How today’s elections may remake renewables, clean energy

By Lesley Clark, David Iaconangelo | 11/02/2021 07:18 AM EDT

Voters go to the polls today in three states that could play major roles in determining the future of U.S. clean energy, renewable power and electric vehicles.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin and Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe

(Left to right) Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin and Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. AP Photo/Steve Helber (Youngkin ); AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana (McAuliffe)

Correction appended.

Voters go to the polls today in three states that could play major roles in determining the future of U.S. clean energy, renewable power and electric vehicles.

The fate of New England’s largest low-carbon energy proposal, a $1 billion transmission line, is on the ballot in Maine, for example. Voters in that state could determine whether it ultimately gets built and change how future large transmission projects are approved.


In Virginia, where the race for governor between former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin is too close to call, the next governor will come into office as the state embarks on an ambitious pledge to decarbonize its power sector by 2050 and as it launches an aggressive bid to become a mid-Atlantic hub for offshore wind.

In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy is seeking reelection to pursue a similar agenda of renewable construction, although there may be hard choices ahead on clean energy if he wins a second term.

With President Biden’s clean energy and climate agenda facing an uncertain fate in Congress, the administration is watching the outcome of the state races closely. Both Biden and his Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm last week campaigned for McAuliffe, for example. Granholm also tweeted in support of the Maine project last week.

In other states, ballot measures could have energy implications at the city level.

In Columbus, Ohio, voters will face an initiative that would redirect $87 million of the city’s $1 billion general fund to further energy efficiency efforts.

The proposal, which comes after voters last fall approved a plan to transition the city to 100% renewable energy, is opposed by city leaders who question the legitimacy of the initiative’s backers and say it would lead to cuts in fire and police protection and other city services.

Here’s a look at how 3 statewide races could change the U.S. energy sector:



In this April 26 file photo, workers pound stakes to mark land on an existing Central Maine Power corridor that was widened to make way for the planned New England Clean Energy Connect transmission project.
In this April 26 file photo, workers pound stakes to mark land on an existing Central Maine Power corridor that was widened to make way for the planned New England Clean Energy Connect transmission project. | AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File

One of the nation’s most high-stakes votes on energy policy will take place in Maine, where a ballot initiative could spell death for a $1 billion power line that would serve as New England’s largest source of low-carbon electricity.

The New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) would carry Canadian hydropower through Maine and into Massachusetts, where it could meet roughly 17 percent of the latter state’s electricity demand, according to official estimates.

The Biden administration also supports the project as an example of large-scale transmission that would unbottle clean energy across the grid. In her tweet last week, Granholm urged Mainers to “keep this project moving.”

Yet the line has tapped into a vein of populist opposition, including from environmentalists, nuclear and gas operators, recreational sportspeople, First Nations tribes, and legislators from both parties (Energywire, Aug. 27).

After a failed first try last summer, anti-NECEC petitioners got enough signatures to force today’s ballot initiative. It asks Mainers whether to block large power lines that follow NECEC’s current path and would require two-thirds of the state Legislature to approve any future “high-impact” transmission project.

Several local polls have indicated that the anti-NECEC position is likely to prevail. Some observers say that if it does, developers could cancel the power line after several years of work.

“I think it would be very, very difficult for this project to go into effect, if it’s voted down,” said Jim Melcher, a professor of political science at the University of Maine, Farmington.

“There’s an extremely good chance that it could be [voted down],” he added.

The fact that public opinion about NECEC doesn’t break down easily along partisan lines, Melcher cautioned, made the outcome harder to predict. Developers might try to appeal an unwelcome outcome in court, he added.

Chief backers of the line declined to speculate on what would happen if their side lost the ballot initiative, although they warned of negative consequences for Maine’s business climate and New England’s transition to clean energy.

Thorn Dickinson, president of NECEC Transmission LLC, said if the initiative were passed, it would send “a chilling message that business is not welcome in our state and [threaten] Maine’s renewable energy future.” NECEC Transmission is the line’s developer and is wholly owned by Central Maine Power Co., the state’s largest investor-owned utility.

Lynn St-Laurent, spokesperson for Hydro Quebec, which would supply the hydropower for the transmission line, echoed those warnings. In an email to E&E News, she said the initiative “carries great risks for future energy development in Maine, not just for new hydro lines but any type of renewable energy transmission.”

