Turbulent road ahead as states navigate energy policy

Source: Emily Holden, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, August 19, 2016

CHICAGO — As federal climate regulations push state leaders to map out blueprints for cutting carbon emissions, the legislators who may be needed to help implement those plans are split on how they should look.

Under pressure from voters who often don’t understand the complexities of the electricity system as well as powerful corporate and advocacy interests, they divide on how quickly to move to cleaner power and how long to keep coal and natural gas plants online.

While Democrats mostly cite politics for the division, Republicans say they are being pragmatic about what is possible.

“There are some people who see renewables as a zero-sum game,” said Gene Wu, a Democratic member of the Texas House of Representatives. “Somehow, if wind energy wins or gets a foot up, then everything else loses. So oil and gas would lose. It’s not really true.”

Wu said, “It’s not about practice or policy — it’s about politics.”

But Frank Wagner, a Republican member of the Virginia Senate, believes that without battery storage, it’s difficult to integrate wind and solar power and plan for peak electricity needs. It boils down to “what number people want to add to their bill to integrate more renewables,” he said. He argues the shift requires a “shotgun with a whole lot of pellets in it,” including more efficient light bulbs, for example.

“Every one’s important,” he said.

In interviews with state policymakers at a recent summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Chicago, lawmakers said they see continued energy policy battles ahead. Many worry the gulf in opinions will make it hard to chart new paths in their states.

Although U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan has been halted by the courts, expert after expert told lawmakers they still need to proactively work to smooth out the impacts of the major industry transition that is underway (Power Plan Hub, Aug. 15).

Joel Briscoe (D), minority assistant whip in the Utah House of Representatives, said he was disappointed the state’s governor is suing the federal government and also stopped planning.

“I’m going to go sit down with our governor’s energy adviser when I get back and say, ‘So if we’re not doing the Clean Power Plan, what are we doing?'” Briscoe said.

Playing politics with power

Regardless of what happens with the rule, state officials around the country are feeling the aftershocks of increasingly politicized energy decisions. In Nevada, regulators have seen pushback for changing how rapidly growing rooftop solar power is compensated. In New York, they took historic steps to subsidize nuclear generation to keep the low-carbon power source online while it struggles to compete against cheap natural gas. Smaller battles play out state to state, sometimes in public and sometimes among lawyers in little-known regulatory processes.

And rhetoric, lawmakers say, holds them back from finding solutions.

In Texas, Wu said, although a large build-out of power lines to move wind energy within the state has been largely successful, lawmakers have introduced bills to thwart similar projects in the future “as a sort of rebuke.”

That’s despite the fact that wind development and hydraulic fracturing have revitalized cities like Lubbock and Amarillo that were suffering, he said. While some conservative Republicans have been among the most vocal supporters of wind development because of the economic benefits, Wu said, others have been among the most vocal critics.

“A lot of it is just thumbing their nose at Washington, thumbing their nose at a Democratic president. I think some of it is just done out of spite,” he said. “If Mitt Romney had been elected and had done the Clean Power Plan, would Texas be fighting it tooth and nail? Of course not.”

He said if Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is elected president, that will only continue.

Carl Trujillo, a Democrat in the New Mexico House of Representatives, blames politics for interfering in state energy policy, too, but in a different way.

He believes environmental advocates have pressured the state’s elected electricity regulators out of using nuclear power to replace retiring coal units.

Some advocates are “dead set against anything but wind and solar,” he said. Not all states’ electricity regulators are elected, and Trujillo has introduced legislation to appoint them instead, but the bill didn’t go anywhere.

“We need people that are engineers, economists” in those jobs, he said.

The renewables vs. fossil fuel divide

State lawmakers span a huge spectrum in their energy policy views. Some advocate for 100 percent renewable power as soon as possible. Others believe cheap fossil fuels are good for local economic growth, especially if the fossil fuels are produced in state. In the middle, Republican and Democratic legislators with years of energy policy experience say the country needs a diverse fuel mix that is affordable, reliable and as clean as current technologies allow. But they disagree widely about how that should work.

John Kowalko, a Democrat in the Delaware House and a supporter of former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, wants to do away with fossil fuel and nuclear subsidies and rapidly push toward renewable power.

“When we have a dependency on generation capacities that are harmful to the environment, harmful to the economy and also limited, finite, they end up becoming harmful to the national security,” he said. “I don’t know if people look at it that in-depth.”

Tom Sloan, a Republican in the Kansas House of Representatives, falls into the latter category — arguing for what he sees as a balanced grid. He has lamented a lack of unbiased information for policymakers to rely on, saying it keeps them from understanding the needs of the power grid (ClimateWire, Aug. 15).

And there’s little willingness among lawmakers to sift through the facts and dive deep into the issues, he said.

“There are very few legislators who want to delve in-depth into the interconnectedness of the energy sector. … There are very few people in the legislature who will see the full range of issues around any one subset of the questions, much less the larger issue,” Sloan said.

Core to the disagreement over how quickly the industry should change is a question of how much renewable power the grid can hold without causing bills to skyrocket.

Pushing influence in receptions, boat cruises

Red states look to California and Hawaii and fear making similar moves and risking higher power prices. Legislators note that even the idea of higher power prices, especially if exaggerated by business groups, might lose them their seats.

While some states’ renewable portfolios have soared beyond all expectations, neighboring states say they can’t be expected to achieve the same levels. Like Wagner in Virginia, they say they need better storage technologies to develop — to hold wind power when the wind doesn’t blow and solar power after the sun goes down.

They cite a need for “baseload power,” although trade groups like the American Wind Energy Association contend that some planning creativity and broad markets make it possible to add loads more wind power onto the U.S. grid.

States hesitant to shift quickly say they also want to use their local fossil fuel resources and run their coal plants long enough to recoup investments for customers. Some want to keep mining and use coal plants far into the future and are hoping for technological advancements in carbon capture and storage.

Amid all those difficult discussions, special interests enter the debate, lawmakers say.

At the meeting in Chicago, the companies and trade groups behind the energy debate were plentiful and prominent.

The national wind organization and a solar company both made pitches for their power sources in one scheduled discussion.

Walking into the conference center, 5-foot-high billboards listed dozens of platinum, gold and silver sponsors from various industries. At panel discussions, natural gas lobbyists sat up front. As is common practice, groups as varied as the American Wind Energy Association and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association sponsored receptions. One group of trade associations hosted an evening boat cruise.

At the end of the day, “politics is very much dependent on the wealthier power structure, the influence of the lobbyists,” Kowalko said. “That’s where policy becomes victim to politics.”