10 States to Thank for Driving the Clean Energy Revolution
By John Rogers
Clean energy has been having a really good run in recent years: costs falling, scale skyrocketing, millions of people enjoying its benefits. And the future is looking bright in a lot of ways, with technologies, customers and policies coming together in beautiful harmony for a whole lot more progress to come.
When it comes to the role of our 50 states in creating this great clean energy momentum, which ones do we have to thank? That's what the new Clean Energy Momentum State Ranking from the Union of Concerned Scientists set out to discover. As for how to figure out who's tops, that title says it all … if you just look at each piece.
Let's break it down, build it up and see what we get. (And some of the answers just might surprise you.)
Gauging Leadership on Clean Energy Momentum
The map gives a sneak peek at the results from the new analysis.
And here's how the pieces of the title come into play:
Clean energy. Our focus was the electricity sector, but that turns out to include a range of pieces, and it's important to think about the multiple dimensions of "clean energy":
- Renewable energy—wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric and bioenergy—is an obvious component, but certainly not the only one.
- Energy efficiency figures in strongly in terms of how we make progress: Doing more with every electron means needing less electricity from some of our dirtiest sources, and having our renewable electricity take us further.
- Transportation electrification is an increasingly important piece of the power sector picture, and cleaning things up. For most U.S. drivers, electric vehicles (EVs) give strong environmental benefits. And those benefits are going to keep going up as the country's electricity mix gets cleaner.
Our new analysis includes all three sectors.
Momentum. This is one of the things that's unique about this analysis. We were interested in capturing not just where states are now, but also where they've come from recently, and where they're headed.
Clean energy momentum covers "now" things like the renewable electricity fraction of a state's generation, its electricity savings, its EV sales, and its clean energy jobs.
But it also includes the "where ya coming from?" piece, like how much a state's renewables fraction has increased recently, and how much its power plant pollution has decreased.
And momentum in the clean energy space is about the "still to come" part—how much renewable energy is happening in the near future, and what kind of policies (for renewables, efficiency and carbon pollution, for example) will give clean energy oomph in the years to come.
Our analysis measures all that.
State. Why focus on the states when we need the federal government to be doing its thing? It's clear that we need both.
States have been a powerful, positive force for progress on clean energy, through different political climates and different federal administrations. Given the uncertainty of leadership from Washington, DC (to put it mildly), we definitely need states to continue to lead in each of these areas, to keep the momentum going—and growing.
That's why focusing our analysis on state performance made sense … not as the whole picture, but as a key part of the picture.
Ranking. We wanted to keep this simple and easy-to-understand, while covering the bases that needed covering. So our ranking incorporates a dozen metrics covering that range of sectors and time periods.
And we wanted to keep it grounded. The assessment gauges how states are doing relative to a really important yardstick: their peers. For each of the metrics, states could earn up to 10 points. We let the best-performing state define that top end, and set the zero-point level based on the worst-performing state. States got their points for that metric based on where they were on that worst-to-best scale.
The Envelope, Please
So, all together, those pieces gave us Clean Energy Momentum: Ranking State Progress. And when we put it together and looked at the numbers, here's what we found.
The top performers overall include a mix of West Coast, Northeast and Midwest states:
One surprise is who ended up on top. Yeah, I get that California might not seem like a shocker. But we were really careful, in designing the analysis, to make sure the metrics didn't give extra credit to big states, so that we'd have a level playing field for measuring leadership. All the figures were "normalized" in some way, with calculations per capita, per household, as a percent of generation or car sales or whatever. And yet California still tops the rankings.
Interestingly, the Golden State gets there not by being at the head on a bunch of metrics—it is #1 only on one (EV sales as a percent of overall car sales last year)—but by being a stellar, all-around performer. It shows up in the top five list for a total of seven metrics, and in the top 10 for still another.
In spot #2 is Vermont, which leads on two of the metrics: clean energy jobs per capita and carbon reduction target. But it also has a total of five top five appearances, in electricity savings, energy efficiency policy and EV adoption. Its record of 10 top 10 appearances is the most of any state.
Massachusetts captures #3 with the strongest energy efficiency resource standard (a leading policy for driving efficiency), and top five performances also in residential solar capacity per household, electricity savings, clean energy jobs per capita and carbon reduction targets. And it earned nine top 10s.
Rhode Island, #4, is in there because of its top electricity savings numbers, and its top-fiveness in pollution reduction and policies around renewables, efficiency and carbon reduction.
And Hawaii rounds out the top five. The Aloha State tops our residential solar metric (by a long shot) and is a strong performer for EV adoption and renewables policy.
Oregon, Maine, Washington, New York and Iowa round out the top 10 states. And those states are followed by Maryland, Minnesota, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada.
