States grappling to reach goals for renewables and emissions cuts from the power sector are finding a solution on paper: Rebrand what counts as “clean.”
That’s what North Carolina lawmakers did this month when the state’s Republican supermajority overrode a veto from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, forcing through a law to rebrand nuclear as clean in the state energy mandate.
Similar measures that symbolically or legally redefine natural gas and biomass as “clean,” “green” or “renewable” also passed this year in Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia. While some energy rebranding has occurred for years, the recent action comes as states are increasingly being looked to help meet President Joe Biden’s goals to decarbonize the power sector by 2035.
How states define what is clean or renewable could determine which energy industries win or lose in the coming years, influence greenhouse gas emissions and shape politics across the country.
“Certainly, allowing nuclear to qualify may impact what sets of resources get built,” said Galen Barbose, a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory staff scientist who studies energy markets.
States have moved toward label changes, proponents and analysts say, in part because it’s easier to achieve clean electricity and climate targets when options beyond wind and solar are on the table. In cases like North Carolina’s, rebranding favors fuels traditionally backed by Republicans — and come at a time when many red states are benefiting from federal funding for clean energy projects from the Inflation Reduction Act.
Skeptics of energy rebrands have watched the changes closely. Daniel Tait, a research and communication manager for the Energy and Policy Institute who frequently criticizes utilities, said that “when the definitions change and something like gas becomes clean at the state level, that makes a big difference in a lot of places about what gets built going forward.”
Nearly 30 states have some type of legally binding renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requiring a percentage of electricity to come from renewables, according to a Berkeley Lab report this year by Barbose. North Carolina’s new law, S.B. 678, widens the state’s existing RPS into a clean electricity standard (CES) to count nuclear power in the definition.
Cooper in his veto statement said the measure puts “a thumb on the scale” in North Carolina toward building more power plants “over lower-cost solutions like energy efficiency.” The bill’s main sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Paul Newton, a Republican, had called Cooper’s veto a “slap in the face” before muscling through the measure, which he said would ensure a “reliable electrical grid.”
Makeovers like North Carolina’s that broaden what qualifies won’t cut actual climate-warming emissions, clean energy advocates say, or help meet the Biden administration’s goal of a carbon-free U.S. grid by 2035.
They warn that tipping the playing field toward nuclear energy will stymie the development of renewables like wind and solar. And they say rebranding natural gas, a fossil fuel source, as green or clean in some states won’t stop the energy source’s contribution to the country’s climate-warming emissions.
States regularly take actions toward recategorizing all kinds of energy sources, according to Rebekah de la Mora, a policy analyst with the NC Clean Energy Technology Center at North Carolina State University.
Setting those targets in the first place offers “a very straightforward way of trying to decarbonize the electricity and the energy sector, because other actions tend to then fall in line with those goals,” she said in an interview.
This year, more than two dozen RPS and CES changes were at least introduced through state legislation.
‘Lipstick on a pig’
Under the new law in North Carolina, investor-owned electric utilities are required to meet up to 12.5 percent of their energy needs through clean energy resources or energy efficiency measures. Rural electric cooperatives and municipal electric suppliers are subject to a 10 percent clean energy or energy efficiency requirement.
For Duke Energy, North Carolina’s largest electric utility, the state’s new law will help the company’s effort to build what could be its first two small modular reactors by 2035. They would help replace some coal-fired power generation.
S.B. 678 “highlights nuclear’s critical importance as a carbon-free resource in our ‘all of the above’ strategy for resource planning,” Duke spokesperson Bill Norton told E&E News in a statement.
Newton, the bill’s sponsor, was a Duke executive before leaving the company in 2015. Supporters of nuclear power also say it gets away from the intermittency challenge with renewables by being able to supply emissions-free electricity around he clock.
But to Johanna Neumann, senior director for Environment America’s 100 percent renewable energy campaign, S.B. 678 is an example of “producers of dirty and dangerous energy sources trying to figure out ways to put lipstick on a pig.”
“Investing in nuclear energy siphons away resources that are needed to bring the renewables industry to scale more quickly,” Neumann said. “And it ignores the process of uranium mining, which has severe environmental impacts, and the risks of accidents that nuclear plants like the  Fukushima disaster in Japan present.”
With a CES that includes nuclear energy in North Carolina, “they can check their clean energy requirements, without ever actually having to grow and incentivize offshore wind in North Carolina or solar panels on superstores,” Neumann said.
Neumann said electric utilities should focus on building both clean and renewable energy from efficient, nonemitting, regenerative and environmentally conscious sources, which is “what the public wants when they hear clean, renewable energy.”
North Carolina’s previous energy goals were laid out in an RPS, the state’s old requirement which didn’t count nuclear as a qualifying resource. Nuclear energy makes up a big chunk of the Tar Heel State’s electricity — about one-third in 2021, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
A CES more often includes nuclear because the energy source uses a finite fuel that creates zero emissions, according to de la Mora with the NC Clean Energy Technology Center.
“States are getting more interested” in building out nuclear, she said, after a summer that saw a fusion breakthrough and Plant Vogtle’s newest reactor come online in Georgia. “They want to preemptively make a decision so they don’t have to later,” she added.
