White House says clean energy standards work. Is that true?

By Miranda Willson | 04/30/2021 07:23 AM EDT

Members of the Biden administration said in recent weeks that clean electricity standards similar to what is being proposed nationally have a successful track record at the state level. But timeline challenges with the standards and environmental pushback in some locations are raising questions whether the plans work as intended.

President Biden has called for enacting a clean energy standard, a policy tool deployed across multiple states.

President Biden has called for enacting a clean energy standard, a policy tool deployed across multiple states. MariaGodfrida/Pixabay (solar panels); Gage Skidmore/Flickr (Biden); Gary Norton/NREL (turbines)

Members of the Biden administration said in recent weeks that clean electricity standards similar to what is being proposed nationally have a successful track record at the state level.

But timeline challenges with the standards and environmental pushback in some locations are raising questions whether the plans work as intended.

Broadly defined as a policy mandating that all or a portion of electricity come from carbon-free resources within a certain number of years, a clean electricity standard is a central part of the administration’s climate agenda and a plank in President Biden’s $2.2 trillion infrastructure package. The administration has said it backs a mandate that would incentivize not only renewables, but also nuclear power, carbon capture and other technologies.


"It’s working very well in states that have utilized it," White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy told reporters earlier this month. "We think it’s one of the best methods to actually get the [emissions] reductions we’re looking for with a level of certainty."

Groups ranging from the centrist think tank Third Way to the grassroots Sunrise Movement have thrown their weight behind the administration’s push. "A CES will cut the soot and smog threatening our health and the carbon pollution driving the climate crisis," the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote on a blog this month.Supporters of clean energy standards also say they have worked to bring low-emissions resources online at the state level and cut emissions.

But critics and some economists claim that they raise costs. In other cases, states attempting to enact a mandate at the same time as other electricity reforms fell off track in meeting targets on time.

In some regions, what counts as "clean" or renewable electricity has also been a point of contention. Wind, solar and battery storage are generally included in both renewable portfolio standards and clean electricity standards, but some states also count fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage, hydrogen produced from zero-carbon power, hydropower, and biomass energy as "clean" or renewable resources.

In New Jersey, for example, waste-to-energy incinerators are classified as second-tier clean energy — a step below wind and solar, but still eligible for the state’s clean energy credits — under the state’s renewable portfolio standard, or RPS. Although the incinerator industry says waste-to-energy facilities are safe and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, environmental justice advocates in the Garden State say they release harmful local air pollutants.

In Nevada, a goal was set in 2019 to procure all of the state’s electricity from "zero carbon" resources by 2050. But a report released last year by GridLab found that the state needs to develop a stronger interim goal — it currently aims for 50% renewable power by 2030 — to achieve the greenhouse gas reductions it has targeted in its broader climate strategy.

"I think part of the problem is, sometimes people assume that adopting the target is the end of the story, when in fact it’s the beginning of the journey," said V. John White, executive director of the California-based Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies.

Currently, six states have standards mandating that 100% of electricity come from carbon-free resources, including renewables and other zero-carbon fuels. At least 30 states and the District of Columbia have passed renewable portfolio standards or similar policies dictating that a portion of electricity come from renewable sources.

As the Biden administration considers a national plan, here’s a look at how electricity mandates have played out in three states.

California: A success story?

California has had a clean electricity standard, or CES, in place since 2018, when the state passed a law mandating that 100% of electricity come from carbon-free resources by 2045.

Under the state’s policy, 60% of electricity must come from "eligible renewable energy resources," which include solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, small hydropower, renewable methane gas, ocean wave or thermal energy, and fuel cells using renewable fuels by the year 2030. By 2045, the remaining 40% of the state’s power should come from any of those same resources, or from large hydropower projects and "any other zero-carbon polluting resources."

The policy has prodded California’s utilities to procure more clean resources, said J.R. DeShavo, director of the Luskin Center for Innovation at UCLA. The state has already hit its interim goal of 60% renewables by 2030, with nearly two-thirds of its power currently coming from renewable energy, he said.

"The CES has probably been the single most important emission reduction force in policy the state has adopted, more effective than cap and trade, and more effective than [our] energy efficiency or transportation initiatives," DeShavo said.

While California initially targeted renewable resources such as solar and wind when it established an RPS in 2002, it broadened the mandate three years ago. Members of the Biden administration have similarly said they plan to include nuclear and carbon capture technologies in a national standard, and some other states have taken similar steps in recent years, said Lindsey Walter, deputy director of the climate and clean energy program at Third Way, which tracks CES policies in states.

Broader, technology-inclusive standards generally make it more cost-effective for states to reach these goals, Walter said.

"California’s [CES] is a typical one as far as the design goes, in that it went from a renewable electricity standard to a broader standard," Walter said.

But clean energy advocates say the hardest part is yet to come for California. A state report released in March estimated that California will need to triple its electric grid capacity to reach its 2045 target.

For many years, California has had success in building transmission infrastructure to connect new renewable resources to the grid, said White of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies. But growth in transmission infrastructure has started to slow down in recent years, in part because of concerns that building more power lines could raise the state’s already-high electricity costs, White said.

"We now have a bottleneck of renewables that can’t connect to the grid," White said.

Nationally, expanding transmission infrastructure could be key to reaching 100% carbon-free power, but regulators may need to reform transmission planning processes to make the build-out happen faster, analysts say.

In addition to building and enhancing transmission infrastructure, clean energy advocates in the Golden State say state regulators must take steps to retire fossil fuel plants, rather than only build more renewables. That will be key to ensuring that greenhouse gas emissions decrease in tandem with increases in clean power, said Luis Amezcua, a senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club in California.