But the results are a lot more than the top overall states. The nice thing about the multiple metrics is getting to see not just who leads overall, but who leads on different pieces. And looking at it that way produces some surprising findings. For example:
- South Dakota may not be the first name that comes to mind when you're thinking about renewables, but it turns out to have the highest renewable energy portion of its in-state generation—hydro, yes, but also wind. It also ties with New Hampshire for the top spot in our power plant pollution reduction metric. That makes SD one of only two states (with Vermont) to get two #1s.
- Wyoming might bring to mind coal, not clean energy, but it tops our metric on new renewable energy capacity—how much is being built around now and in the near future, per capita and as a percentage of new power plant capacity.
- Those who know wind might not be surprised to see Kansas somewhere on the leader board, and indeed it is: #1 for the increase in its renewable energy generation percentage, based on a tripling of its wind (from eight percent of its in-state generation to 24 percent).
- For clean energy jobs per capita, the basis for another metric, Vermont tops the efficiency piece (along with overall clean energy jobs per capita) and Nevada leads on solar, but tops on wind jobs is North Dakota.
While our main focus is on the states that perform well across metrics, it's helpful to see who's moving forward in different ways.
Pedal to the Metal
Overall, the range of metrics incorporated in the UCS Clean Energy Momentum State Ranking paints a picture of state successes and a 50-state race for clean energy leadership. And the analysis points to recommendations for states as they build on clean energy momentum and continue strong progress toward a new energy future, like these:
- States have to continue to drive clean energy momentum by adopting policies for continued progress in a whole lot of areas, from renewable energy and efficiency, to vehicle electrification, to economy-wide reductions in global warming pollution.
- States should focus more on making sure that everyone shares in the benefits of clean energy, particularly low-income households and communities of color, those who are most affected by power plant pollution and other imbalances in the electricity sector.
- States have got to push the federal government to accept its own responsibility for leadership in the clean energy space, given the value of strong national policies in a lot of these areas.
But, however we do it, we need, as a society and a country, to be picking up the pace. For clean energy jobs. For clean air and better public health. For a more just energy system.
And with an administration in the White House that seems more enamored of the brake pedal than the accelerator, where states are willing and able to lead on clean energy, we need them to be even more solidly in the driver's seat.
To clean energy momentum, then—and step on it!
John Rogers is a Union of Concerned Scientists senior energy analyst with expertise in renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies and policies.
Every September for the past 11 years, non-profit the Climate Group has hosted Climate Week NYC, a chance for business, government, activist and community leaders to come together and discuss solutions to the climate crisis.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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Solar geoengineering would involve injecting reflective aerosols from high-altitude planes into the layer of the upper atmosphere known as the stratosphere, which stretches between 10 to 50 kilometers (6 to 31 miles) above Earth's surface. The idea is that the aerosol particles would reflect a small amount of sunlight away from the planet, reducing the amount of heat trapped by greenhouse gases and mitigating some of the effects of climate change.
The planned Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment will send a balloon carrying scientific instruments in a gondola into the stratosphere. The instruments will release a small amount of material — likely ice or mineral dust — to form a kilometer-long plume of aerosol particles (left). Modified airboat propellers will allow the gondola to maneuver above the plume (middle) and lower instruments into the plume to take repeated measurements of how the particles spread through the stratosphere (right). ADAPTED FROM J.A. DYKEMA ET AL / PHILOSOPHICAL TRANSACTIONS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY A 2014
David Keith envisions using multiple approaches to combat climate change. The red line shows how the impacts of climate change would worsen with a business-as-usual scenario of unabated burning of fossil fuels and other greenhouse gas emissions. Aggressively cutting emissions bends that curve, and removing carbon from the atmosphere offers further cuts, but there are still consequences from the already high levels of carbon dioxide. In this scenario, solar geoengineering would lessen the impact from existing atmospheric carbon dioxide, effectively carving the top off the curve.<p>Some people think we should use it only as a get-out-of-jail card in an emergency. Some people think we should use it to quickly try to get back to a preindustrial climate. I'm arguing we use solar geoengineering to cut the top off the curve by gradually starting it and gradually ending it.</p><p><strong>Do you feel optimistic about the chances that solar geoengineering will happen and can make a difference in the climate crisis?</strong></p><p>I'm not all that optimistic right now because we seem to be so much further away from an international environment that's going to allow sensible policy. And that's not just in the US. It's a whole bunch of European countries with more populist regimes. It's Brazil. It's the more authoritarian India and China. It's a more nationalistic world, right? It's a little hard to see a global, coordinated effort in the near term. But I hope those things will change.</p>
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