4 state trends remaking U.S. electricity

By Miranda Willson, Kristi E. Swartz, Edward Klump | 07/09/2021 07:12 AM EDT

States enacted energy laws this year on everything from electric vehicle fees to gas bans. Will they advance or stall President Biden’s clean energy agenda?

  State legislatures have continued efforts to adjust energy policies this year, with some favoring fossil fuels as others look to help renewables and the clean energy sector.

State legislatures have continued efforts to adjust energy policies this year, with some favoring fossil fuels as others look to help renewables and the clean energy sector. Georgia Power Co. (Plant Vogtle); Sam Forson/Pexels (turbines); PublicDomainPictures.net (coal); PxHere (electric car)

With the status of major energy legislation in Congress up in the air, states are under close watch to determine whether President Biden’s clean energy agenda is possible.

From Oregon to Massachusetts, lawmakers this year pushed through measures boosting electric vehicles, promoting environmental justice and setting targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But as this year’s legislative sessions show, clean energy plans can also face uphill battles — and in some states, fossil fuels are getting a boost.

“There’s a real, growing divide between states and lawmakers looking to accelerate the transition to cleaner energy and those looking to hang on to the status quo a little longer,” Sarah Steinberg, a principal at the clean energy trade group Advanced Energy Economy, said during a June webinar.


The split on energy policy is playing out regionally, with some states, mostly in the South and West, enacting laws in 2021 to support coal or gas, for instance. Several plans direct utility regulators to consider the contributions of fossil fuel power plants for a reliable power grid when reviewing utility resource plans.

On the other hand, Oregon this year is expected to become the latest state to move toward 100% carbon-free electricity, echoing Biden. A bill that would require utilities to eliminate power-sector emissions by 2040, five years later than the president’s target, passed the Legislature last month and now sits on Democratic Gov. Kate Brown’s desk. Some states that have previously established similar goals now are targeting emissions from sectors outside electricity, including transportation and buildings.

In particular, more states this year enacted laws to promote electric vehicle use and to electrify government-owned fleets, observers said. Some also passed provisions that address how much to charge EV drivers in transportation fees, because people with all-electric cars don’t contribute to statewide gasoline taxes.

New measures also refine existing clean energy plans by establishing requirements to procure certain types of clean energy resources, such as offshore wind and battery storage. Connecticut, for example, became the latest state to approve an energy storage target, with a new law calling for 1,000 megawatts of the technology by 2030.

“It was an open question as to whether the states would become a little less active with clean energy legislation when it seemed like there was a prospect for significant action at the federal level — would some states go into wait-and-see mode?” said Warren Leon, executive director of the Clean Energy States Alliance. “But that hasn’t been happening.”

Nationwide, Republicans control 61 chambers in state legislatures, while Democrats control 37, according to Ballotpedia. Even in states not considered clean energy trailblazers, however, lawmakers this year passed bills that “recognize that our electricity system is moving in a direction toward decarbonization,” Leon said.

While some legislatures are still in session, here’s a look at four energy trends that emerged in bills that became law or made progress this year:

Coal and gas

Some states with largely Republican-controlled legislatures — and sometimes with significant coal, oil or gas industries — threw lifelines to fossil fuels in 2021.

In West Virginia, S.B. 542 says the state must “take immediate steps to” make sure no more coal plants close, that no more coal jobs are lost and that “long-term state prosperity is maintained.” The law asks the West Virginia Public Service Commission to consider a variety of economic and employment issues when reviewing proposals that could shutter coal-fired power plants.

Similarly, a law in Arkansas declares that the state’s General Assembly considers it “to be in the public interest” to promote and encourage the use of electric generating units “to the maximum extent practicable.” Many legacy power plants across the United States run on coal or natural gas.

“‘Dispatchable’ electricity generators are the most useful ones to the electricity grid, because they can be turned on and off as needed, and the generation output also can be more accurately [controlled] to keep the overall grid safe and reliable,” state Sen. Bob Ballinger (R), a sponsor of the Arkansas bill that became law, said in a June post on Twitter. Dispatchable generation often refers to fossil fuel-fired power plants, in contrast to intermittent sources of energy.

In addition, at least nine states enacted measures to preemptively ban cities and towns from limiting or preventing the use of natural gas in buildings, according to a tally from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“There has been a dramatic rise in the number of states that have preempted local governments from enacting ordinances that prohibit natural gas or other fuels from being used in new buildings,” Dan Shea, an energy policy specialist at the conference, said in an email.

