How COVID-19 is impacting 5 state energy legislation efforts

Source: By Catherine Morehouse, Utility Dive • Posted: Thursday, March 26, 2020

The novel coronavirus global threat is beginning to hit state legislatures, a development that could hinder state clean energy policies, according to several industry stakeholders.

24 states and counting, plus the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam, have suspended or postponed their state legislative sessions in response to the epidemic, which had infected over 436,000 people globally and over 55,000 in the U.S. as of Wednesday morning, according to a Johns Hopkins University database.

Among those states, several bills are now in flux as state lawmakers shift priorities and governor’s shift budgets.

One bill in Illinois could impact the state’s ability to end participation in the PJM Interconnection’s capacity market. Another in Maryland would bring the state to net-zero carbon emissions by 2045.

“Basically any energy or environmental bills that are pending in these states will see some delays,” Glen Andersen, energy program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures, told Utility Dive in an email.

Significant energy legislation in Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota and Colorado, among others, will likely face delays as legislatures continue to shut down to avoid the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus.

Illinois: Advocates, utilities eager to advance sweeping clean energy bill

In Illinois, the stakes are high for a broad clean energy bill being watched closely by utilities and clean energy advocates — the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA).

CEJA would put Illinois on a path to 100% renewable energy by 2050 and 100% carbon-free by 2030. More critically for some, it would give state regulators the ability to pull out of the PJM Interconnection to avoid a federal regulation that would raise the bidding price for resources receiving state subsidies, such as nuclear power.

“From a consumer view, there will be devastating consequences if we can’t pass a bill on May 31,” David Kolata, executive director of Citizens Utility Board (CUB) of Illinois, told Utility Dive.

“The [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s] capacity decision was designed to raise Illinois bills and punish successful clean energy policies … if we don’t counteract that, our bills will go up, it will lead to much more being built and be bad for our environment,” he said, adding “Exelon has made it clear” their nuclear bids won’t make it into the market under the FERC-proposed market rules.

CEO of Exelon subsidiary Commonwealth Edison told Utility Dive last week the company is hoping to see that legislation pass this session.

Also last week, PJM filed its compliance filing with FERC, which clean energy advocates applauded as a successful effort to assuage stakeholder concerns and give states the flexibility they need. For Illinois, the ruling means that if it chooses to exit the capacity market through the fixed resource requirement option, generators in the state will have until March 31, 2021, to bid into the Illinois Power Agency-run capacity market.

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If not, Illinois will continue participating in PJM’s capacity auction, which could come as soon as December of this year, creating even greater urgency for the state to push the bill through this spring, said Kolata.

“Of course, we are going through a pandemi​c,” he added.

“It is certainly too early to tell how COVID-19 might impact the momentum of energy legislation this session.”

Colleen Smith

Legislative director, Illinois Environmental Council

As with a lot of states, the focus is on COVID-19, where it should be, he said. Eventually, the state’s government is going to need to reconvene to “at least” pass a budget, and CUB hopes during that time it can squeeze CEJA through as well.

Others in the state cautioned against focusing on energy issues while a significant health crisis is ravaging the nation.

“It is certainly too early to tell how COVID-19 might impact the momentum of energy legislation this session,” Colleen Smith, legislative director at the Illinois Environmental Council, told Utility Dive in an email. The virus is the group’s current focus as it “endangers the most vulnerable populations, including environmental justice communities whose lungs have already borne the brunt of environmental pollution for generations.”

Maryland: Climate, efficiency bills seeing delays, special session should be called

Maryland’s legislative session ended early last week, putting a hard pause on several energy and climate-related measures.

“Everything has been unpredictable,” a spokesperson from Maryland Del. Lorig Charkoudian told Utility Dive in an email.

The largest bill being delayed is the state’s Climate Solutions Act, which would bring the state to net zero, economy-wide emissions by 2045, with a benchmark goal of reducing emissions 60% below 2006 levels by 2030.

The bill would also increase mandated annual efficiency savings to 2.8%, up from its current 2% requirement; mandate 50% of all buses and 100% of all light duty vehicles be electric by 2030; require all new buildings to meet net-zero emissions standards; and encourages rooftop solar, tree planting and soil sequestration. It had significant bipartisan support in the legislature.

Another bill would give low-income energy efficiency efforts a boost, setting an annual incremental gross energy savings of at least 1% starting in 2021. And a community choice aggregation bill, which would allow localities to procure resources for a pool of customers while using their utilities transmission and distribution, got a lot of attention from clean energy advocates, but wasn’t likely to pass the Senate anyway, Steven Hershkowitz, Maryland director for Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) Fund, told Utility Dive.

“First and foremost we’re thankful to the governor and the legislature for how they’ve reacted” to the novel coronavirus pandemic, he said. But at the same time CCAN and other activists are calling on the state to call a special session in late May to “at least” include the comprehensive climate bill.

“The science is clear that emissions are going up,” he said. “While this year we might see emissions temporarily go down [as the economy continues to shut down], we’re still in position where we could see them rise” in the long term.

