New best friends: GOP governors and renewables

By Benjamin Storrow | 06/23/2017 07:55 AM EDT

While President Trump sings coal’s praises, efforts to green America’s economy are receiving a boost from an unexpected quarter: Republican-held governors’ mansions.

A number of Republican governors, like Iowa's Kim Reynolds, support clean energy programs.

A number of Republican governors, like Iowa's Kim Reynolds, support clean energy programs. Amy Mayer/Iowa Public Radio Images/Flickr

While President Trump sings coal’s praises, efforts to green America’s economy are receiving a boost from an unexpected quarter: Republican-held governors’ mansions.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval is fresh off a legislative session in which he signed nine bills aimed at supporting the clean energy sector. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott recently signed a tax exemption that solar installers say is essential to jump-starting the residential and commercial market in the Sunshine State. And in Iowa, where wind now accounts for 36 percent of the state’s electricity generation, newly installed Gov. Kim Reynolds recently finished an energy plan that calls for growing the wind, biofuels and solar industries.

"For years, our fields have fed the world. Now, they energize it. They produce products that fuel cars, and they host wind turbines that power our communities and businesses," Reynolds said in her inaugural address last month. "And yet those fields are filled with untapped potential. Our energy plan will help us continue to lead the way in wind energy and renewable fuels. Working together, we can have the most innovative energy policy in the country."


The growing embrace of renewables by Republican governors stands in stark contrast to the president. Trump’s budget request for fiscal 2018 includes a 70 percent reduction to the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (E&E Daily, June 22). Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who has expressed concern about coal’s decline and renewables’ rise, has embarked on a grid reliability study. And in speeches across the country, Trump has railed against renewables while promising to revive the coal sector.

Wednesday was the most recent example (Climatewire, June 22).

"We’ve ended the war on clean, beautiful coal, and we’re putting our miners back to work," the president said during a campaign-style speech in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

"I don’t want to just hope the wind blows to light up your homes and your factories," he said.

But in states like Iowa and Nevada, which lack a local fossil fuel industry, Republican leaders are becoming increasingly comfortable with renewables. Wind now employs more than 8,000 people in Iowa. Two utilities in the Hawkeye State announced plans last year to invest $4.6 billion in new wind farms.

Reynolds follows in the footsteps of longtime Gov. Terry Branstad (R), an outspoken wind advocate during six nonconsecutive terms in Des Moines. Branstad stepped down this year to serve as the U.S. ambassador to China.

As lieutenant governor, Reynolds led efforts last year to complete an Iowa Energy Plan. It calls for more ambitious renewable energy targets, best practices to help municipalities site turbines and grid modernization pilot projects, among other measures.

The state’s wind industry has helped attract Facebook, Microsoft and Google data centers to Iowa, said Brenna Smith, a spokeswoman for the governor.

"In general, renewable energy has provided for local energy production, job and business growth, increases in property tax revenue, and clean energy production in our own backyard," Smith said.

Asked about Trump’s comments, she responded, "We will continue working with federal officials to ensure the renewable fuels industry remains strong in Iowa."

The story is similar in Nevada, where Tesla Inc. has invested $1.4 billion in a Gigafactory outside Reno. Sandoval, at a recent bill signing, estimated that the Silver State has seen $6 billion in utility-grade solar development since 2011.

Sandoval signed bills this year to restore net metering for residential solar owners, bolster energy storage and include the cost of carbon in utilities’ long-term plans.

"We’re going to solidify Nevada’s position as a national leader in clean and renewable energy," Sandoval said during a recent bill-signing ceremony at a Tesla warehouse in Las Vegas.

Economic benefits … and the environment

The maturation of the wind and solar industries is opening the door for Republicans to back renewables, industry and state officials said. Utility-scale solar and wind costs have fallen by 85 percent and 66 percent, respectively, since 2009, according to Lazard, an investment bank.

Higher degrees of renewable penetration in states like Kansas, Oklahoma and South Dakota, where wind now accounts for more than a quarter of all power generation, have helped ease concerns about reliability.

"Increasingly, those concerns about affordability and reliability are being addressed. There are stronger arguments," said Maryland Secretary of Environment Ben Grumbles, who serves under Gov. Larry Hogan (R). "Providing energy is about environmental stewardship and clean energy, but also making sure it’s affordable, reliable and sustainable."

Unlike their Democratic counterparts, who are apt to cite climate benefits of clean energy initiatives, Republicans are content to focus on economic benefits.

