became the second state to mandate the goal of 100% clean electricity. Two years later, including Arizona, that list has grown to 17 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Together, they constitute over 40% of the U.S. population and nearly half its gross domestic product.

But the 2020 elections also largely reflect how polarized the United States remains around race and economics. Simply put, the more multi-cultural the region, the more often it leans towards the Democratic Party and Democratic governors, even with opposition legislatures continue to develop clean energy policies.

In southwestern states, Native Americans and Hispanics are joining Black voters in backing Democratic candidates, helping flip Arizona. In the southeast, Georgia and North Carolina have become key battlegrounds where, largely through active voter disenfranchisement—mainly the targeting and purging of Blacks from voter rolls—Republicans have previously maintained power.

Its no surprise that divided Georgia, where voters sent both Senate races to special runoff elections set for January 2021, remains crucial to any lingering Democratic hopes of achieving a breakthrough on addressing climate change on the Federal level.

Climate Champion Governors Win

North Carolina ranks only behind California in installed solar capacity. Though voters there failed to elect either Biden or take control of the state’s legislature, they did choose to give incumbent Democratic Governor Roy Cooper a second term. A climate champion, Cooper has already endorsed an energy policy of becoming 100% carbon-neutral by 2050 through accelerating coal plant retirements, reforming utility regulation, and expanding renewables, including offshore wind.

On the Pacific coast, Democrat Jay Inslee, one of America’s preeminent clean energy actors, successfully held onto his seat as governor of the state of Washington, ensuring his aggressive energy transition policy will continue into a third term. During his first two terms, he set Washington’s electrical grid on a 2030 carbon-neutrality path, with 100% renewable energy to be achieved by 2045.

In Nevada, voters again passed Question 6, a constitutional amendment requiring the state to reach 50% renewable energy by 2030. It also affirms a policy that lawmakers and Governor Steve Sisolak had already begun work on: enabling the state to further pursue a 100% clean energy goal by 2050.

In New Mexico, voters also chose in favor of a constitutional amendment that shifts the power to select utility regulators from them directly to the governor, an office now held by Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham. Largely intended to ensure a progressive generation pathway, last year Grisham signed New Mexico’s Energy Transition Act, requiring the state to reach 100% clean electricity by 2045 with interim targets of 50% renewables by 2030 and 80% by 2040.

But the big prize in this year’s election cycle was Arizona where climate change is clearly a climate emergency. This summer was the state’s hottest since at least the 1870s. In August–Tucson, the second hottest city in the United States, had four days that were 43C (110F) or hotter and 26 that were over 37C (99F). The city of 500,000 has been rapidly heating, averaging up 2.5C (4.5F) than in 1970. This temperature increase equals that of nearby Phoenix—the state capital, with a metro-population of around 5 million. This summer heat and industrial pollution, mixed with smoke from California and Colorado wildfires, greatly exacerbated the Covid-19 catastrophe as thousands died simultaneously from heat exposure and respiratory ailments. As of mid-November, daily temperatures continue to climb above 32C (90F).

Historically conservative, for the first time in a generation Arizona swung Democrat—in large part because Biden pledged to act on the worsening climate emergency, while Trump dismissed it. They also voted out their climate denying incumbent Republican Senator, Martha McSally, flipping her seat and sending a former astronaut, Mark Kelly, to Washington instead.

Though voters failed to directly shift the makeup of the state’s utility regulation board, in the wake of the election, the panel approved a plan for utilities to phase out coal and fossil gas-burning power plants and get all their energy from carbon-free sources like wind, solar, nuclear by 2050, with the stipulation that half of the state’s energy be generated by solar and wind by 2035. Going further, with a 2016-18 baseline, electric utilities would have to cut carbon emissions in half by 2032 and 75% by 2040. With some of the strongest solar radiation in the nation, Arizona could become one of the nation’s biggest PV generators. Included in the new rules are requirements that by 2036, utilities have enough energy storage, likely in the form of large solar batteries, to equal 5% of the utility’s 2020 peak demand. Perhaps reflective of the state’s individualist heritage, a portion of that new energy infrastructure must be customer-owned and distributed instead of centralized.

Greening cities: San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio

Voters in Columbus, Ohio, a state that overwhelmingly voted for Trump, passed a ballot measure demanding the city government buy 100% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2023. With a population of almost 900,000, it’s both Ohio’s capital and largest city. Passing with 76% support, now energy behemoth American Electric Power, which is based in the city and supplies most of its energy, must begin implementing a local clean generation strategy. Symbolically, AEP’s headquarters’ tower dominates the city’s skyline similar to how the company has long dominated much of the nation’s energy infrastructure. Among the first utilities to rely on long-distance transmission wires to import energy from coal plants situated adjacent to hundreds of regional mines, since 2010 no other utility has shed more coal capacity than AEP—though it hasn’t done so willingly. Days after the election, it released plans to retire over 5.6GW—half its remaining coal fleet, by 2030.

Columbus’ plan will be one of the largest bulk-buying clean energy programs in the country and illustrates how city governments can force the uptake of clean energy, even in states with corrupt legislatures who actively block wind and solar development. Ohio is in the midst of an epic $1 billion bribery scandal tied to the General Assembly’s passage of a bill last year that subsidized nuclear and coal power and dramatically overturned requirements for renewables and energy efficiency. Dozens of legislators, including the once powerful Speaker of the House, are now facing jail time (as explained by Dr. Leah Stokes’ in her excellent Drilled podcast or here).

With everyone focused on Washington, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to ban new fossil gas hookups. According to the city’s estimates, roughly 40% of its overall greenhouse gas emissions, and 80% of building emissions, come from fugitive leakage and local combustion. Going forward, all new homes, offices and restaurants must be powered by electricity alone, which the San Francisco Chronicle estimates will apply to more than 54,000 dwellings and 32 million square feet of commercial space in the city’s development pipeline. Statewide, almost 40 other California cities have adopted similar building codes—including bans.

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L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende.

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