Colorado: 100% renewable roadmap passed last year needs support bills to pass this session

In Colorado, the legislature is in recess until at least March 30 and the state Supreme Court is determining whether “the clock is still ticking” or whether the recess period will be exempt from the 120 calendar day limit state legislators have to consider bills, Colorado Sen. Chris Hansen, D, told Utility Dive.

Eight energy bills are currently delayed because of COVID-19 impacts, several in response to clean energy legislation passed last year. At the end of the 2019 legislative session, Gov. Jared Polis, D, signed 11 climate and clean energy bills and set the state on a path to 100% renewable energy by 2040.

“Very large targets were set last year in Colorado and other states,” said Hansen. “Now we need to turn to the transportation and building sectors to reach those goals across the economy.”

The state did make progress on transportation legislation early on, passing Senate Bill 167, which authorizes automakers to sell electric vehicles directly to customers, but other critical bills remain stalled. One would change the way utilities plan transmission in their integrated resource plans — a big deal for a state looking to interconnect several gigawatts of wind and solar onto its grid.

“How we plan transmission in conjunction with wind and solar is important.”

Chris Hansen

Senator, Colorado legislature

Environmentalists have flagged transmission constraints as one of Colorado’s biggest barriers to reaching 100% renewables within the next two decades.

“How we plan transmission in conjunction with wind and solar is important,” said Hansen.

Another bill would develop a renewable natural gas program in the state, requiring all natural gas utilities in the state to purchase a minimum amount of RNG, ramping up annually, as a step toward the state’s goals to reduce emissions economy-wide 26% by 2025 and 50% by 2030.

“Having a chance to continue that work this session is important,” said Hansen, especially with the potential of a party shift after the 2020 elections, though he believes climate and clean energy will continue to be a bipartisan issue in Colorado.

“I’ve often thought of government as defined as those things we decide to do together, and government policy has a big role to play in improving and maintaining environmental quality,” he said. “People are seeing in this [COVID-19] crisis how critical government is to overcoming” major issues, such as climate change.

Michigan: Governor budget may not have room for clean energy as solar bills stall

For Michigan, the delay on clean energy and climate progress goes beyond the legislative session, all the way up to the executive branch.

“It’s a well-known fact that this Administration is keen on prioritizing climate mitigation,” Charlotte Jameson, program director of legislative affairs for drinking water and energy at the Michigan Environmental Council, told Utility Dive.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D, was one of several governors elected in 2018 after running a climate and clean energy-heavy campaign. Last year, she signed three executive orders on climate and clean energy, one of which committed her state to the U.S. goal under the Paris Climate Accord, reducing Michigan emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025.

Whitmer’s budget recommendations this year had a number of provisions around clean energy, said Jameson, but “the timing of the shut down and the need to pull in resources questions those recommendations.” Whitmer’s office did not respond to request for comment.

On the legislative side, there are a number of bills related to small-scale solar procurement and net metering the state is working on.

Michigan has not yet delayed its session, which is fortunate because the state’s two-year session is in its second year, making this time all the more critical, said Jameson. But although the session is still going, similar to the governor’s budget, priorities and resources are being redirected toward healthcare and economic relief, which “need to be front and center,” she said.

Pending bills would give customers more control over owning distributed solar, allow greater net metering and distributed generation customer recovery and remove further cost barriers to solar and distributed generation participation. Potential delays on these bills is worrisome for some in the state.

“I have concerns about how the virus is [a]ffecting the legislative process,” John Freeman, executive director of the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association, told Utility Dive in an email. “But there is nothing that I can do about that. … myself and my Members at the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association will just have to wait and see what happens over the next few weeks.”

Minnesota: Carbon-free power sector may lack necessary support, but energy efficiency could cross the finish line

In Minnesota, the legislature has made it clear that COVID-19 responses will be first priority — all committee hearings have been suspended and “there are basically three categories of legislation that will happen this spring,” Justin Fay, director of government affairs at Minnesota clean energy group Fresh Energy, told Utility Dive.

The first is immediate COVID-19 response, the second is addressing a broader economic stimulus package and the third is any bill or legislative package with bipartisan support, he said.

Minnesota is the only state in the country with a divided legislature this year — its Senate has a Republican majority and its House of Representatives has a Democratic majority, so getting bipartisan support is crucial to any bill’s successful passage.

One of the state’s most-watched energy bills is one that would move utilities toward carbon-free electricity under an unspecified timeline. But unresolved disputes between the House and Senate over what counts as “carbon-free” may be too big a barrier to overcome in a limited legislative session, according to Fay.

On the other hand, an energy efficiency bill may have enough bipartisan support to push through.

HF 4502 includes a suite of energy efficiency measures “that could be the subject of some work in 2020 if a consensus could be reached,” he said. The bill is essentially “an update and modernization of Minnesota’s bedrock energy efficiency programs.”

“It is a very important bill and we’ll keep working to get it passed,” Democratic Rep. Zack Stephenson, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, told Utility Dive in an email.