For the first time a United States president has announced that tackling climate change is a national priority. Yet, Congress shows no signs of passing meaningful legislation. For now, it’s up to states and localities to turn this declaration into action.
But this isn’t new. When it comes to renewable energy, state policy has yielded by far the most progress. In 29 states this has come mainly through renewable portfolio/energy standards, known as RPSs. These laws require public utilities to purchase or generate a certain percentage of renewable energy as part of their overall portfolio.
In my home state of Colorado, we are engaged in a highly-publicized legislative debate over expanding our RPS. But the national trend is in the opposite direction; various groups are trying to repeal or overturn RPSs in numerous states. In 2012 the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) adopted model legislation, ironically called the “Electricity Freedom Act,” to repeal these laws. ALEC-backed legislation was introduced this year in North Carolina and numerous other states. A legislative committee in North Carolina killed ALEC’s bill, but the debate continues there and around the country.
Renewable energy standards have also come under scrutiny by another faction — the “we’ve-already-met-the-bar” crowd. These folks point out that most utilities have already purchased enough wind and solar power to meet the thresholds. While the RPSs shouldn’t be repealed they say, these standards have lost their luster.
I beg to differ. RPSs need to be protected, at least until Congress adopts a federal version. Recent attacks are not only misguided and based on falsehoods, they miss the point.
As for the facts, studies are increasingly showing that RPSs — and renewable energy in general — do not increase electricity rates. And utilities with increased renewables haven’t found that grid reliability is jeopardized. The Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator (the regional grid for all or part of 12 Midwestern states) has increased wind generation 14 times the past five years without experiencing operational issues. In Colorado, a National Renewable Energy Laboratory study shows that many countries are successfully managing high levels of renewable energy on the grid. Projected increases in electric vehicles, net metering, smart-grid and efficiency will only increase the ability to integrate renewable energy.
Even more shortsighted is the notion that by emphasizing renewable energy sources we will cause businesses to outsource jobs. Anyone watching developments in Europe, Israel and China will recognize that renewable energy is the technological wave of the future. Sensible government incentives will help the U.S. compete against nations investing capital in renewables and clean technology.
Yet there is more to the energy cost/reliability/competitiveness debate. When President Obama labeled climate change a universal threat, he alluded to its dire economic effects worldwide — not to mention environmental and public-health risks. Many consider these issues more compelling than the latest economic forecast. Just ask my friends in the ski industry or rafting/outdoor trade.
This is where the RPSs are critical. These standards provide building blocks on which renewable energy developers strongly rely. For example, here in Colorado, while investor-owned utilities have made strides in meeting our RPSs, the state standard applies with much less force on other utilities, particularly rural cooperatives. The current Colorado bill ramps up these requirements and folds such progressive techniques as methane capture from abandoned coal mines into the mix. Without a firmly-established RPS, these advances would not be possible.
Let’s also not forget that popular sentiment supports working together to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and expand renewable energy. This is the greatest irony surrounding recent attacks on the RPSs. A number of ALEC members have already adopted renewable energy commitments or other GHG-reduction goals. For these same entities to simultaneously attempt to repeal RPSs suggests that independent efforts of corporations, NGOs and the free market can do it alone. Alas, if only we had a little more evidence of this, and a little less bad climate news.
We have a long way to go to reach a carbon-mitigation plateau in the energy sector, as well as in transportation and many other areas that are even more difficult to crack. Let’s not step backwards by undermining the RPSs. We need to preserve RPSs in all its various state forms.
Freeman is a partner at Davis Graham & Stubbs, LLC in Denver, where he works on environmental issues with both the traditional energy sector and numerous NGOs, including the American Sustainable Business Council.