100% ‘clean’ electricity: Where things stand

Source: By Carlos Anchondo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, November 14, 2019

 Wind Turbine. Photo credit: U.S. Energy Information Administration.

A new report finds wide variation in 100% renewable targets around the country. U.S. Energy Information Administration.

More than 70 cities and counties across the United States are powered by 100% “clean” energy, according to a new report that said cities, counties and states are leading the transition toward lower-carbon sources of electricity.

The briefing paper, released last week by the Luskin Center for Innovation at UCLA, said over 200 cities and counties have pledged a 100% commitment to clean energy, despite federal policy that researchers said is designed to promote fossil fuels.

Kelly Trumbull, a researcher and project manager at the Luskin Center, said demand for that despite a lack of federal action, cities and states are making “great progress” on their own.

“I know commitments can seem nonbinding and changeable, but I think it’s a really good place to start,” Trumbull said.

The report said that roughly 1 in 3 Americans, or approximately 111 million people, now live in a city or state that has committed to, or achieved, 100% clean electricity. While policies differ from state to state, researchers said seven states, in addition to Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., have already adopted 100% clean energy transition laws.

The meaning of “clean” energy can differ by location. According to the report, clean energy resources include renewable energy resources, but also can include large hydroelectric generation and nuclear.

“Some state goals are focused exclusively on renewable energy while most 100% states use the broader term of clean energy,” the report said.

Sasha Mackler, energy policy director at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said the study captures an important trend in the market where large customers, including municipalities and public entities, are “where the action is.” Mackler said the goals set by states and municipalities have helped create new market opportunities that might not have otherwise existed.

Still, Mackler said there is room for greater consistency across definitions of what clean energy means. Right now it’s not clear if what qualifies as clean in one jurisdiction or plan would also qualify as clean in another, he said.

“The more refined we could be on what it is we’re actually trying to accomplish, the more these goals could actually drive technology and innovative investments in the marketplace,” Mackler said, “which is really the catalytic sort of need that’s in place right now, in this time period before the federal government really comes in and has a national climate plan.”

D.C. has the most ambitious target to achieve its goals, setting 2032 as its deadline, the report said. Connecticut and New York aimed for 2040, with New Mexico, Washington state, California and Hawaii — the first state to enact a law mandating a transition to 100% renewable energy — picking 2045 as their date.

Starting in 2017, at least 35 cities and counties per year made new commitments to 100% clean energy policies, the paper said.

An analysis this summer by consulting firm Wood Mackenzie concluded that developing a 100% renewable energy power grid in the United States by 2030 or 2040 would require a $4.5 trillion investment in new wind and solar power, as well as transmission lines and storage. The authors called the scale of the challenge “unprecedented” and said it would cost U.S. households approximately $2,000 each year through 2040 (Energywire, July 1). Others like former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz have called for a broad set of technologies to address climate change and have said a 100% renewable system is not “realistic” (Energywire, Feb. 6).

The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that renewables will make up 31% of electricity generation by 2050, a 13% increase from projected 2020 levels.

Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, said while the renewable sector has seen a lot of progress, more needs to be done to bring the country’s electricity grid into the 21st century.

“We’ve got to accelerate our growth rate, and I think that’s doable,” Wetstone said. “I would say it’s more renewable power on the grid and also investments in the electricity grid, investments in advanced technologies like energy storage that will make the grid more receptive to 21st-century technology.”

Lindsey Walter, a senior policy adviser at Third Way, a D.C. public policy think tank, said cities and states are finding “that they can be more ambitious and get to zero emissions faster and more affordably if they include a wider variety of carbon-free technologies.”

The Luskin Center report built on data of city and county commitments compiled by the Sierra Club and its Ready for 100 campaign, which encourages individuals to contact their mayor and advocate for 100% clean energy.

Drew O’Bryan, a campaign representative, said when cities take on leadership in this space, it presents an opportunity for the 100% renewable energy transition to bring benefits locally, especially for families most adversely affected by fossil fuel pollution and high energy costs.

“I think these early achievers are proving that it is actually possible, and the next step is just scaling it up to the regional and state level,” said Trumbull, the Luskin Center researcher.