Reynolds didn’t mention climate change in her inaugural address. Sandoval didn’t raise the subject at the bill signing. Instead, the Nevada governor talked up the economic benefits of renewables, saying the bills signed this year would boost jobs and save consumers money (Climatewire, June 16).

That suits climate action advocates just fine. There is less need to spar with Republicans over the existence of climate change when GOP leaders are willing to endorse technologies that will reduce carbon emissions, they said.

That dynamic was on display in Illinois last year, when Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) signed a massive energy bill. The Environmental Defense Fund expects the law to slash the state’s carbon emissions 50 percent by 2030, by encouraging a combination of renewable development and energy efficiency.

Rauner was a latecomer to the legislative discussions surrounding the bill, and then he was primarily motivated by keeping two Exelon Corp. nuclear plants open. Environmentalists nevertheless achieved much of what they hoped for.

"It is the single biggest climate and energy bill in Illinois history, and one of the biggest things happening on the national stage right now," said Andrew Barbeau, a senior clean energy consultant for EDF.

Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago, added, "If we all agree clean energy development is good for economic development and the environment, we don’t all have to agree on climate."

More broadly, the positions taken by GOP governors are as diverse as the states they lead. In the Northeast, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) has backed the largest procurement of offshore wind in the country and committed to maintaining the ambitious carbon-cutting targets established by Deval Patrick, his Democratic predecessor.

In Maryland, Hogan has signed a bill to cut the state’s carbon emissions 40 percent by 2030, and his administration recently approved renewable energy credits for 368 megawatts of offshore wind.

Along the windswept prairies of the Midwest, renewable development has sometimes continued in the face of Republican opposition. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) signed a bill this year to eliminate a wind energy tax credit, saying the industry had grown to the point where the assistance was no longer necessary (Climatewire, April 18). In 2015, Kansas made its renewable energy standards voluntary. Both states rank in the top five of U.S. wind production.

‘Much less partisan’

Often, Republican positions are more muddled. In North Carolina, where the GOP holds supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature, lawmakers are considering a solar bill that would open the door to residential and commercial installers. But it would shift decisionmaking about the state’s utility-scale installations from solar developers to utilities.

The Tar Heel State trails only California in installed solar capacity, and employment in the industry now stands at around 7,000 jobs. Construction of utility-scale solar projects has pumped tax revenue and jobs into rural parts of North Carolina, said state Rep. John Szoka, a Republican who authored the measure.

"This is millions of dollars in some of the poorest counties in our state to keep their infrastructure up, and build new schools and other things," Szoka said.

Still, many GOP lawmakers worry about the cost of the solar boom, he said. Much of the development is attributable to a long-standing federal law that requires utilities to accept power from small-scale renewable developments. Szoka’s bill would change how North Carolina implements the law’s standards, requiring solar developers to submit competitive bids to the state’s utilities.

"I feel Republicans are supportive of the solar industry if — and it’s a big if — if the general ratepayers don’t have to pay the cost," Szoka said.

The bill has cleared the House and must pass the Senate. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has endorsed the measure.

The bill’s ultimate impact may depend on how it’s implemented by state regulators, who will be tasked with studying net metering, said Stephen Kalland, executive director of the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center.

"The good in this bill outweighs the bad, but not as much as I’d like," he said.

Even in states where agreement between Republicans and greens exists, significant divisions persist.

Environmentalists widely criticized Sandoval’s decision to veto a bill to boost Nevada’s renewable portfolio standard to 40 percent by 2030 (Climatewire, June 20). Baker has frustrated greens in Massachusetts, who say the governor is doing the bare minimum to meet the commonwealth’s climate objectives (Climatewire, Dec. 21, 2016).

And in Maryland, Hogan has come under pressure to join the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of 12 states seeking to meet the objectives of the Paris climate accord.

Wind and solar advocates nevertheless detect progress. In Florida last week, Scott signed a bill that provides a series of tax breaks on residential and commercial solar installations. Sunrun Inc., a San Francisco-based solar installer, promptly announced it would begin business in the state.

The Florida law provides a 100 percent property tax exemption for residential solar installations, an 80 percent property tax exemption for nonresidential systems, and an 80 percent ad valorem tax exemption for residential and commercial arrays (Climatewire, May 9).

The move is a sign of Republicans’ growing comfort with renewables, said Tyson Grinstead, Sunrun’s Southeast policy director.

Many Republicans still ask questions about cost and reliability, said Grinstead, who served as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R) political director during his 2014 re-election campaign. But as development increases and costs fall, Republican governors increasingly want to see their states benefit from the jobs and cost savings created by the industry, he said.

"It’s becoming much less partisan than it used to be," Grinstead said.