The power line would deliver only a relatively small portion of hydropower into Maine itself, amounting to about one-twentieth of the state’s electricity generation in 2019. Developers have sought to obtain the right of passage through Maine in exchange for billions of dollars in tax payments, earning the support of Maine’s Democratic Gov. Janet Mills.

In Massachusetts — the primary recipient of the line’s power — energy officials are betting on the project as a key for halving CO2 emissions by 2030 and reaching net-zero CO2 by 2050.

If the state misses out on energy from the power line, it would likely need to build far more offshore wind, a source of electricity that falls short of the round-the-clock attributes of hydropower, according to officials.

“The NECEC Project is of vital importance to Massachusetts,” wrote staff at the office of the state’s Attorney General Maura Healey (D), in a filing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last month.

That comment came despite some earlier reservations from Healey’s office, which had previously questioned the power line’s climate profile. It previously had argued that the NECEC might simply shift emissions to other parts of Canada that receive Hydro Quebec’s electricity – though the office didn’t object to the line’s construction. Healey’s office declined comment to E&E News about the outcome of Maine’s ballot initiative.

Other opponents maintain that the NECEC would do little to decrease emissions, while cutting through wildlife habitats and perpetuating the Canadian hydropower industry’s legacy of land grabs from First Nations groups.

“The NECEC corridor perpetuates the ongoing environmental racism caused by Canada’s hydropower industry,” said Meg Sheehan, coordinator of the North American Megadam Resistance Alliance.

“Importing this electricity is not green and violates every principle that [Massachusetts] Gov. [Charlie] Baker claimed he supports,” Sheehan said. “It is a big green lie.”

In Maine, the NECEC has cast an enormous shadow over energy policy and partisan politics in general.

Some leading opponents have used the line, and public discontent with utility developer Central Maine Power, as the launch pad for other campaigns. One such effort seeks to promote a public takeover of CMP and the other investor-owned utility. In another, a former state lawmaker, Tom Saviello, has said he may mount a third-party challenge to Mills in the next gubernatorial election, if the ballot initiative doesn’t kill the project.

In the lead-up to the ballot initiative, noted Melcher at the University of Maine, Farmington, both opponents and supporters of the NECEC have engaged in an advertising blitz fueled by tens of millions of dollars in spending.

“You watch the local news, and it’s just a bombardment on both sides,” he said.

For many Mainers, debates over the project have also tapped into deeper reservations about the role of foreign energy interests — since CMP’s owner, Avangrid, has a Spanish parent company, while Hydro Quebec is based in Canada — as well as locals’ desire to protect their rural identity, added Melcher.

“The issues have always been there. It was kind of like a land mine that was going to blow up eventually,” he said.



In Virginia, the gubernatorial race is being closely watched nationally for what it may say about the state of the economy, inflation worries, Biden’s poll numbers and the administration’s difficulties in getting its agenda through Congress. It’s also being viewed as a test case for post-Trump Republicans, with Trump-endorsed Youngkin seeking to keep his distance from the former president. Trump has steadfast supporters in the state but remains deeply unpopular in Virginia’s more populated northern suburbs.

Virginia’s two high-profile energy programs in the state could give the chief executive a national profile in efforts to move the energy sector away from fossil fuels and into renewables.

Virginia’s next governor will oversee enactment of the state’s landmark Clean Economy Act, a 2020 law that imposes deadlines for the state’s two largest investor-owned utilities to stop producing electricity with carbon emitting fuel. For Dominion Energy Inc., the target is 2045, while it is 2050 for Appalachian Power, a unit of American Electric Power Co.

Climate has not played a role during the campaign, taking a back seat to debates over how race and gender are handled in schools. But the candidates’ approach to energy is sharply different: Democrat McAuliffe says he wants to achieve a decarbonized electricity sector by 2035, 15 years earlier than the current deadline and has released a detailed climate change plan.

Youngkin, who at a recent TV appearance, wouldn’t say whether human activity has caused climate change, has said he wants to slow down the energy plan and warned at a debate it would lead to “blackouts and brownouts and an unreliable energy grid.”