"Given that the country doesn’t have a clean energy standard right now, the California model is a great way to start," Amezcua said. "I think we also need to look at creating a strategy and pairing that with how we retire fossil fuels."

Vermont: 99% renewables or a ‘fraud’?

Unlike California, Vermont continues to have a renewable energy standard, or RES, enacted in 2015. Nonetheless, observers in the Green Mountain State say its challenges and growing pains with the plan could offer lessons for the Biden administration.

Under Vermont’s framework, utilities must achieve 75% renewable energy — defined as resources from wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal energy, biomass, tidal and wave power, landfill gas, and fuel cells using renewable fuels — by 2032. Several utilities in the state have already exceeded that target, and Vermonters currently obtain 99.9% of their electricity from renewable resources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

"We expect to set a more ambitious target and conversations are underway to review the existing target through the work of the State’s Climate Council," Riley Allen, deputy commissioner at the Vermont Department of Public Service, said in an email.

But 55% of Vermont’s renewable power comes from hydroelectric dams, a sticking point for some environmental advocates. A 2016 study from Washington State University on human-made reservoirs formed by hydropower dams worldwide found that the reservoirs contribute 1.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (Energywire, Sept. 30, 2016).

Vermont utilities are also permitted under the state’s RES to receive renewable energy credits — a system in place in many states for tracking and measuring clean electricity resources — by procuring power from long-standing hydropower resources, said Steve Crowley, energy chair of the Vermont Sierra Club. The system doesn’t ensure that new electricity resources are being added to the grid or encourage the retirement of fossil fuel plants in New England, he said.

"We state that we’re achieving some high number for our renewable energy system, but we’re actually not. That system is a complete fraud," Crowley said.

Vermont’s standard was established with the knowledge that hydropower is readily available in the region at an affordable rate and that it releases significantly less emissions than fossil fuels, Allen said.

Hydropower also complements wind and solar by producing energy at times when the latter resources might not be available, said Kristin Kelly, a spokesperson for Green Mountain Power, the largest utility in the state. GMP aims to have 100% renewable energy by 2030, and over 60% of its current supply is renewable, including hydropower.

"Because we’re providing an essential service to our customers, we have to be able to deliver that reliable, clean power all the time," Kelly said.

Although Vermont has an ambitious renewable energy standard, it isn’t aligned with a separate mandate that the state set last year for reducing greenhouse gases, said Kim Hayden, director of the energy and environment group at Vermont law firm Paul Frank + Collins PC.

For a national clean electricity standard to be effective, it should include not just clean electricity goals but also an emissions reduction plan, she said. National policymakers should also account for the benefits and trade-offs of different resources, such as hydropower, Hayden said.

"We’re not making the progress we need to make to meet our [greenhouse gas] reduction goals and not close to avoiding the catastrophe that the IPCC has warned us about," Hayden said, referring to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Illinois: Rapid growth interrupted

Illinois was a leader in the Midwest in establishing a RPS in 2007. But with about 8% of the state’s electricity having come from renewable resources — mostly wind and solar — in 2019, the state is not expected to meet its goal of 25% renewable energy by 2025 to 2026.

While Illinois doesn’t have a technology-inclusive CES, debates in the state about how to prioritize large, utility-scale renewable resources relative to distributed renewable resources like rooftop solar echo national fights.

In Illinois, a public agency called the Illinois Power Agency is responsible for procuring renewable energy credits to meet the state’s RPS goals, said MeLena Hessel, a senior policy advocate at the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center. Since Illinois has a deregulated power market, utilities deliver power but do not own generation resources themselves.

Prior to 2016, the state’s RPS was effectively "broken," in part because deregulation of the state’s electricity market happened around the same time that the RPS was set up, Hessel said.

"The interaction of those two changes, trying to implement an RPS and restructuring our market, led to a number of challenges that tripped up our renewables program and ultimately led to a situation where we weren’t doing the procurement needed to get on track," she said.

After the state passed the Future Energy Jobs Act in 2016, solar power increased from 80 megawatts in operation in 2017 to more than 2,000 MW under development by 2020, according to the Illinois Power Agency. The 2016 law established a solar incentive program, funded by a portion of ratepayers’ electricity bills. But funding for the program ran out last December, and the COVID-19 pandemic also slowed growth (Energywire, June 11, 2020).

Now, Hessel and other clean energy advocates are advocating for increased funding for the Illinois Power Agency to administer the RPS program. They’re supporting the proposed "Clean Energy Jobs Act," which would "streamline" the process for the Illinois Power Agency to dole out funding to support renewable energy, said J.C. Kibbey, an Illinois clean energy advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

But utilities have a different perspective. Ameren Illinois, one of two large utilities in the state, said that Illinois’ slow renewable energy growth stems from an overreliance on distributed energy resources. The company is backing a separate bill pending in the Illinois General Assembly, the "Downstate Clean Energy Affordability Act," that would allow it to construct and own much larger utility-scale solar resources, said Tucker Kennedy, a spokesperson for Ameren Illinois.

If utilities in Illinois could build their own renewable resources, clean electricity procurement would speed up significantly, Kennedy said.

"The funding is there, and it has been there. It’s just that the procurement model has left the state way, way short of its goals," Kennedy said.

Despite Illinois’ stalled progress on clean electricity, it has been successful at bringing solar to low-income people through its Solar for All program, Kibbey said (Energywire, April 9, 2018). That focus on equity could be a model for the Biden administration as it considers a national clean power standard, Kibbey said.

"Having that kind of access to solar is an important piece of the puzzle for having a more equitable build-out of the clean energy economy," he said.

Reporter Jeffrey Tomich contributed.