In some states, gas utilities have had a hand in drafting parts of the bills (Climatewire, June 1). They were passed in reaction to city ordinances, mostly in California, prohibiting gas hookups in new buildings or requiring that heating systems be converted to all-electric, said Frank Maisano, a media specialist who represents gas utilities and other energy companies at the law firm Bracewell LLP.

“That’s the reason you’re seeing lots of states try to put in place something that eliminates that patchwork quilt of city ordinances,” Maisano said.

As one example, a new plan in Texas restricts the regulation of utility services based on the energy source.

In some states, however, gas-supporting measures extended beyond the use of the fuel in buildings. One new law in Florida restricts local governments from cutting back on the amount of natural gas that was extracted by hydraulic fracturing, while another in the Sunshine State prevents cities and towns from regulating fueling stations.

A third Florida bill morphed from redefining methane gas pulled from landfills as renewable natural gas to a new law that blocks local governments from barring solar development on agricultural land.

Sen. Travis Hutson, who shepherded the Senate’s version of the bill that will prevent local governments from banning fueling stations, cited the city of Petaluma, Calif., which halted the development of new gasoline stations and the expansion of existing ones, as the reason for the measure in Florida (Energywire, March 11).

“We did not want a local government to say, ‘You are allowed one gas pump, but you must have 15 electric vehicle charging stations,’ and they are mandating that on the gas stations,” Hutson, a Republican from northeast Florida, said during an April 22 discussion on the Senate floor. Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Democrat from Jacksonville, pressed Hutson on which Florida cities were doing that — he didn’t specify other than to say some in South Florida.

This week, legal analysts said a court ruling upholding the nation’s first gas ban in Berkeley, Calif., could spur other states and localities to enact similar prohibitions on the fossil fuel (Energywire, July 8).

Electric vehicles

With electric vehicles, advocates made some headway and helped to defeat certain measures, even as big packages to set the industry up for growth were unsuccessful.

The Texas Electric Transportation Resources Alliance, for example, celebrated enactment of S.B. 1202, which says an entity selling EV charging services doesn’t have to register as a utility to be able to sell electricity.

However, EV advocates fended off “highly punitive EV fee bills” that could have imposed charges on EV drivers that were almost double what gasoline car owners currently pay in road-use fees for vehicles of a similar size, Tom “Smitty” Smith, the alliance’s executive director, said in a statement.

“This is a long game and we’ll be back,” Smith said.

One notable transportation bill with an EV focus this year came out of Colorado. Signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis (D) last month, S.B. 260 will allocate over $730 million to electric vehicle infrastructure in the state, to be paid for with revenue from new fees on ride-hailing services and certain deliveries. It also creates a system for phasing in additional fees on EV drivers over the next decade and imposes a charge for gasoline cars.

The bill received support from a number of local officials, who have said it will address long-standing infrastructure challenges and create employment opportunities in the state. Advanced Energy Economy also praised the measure, saying it would help spur the deployment of EVs statewide.

But some climate groups lamented its focus on personal vehicles over public transit expansions, reflecting a broader rift over transportation decarbonization nationwide. Although the bill allocates $453 million to a statewide multimodal transportation fund, Matt Frommer, a senior transportation associate at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, questioned in a blog post whether the new investments in highway infrastructure could be counterproductive to climate goals.

“To address transportation pollution, we first need to ‘stop the bleeding’ of induced demand by limiting highway expansion. … [We] should focus our transportation dollars on maintaining the system we have (aka ‘fix it first’) while optimizing its use by investing in modes that move people more efficiently than single-occupancy vehicles,” Frommer wrote in a June post about the bill.

Lawmakers in a handful of states also sought to address how much to charge EV drivers to support road maintenance and other transportation infrastructure, because those services have traditionally been funded by portions of states’ gasoline taxes. Some of the highest fees proposed, however, did not cross the finish line.

In Florida, for example, a pair of bills on EV registration fees made it to an appropriations subcommittee but went no further. In Montana, a bill that would have imposed annual fees ranging from $195 to $1,300 for EVs — which would have been the highest in the United States, according to the Montana Environmental Information Center — was vetoed by Gov. Greg Gianforte (R).