Yet the law is already being carried out and the unique nature of the state’s government makes it unlikely a new governor would be able to shift the focus in a significant way, Virginia energy analysts said.

Virginia is the only state in the country in which the governor can’t run for a successive term, making it challenging to secure significant policy shifts. The state also operates on a two-year budget calendar, so the new governor’s first budget will be his predecessor’s, in this case, Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat.

“In the time frame available for the next governor, I don’t see huge changes” to Virginia’s energy profile, said William Shobe, director of the Energy Transition Initiative at the University of Virginia.

Retooling the 2020 law, which was approved by a Democratic-held Legislature, would require legislative approval and Shobe said there is little appetite. Both chambers are still held by Democrats and there are no Senate elections, so Youngkin would not have unified control, even if Republicans retake the House of Delegates.

Both utilities have submitted plans to state regulators to comply with the deadlines, and Dominion supported the legislation when it passed.

“The revolution is underway,” Shobe said. “Virginia is on its way to decarbonizing and that’s unlikely to change, at least in the short run. We are pushing our emissions profile down pretty quickly and serving as a leader among states.”

Delivering on the plan could get more difficult in the out years as the targets get harder to meet, Shobe said.

If Dominion runs into challenges executing the plan, it could have a stronger ally in Youngkin, said David Hart, a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a science and tech policy think tank. He noted Democrats would be more likely than Republicans to keep the pressure up on the utilities.

“It’s pretty ambitious,” Hart said of the Clean Economy Act. “It’s easy in the beginning because the numbers are low, but as delays set in, sometimes they may want to revise it.”

If the state’s landmark law is tweaked around the edges, observers said it’s less likely that either candidate would look to disrupt the state’s effort to become an offshore wind powerhouse.

Northam last week announced the state had landed the country’s first offshore wind blade facility and the project is expected to create manufacturing jobs. McAuliffe, who served as governor from 2014 to 2018, championed offshore wind while in office.

“It’s a win for Democrats, but I would assume Youngkin would be supportive of the offshore project as well,” Hart said, noting the manufacturing component could spur economic development. “Every governor wants that kind of investment.”

McAuliffe as governor also supported a natural gas pipeline that would cross through Virginia from West Virginia.

But there has been little discussion of the Mountain Valley pipeline during the campaign, even as opponents protested against the 303-mile conduit outside a September debate between the two candidates.

Neither McAuliffe nor Youngkin has broached the subject. The Roanoke Times asked both campaigns detailed questions about the pipeline’s future but reported that the campaigns did not answer them.

Youngkin’s campaign has reiterated his opposition to the Clean Economy Act.

“I believe in all energy sources, we can use wind and solar, but we need to preserve our clean natural gas and we can, in fact, have a reliable energy grid,” Youngkin said at the second debate with McAuliffe.

The McAuliffe campaign told the newspaper the Democrat would push for Virginia to have 100 percent clean energy by 2035. McAuliffe has picked up the endorsement of several environmental groups who oppose the pipeline, including the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, whose political action committee ran an ad on his behalf.

Still, Thomas Hadwin, a Virginia energy expert and independent consultant on power issues for Virginia advocacy groups, called the lack of clarity on the issue a loss for voters.

Virginia’s State Water Control Board is poised to make a final decision on a pipeline permit request in December and McAuliffe and Youngkin may be counting on a resolution from the Northam administration, Hadwin suggested.

“Both candidates might be hoping that the lame-duck administration deals with the crucial water and air quality permits to avoid any political fallout from tainting their early administrations,” he said.


New Jersey

Incumbent New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D), right, speaks while Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli listens during a gubernatorial debate at Rowan University's Pfleeger Concert Hall on Oct. 12 in Glassboro, N.J.
Incumbent New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, speaks while Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli listens during a gubernatorial debate at Rowan University’s Pfleeger Concert Hall on Oct. 12 in Glassboro, N.J. | AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, Pool

In New Jersey, Gov. Murphy is seeking a second term and a chance to push forward with big plans for renewables and electric cars.

Murphy’s agenda, laid out in a 2020 energy master plan for carbon neutrality by midcentury, calls for turning solar power into the state’s largest electricity resource by 2030, followed closely by offshore wind and nuclear power. His administration has prioritized the growth of the offshore wind and solar industries, tagging them as a source of jobs and economic growth.

