On March 28, President Trump signed an executive order to repeal President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which mandated emission reductions from power companies (an estimated 650 million tons by 2025 alone). But since 29 states plus Washington, D.C., have set requirements to adopt more renewable energy (known as renewable portfolio standards), how much impact will Trump’s order have?
Despite Trump’s embrace of coal, there is a fair amount of evidence that too many states are too far along on a renewable energy path for Trump to reverse their momentum. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimates that the states that have set goals for adopting renewable energy have collectively met 95 percent of their targets.
Solar production was up 95 percent in 2016 alone, and that followed several years of rapid expansion, according to GTE Research and the Solar Energy Industry Association. Indeed, in 2016, for the first time ever, solar was the top new source of electric power.
Wind energy is also setting records. The Department of Energy predicts that wind is on track to produce 20 percent of the nation’s power by 2030 and is displacing coal in many parts of the country.
On the jobs front, the Department of Energy calculates that clean energy jobs outnumber those in gas and coal by five to one. California alone has about 486,000 clean energy jobs and Massachusetts about 104,000. It’s not surprising that both states have proposals in their legislatures to move toward 100 percent renewable. California’s bill proposes 50 percent renewable by 2025 and 100 percent carbon-free by 2045, while the Massachusetts bill proposes a 100 percent renewable grid by 2035. Who would want to stop this train?
The short answer, of course, is fossil fuel interests. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC, the organization of right-wing state legislators funded by the Koch brothers), the American Petroleum Institute, and others, has been working since at least 2012 to reverse states’ renewable portfolio standards.
ALEC writes model legislation for state legislatures, and at least 15 state legislatures, following ALEC’s lead, proposed reducing, freezing, or repealing portfolio standards in 2013. The failure of most of these bills suggests that ALEC is running into a green wall, even in conservative states. The reason is also green—the money being made from renewables.
In 2014, Ohio’s legislature voted to freeze its portfolio standard. Republican Governor John Kasich signed the bill, but when the freeze came up for renewal in late 2016, Kasich vetoed it—pointing to Ohio’s record of having more clean energy jobs (100,000) than any other Midwestern state.
In the same year, ALEC-influenced legislatures in Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, New Hampshire, and New Mexico were not successful in weakening state portfolio standards or reducing the funds homeowners get for selling excess solar energy back to the utility. ALEC will doubtless keep trying, but it seems that states don’t want to forgo the jobs and economic development that renewable energy is creating.
Renewable energy isn’t the only climate-related arena in which Trump is undoing President Obama’s gains. Fulfilling his pledge to roll back the Obama administration’s carefully negotiated fuel efficiency standards, Trump in March requested that the Environmental Protection Agency review the standards that would have required an average fleet efficiency of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.
California has had numerous waivers over the years that allow it to impose higher auto efficiency standards because of the severity of its auto emissions. Other states are free to adopt California’s standards and 13 states have. What this means is that California sets national standards because car companies don’t want to make different models for different markets. The Obama administration’s guidelines would have put the rest of the country in line with California.
In testimony before Congress, EPA Director Scott Pruitt stated that he would consider preempting California’s waiver, which would require changing the Clean Air Act under which the waiver was originally granted. California’s right to impose higher standards is legislative, not constitutional. California has retained Eric Holder to provide legal advice on options to fight this and other preemption battles. But as Harold Meyerson points out in the Spring 2017 issue of The American Prospect, even if California loses its waiver, the state could still impose higher sales taxes on cars that don’t meet high efficiency standards—having the same effect as the waiver.
The bottom line is that there are going to be many battles ahead between the federal government and states and cities wanting to move forward on renewable energy and vehicle efficiency. States and cities are preparing. On March 22, the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington, along with mayors from five of their leading cities, signed an agreement to assert that they would not back down from their clean energy investments and targets. Other states and mayors will join them. At the city level, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who now chairs the Global Covenant of Mayors, pledges that the 128 U.S. member cities will continue with the Paris Accord regardless of the federal government’s position.
The Trump administration is ceding our leadership in clean technologies in favor of a long-declining coal industry. China is ready to seize that leadership. It will be up to states and cities to claw it back.