“I applaud the work of the sponsor to address the unfairness of electric vehicle owners not paying their fair share to fund the state’s road infrastructure,” Gianforte said in his veto letter for the bill. “However, supporting such high fees goes against my plan to ensure that Montana remains a competitive tax environment and is open for business.”

EV supporters say they expect more states to impose fees on the cars as electric transportation becomes more widespread.

“Every state is going to need to deal with this issue in some way,” Ryan Gallentine, director of EVs at Advanced Energy Economy, said during last month’s webinar.

Clean standards

Once states pass carbon-cutting legislation, they often have to revisit climate plans to fill in details. That was the case in a number of states this year that enacted laws promoting transmission development to support more renewable energy projects and measures affirming commitments to equity and environmental justice in a transition away from fossil fuels.

In a few Western states, several plans could further the development of a Western regional transmission organization. Most of the West is not part of an RTO or independent system operator, which are organizations that some clean energy supporters say have helped advance renewable energy in other parts of the country.

In Oregon, S.B. 589 calls on state officials to prepare a report on the benefits, opportunities and challenges from possible RTO development or expansion in the state. Colorado and Nevada also enacted laws with provisions that seek to encourage utilities to join an RTO or organized market by 2030.

The Nevada bill, S.B. 448, will require the state’s main utility, NV Energy, to submit a plan to build new high-voltage transmission lines, as well. In addition, it sets new requirements to allocate 10% of expenditures on energy efficiency to low-income people.

Massachusetts, which has committed to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, also sought to fine-tune its clean energy targets. In addition to setting interim emissions reduction goals, S.B. 9 will enable the administration to implement voluntary energy-efficient building codes and calls for the procurement of 2,400 MW of additional offshore wind power. However, some environmentalists wanted the bill to go further (Energywire, March 29).

Overall, provisions supporting environmental justice communities appeared to be a unifying thread among the omnibus clean energy measures approved this year, observers said.

“There’s been a critical recognition of the inequity and environmental impacts of the energy system as a whole that I haven’t seen before in my career,” said Radina Valova, regulatory vice president at the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.

Other states were not successful in passing sweeping clean energy goals. A renewed push in Florida for the state to have 100% renewable energy by 2040 failed, and a similar measure in Georgia calling for 100% clean energy by 2050 also went nowhere. In both cases, Democrats were trying to shepherd the bills through a mostly Republican legislature.

“Things like that are happening in a much larger number of places, like Missouri creating an EV task force,” said Leon, of the Clean Energy States Alliance. “They’re not so likely to put in place the EV incentives California has, but they’re thinking about the topic.”

Offshore wind

Although some state proposals on offshore wind did not become law this year, interest in the technology appears to be growing on the West Coast, observers say.

In California, a bill that passed the Legislature 71-1 in May, A.B. 525, would require the California Energy Commission to develop a “strategic plan” for offshore wind and present it to the state’s Natural Resources Agency and Legislature by the end of 2022. The measure would also require the state to prioritize “least-conflict” ocean areas to limit potential disruptions to ocean biodiversity.

The bill comes on the heels of an announcement in May from Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management that the first offshore wind leasing sale on the Pacific coast will be held as early as 2022.

Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association, said in an email that she expects the bill to become law because it is a study bill, not a mandate. There’s also no registered opposition.

Other states enacted laws in 2021 to plan for a potential wave of offshore clean energy. In Oregon, Brown signed a provision setting a goal of 3 gigawatts of floating offshore wind projects by 2030.

In Maine, Gov. Janet Mills (D) signed a plan that seeks to “encourage research to support the Maine offshore wind industry,” although she also inked a separate measure this week that prohibits new offshore wind projects in state waters (Greenwire, July 8).

A few governors have opted to explore offshore wind opportunities without legislative support. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) issued an executive order last month to build up to 8 GW of offshore wind resources by 2040, while Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) initiated a “wind week” in June.

The Southern state held webinars June 21-25 relating to offshore wind projects, covering options for limiting impacts on fish and wildlife and opportunities to leverage the state’s existing energy infrastructure to facilitate offshore wind projects, among other topics.

“Thanks to years of oil and gas exploration experience, Louisiana’s existing infrastructure, workforce and business community give us a strategic advantage in developing offshore wind in the Gulf of Mexico and all coastal waters of the United States,” Edwards said in a statement when announcing the initiative.