His Republican competitor today, former state Assemblymember Jack Ciattarelli, has trailed by double digits in some recent polls and done little to emphasize his differences on energy policy. Last year, however, he criticized Murphy’s energy master plan for seeking to reduce the use of natural gas.

“We are in a period of unprecedented natural gas exploration, discovery and extraction, leading our nation to true energy independence. We should be accelerating our energy evolution towards natural gas, not away from it, while leveraging zero-emissions nuclear power along the way,” said Ciattarelli at the time, according to a statement on the candidate’s website. His campaign did not respond to E&E News’ inquiries.

Perhaps the most contentious energy policy decision during Murphy’s first term concerned whether to award permits for the PennEast natural gas pipeline. Murphy’s environmental officials denied those permits, and although the developer won a favorable ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court, it backed off the project months later (Energywire, Sept. 23).

If Murphy wins a second term, the toughest energy issues may relate to clean transportation. Environmental officials in New Jersey have said the state’s climate goals will eventually require it to phase out gas-car sales, though it’s not clear if regulators have followed New York and California in drawing up rules to that effect.

Doing so would almost certainly mark one of the state’s biggest challenges yet for transitioning away from fossil fuels. About 3 percent of New Jersey’s light-duty car sales last year were plug-in hybrids or battery electrics, according to data from the Alliance for Automotive Innovation.

The state has also declined to join the East Coast’s most ambitious effort to cut transportation emissions, known as the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI). The initiative calls on states to tax emissions from vehicle fuels.

New Jersey was one of the 13 states that helped shape the TCI, but only three of those states ended up joining, once the full scope of the initiative was unveiled. Environmental justice advocates had balked at the program, saying they were concerned it would do nothing to address the special pollution burden faced by many front-line communities.

None of the state holdouts — a group that includes New Jersey — ruled out joining the TCI at a later date, however. Some electric vehicle advocates think state officials will likely have an opportunity to reconsider their decision in the coming years.

“I’m hoping, actually, that if Murphy gets a second term, that that’s something he’ll consider seriously,” said Pam Frank, CEO of ChargEVC, a nonprofit coalition of EV advocates. “He’s never taken it off the table.”

“New Jersey and New York, the 800-pound gorillas on the issue, didn’t raise their hands [to join the TCI],” she added. “And the question is, will they?”

Beyond electric vehicles, the Murphy administration has largely followed other Democratic leaders in incorporating environmental justice tenets into clean energy policies — though the decisions were not always popular with developers.

For instance, solar developers recently complained that the state’s community solar program, in which companies build out solar arrays and find subscribers for the power, was setting them up to fail (Energywire, Oct. 27).

Fourty percent of all subscribers had to be low- and moderate-income, under the terms of that program. With all of the community solar projects that have won contracts with New Jersey so far, over half of subscribers would fall into that income range — making it a national model for solar equity, according to some researchers.

Solar developers, however, protested that the state required too much paperwork from lower-income New Jerseyans, who had to provide up to three years of tax returns to prove they qualified for bigger credits on their electric bills. That would make it hard to reach the program’s equity goals, they said.

Last week, New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities (BPU) announced they would pare back the paperwork requirements, saying they would accept several substitutes as proof: Lower-income subscribers could simply show that they lived in certain census blocks or participated in existing government benefits programs.

Fred DeSanti, executive director of the New Jersey Solar Energy Coalition, a trade group, told E&E News the changes had satisfied his requests.

Murphy, for his part, said the community solar program — which regulators have made permanent — would be “a national model for clean energy equity” and “a key pillar” in moving the state toward carbon neutrality by 2050.

That’s assuming the community solar program stays in place, in the coming years and under different governors.

Frank, of ChargEVC, recalled the slow movement in developing New Jersey’s offshore wind sector, under the state’s last governor, Republican Chris Christie. “These things,” she said of New Jersey’s gubernatorial elections, “can have real consequences.”

Reporters Tim Cama and Jeffrey Tomich contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story described the Massachusetts attorney general’s recent backing of the NECEC as evidence of a “turnaround”. In fact, Healey’s office never opposed the line.