Connecticut now counts new nuclear built after Oct. 1 of this year as part of its RPS, which lawmakers did not change into a CES.
But the fact remains “there’s no consensus definition of clean energy that everybody agrees on,” Warren Leon, executive director of the Clean Energy States Alliance, a coalition of state energy offices.
Clean and green
In Tennessee, natural gas was rebranded through a law passed in April designating the fossil fuel as “clean” but not setting a legally binding amount to be produced. The state does not have an RPS or CES.
Though it doesn’t direct dollars toward natural gas, critics such as Environment America’s Neumann and the Energy and Policy Institute’s Tait say it gives an undeserving positive association to a resource that still warms the climate.
The name “natural gas” itself has a positive brand, according to a Yale University study from 2020. It found that the American public perceives “natural gas” far more favorably at 76 percent than words like oil or coal at 51 percent and 39 percent, respectively.
The Tennessee measure’s original sponsor, Republican state Rep. Clark Boyd, has called natural gas and other sources that fall under the new definition of clean a marked improvement over coal-fired resources the state is looking to replace.
“For Tennessee, switching to natural gas is actually very, very good for them because it will significantly decrease their carbon intensity,” de la Mora said, “even if it’s not something that would fly in New York or California.”
But producing fewer carbon emissions depends on an airtight gas system, according to a July study from university and NASA researchers. Even tiny leaks of gas — as low as 0.2 percent — can make the resource have similar climate-warming impacts to the burning of coal, the researchers found.
There is, however, a difference between “basically messaging bills versus bills that make a difference in terms of policy, programs and financial benefits for different technologies,” Leon of the Clean Energy States Alliance said.
Tennessee’s new law doesn’t allocate funding toward natural gas or away from any source of energy. The same is true with a law passed by Ohio lawmakers earlier this year to redefine natural gas drilling as “green.”
That law remains in place in Ohio amid a lawsuit filed by environmental advocates in July, who argue that the change was unconstitutionally pushed through to the governor’s desk. The measure was included as an amendment to an unrelated piece of legislation on poultry.
“It’s mainly a symbolic thing. Southeast Ohio in particular is a big epicenter of natural gas,” said Rob Moore, principal of Scioto Analysis, an Ohio-based public policy organization.
The Empowerment Alliance, which backed the Ohio law passed this year, said it wants the rebrand to spread beyond the Buckeye State.
The alliance, a conservative gas-industry-aligned group, did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement Sept. 8, the group said: “We encourage legislators in energy rich states to examine Ohio’s Natural Gas is Green law and consider following its lead to a clean, green, energy future.”
But calling natural gas “green” and “clean” still matters, Tait said.
“It’s clear that the American public, even in many deeply conservative states, wants clean energy,” Tait said. The gas industry has to reestablish itself as a clean source amid the country’s efforts to decarbonize in order to keep gas flowing, he said.
“We have to have clear eyes about what is actually a zero-emission technology,” said Doug Vine, energy analysis director from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “A new unabated natural gas plant is not a clean technology for the long term.”
“Nuclear, expanding hydro, geothermal — there’s a lot of options that we have,” Vine added.
The American Petroleum Institute said in its “State of American Energy” report this year that the switch natural gas has made up the most emissions reductions from 2006 to 2021 in the U.S. power sector, at about 60 percent.
“Including natural gas as part of the solution is absolutely the right thing to do, and it’s very positive and a natural partner to renewables,” former Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) — now a co-chair of Natural Allies, a natural gas lobbying organization — said in an interview.
Another area of disagreement is biomass.
Arkansas lawmakers voted to change its RPS in April to count burning biomass — which can include wood, plants, manure and household waste — as a renewable energy source, although it emits carbon when burned for power.
“Biomass is a fuel that’s combusted. And we have combustion, you have emissions of lots of different gases … not just greenhouse gases, but air pollutants, some of which have a direct or indirect global warming impact but also have human and ecological health effects,” said Garvin Heath, a senior environmental scientist and energy analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
“Mathematically, it’s carbon-neutral,” de la Mora said. “But you’re still releasing carbon dioxide into the environment. … Just because on paper it’s clean, it doesn’t mean it’s like that in real life.”
Carrie Annand, executive director of the Biomass Power Association, said in a statement to E&E News that by including carbon-neutral biomass in their RPS “states are supporting rural jobs and the responsible use of forestry and agricultural residues.”
Virginia also passed a law this year to accommodate more biomass burning. Electricity producers can now keep burning biomass until 2045, so long as it’s sustainably harvested and not co-fired with fossil fuels. They were previously required to stop operating by the end of 2028.
The Virginia Department of Forestry in a December report said using forest waste materials for biomass generation helps with forest and waste management.
But to Neumann from Environment America, the public understanding of clean energy doesn’t match some of the new definitions.
“If and when the public learns that a large compound that is burning wood chips and emitting air pollution that makes people in the surrounding neighborhoods sick is being called renewable,” Neumann said, “it’s not going to jive with their understanding of what clean renewable energy is.”