Climate Emissions and Clean Energy
Legislatures across the country continued to introduce policies focused on promoting clean energy and reducing climate emissions. At least 44 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico considered over 1,000 measures related to renewable energy, and at least 37 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico considered over 400 measures focused on reducing climate emissions in the power and transportation sectors. While states continue to consider targeted legislation aimed at reducing emissions from specific sectors or promoting particular clean energy technologies—like solar and wind—a growing number of states are weighing sweeping climate and clean energy policies aimed at increasing clean energy technologies and reducing emissions across economic sectors.
In 2020, Virginia joined the growing number of states with clean energy targets after the passage of the Clean Economy Act (SB 851/HB 1526). Virginia also enacted economy-wide emissions reduction goals and legislation creating the legal framework for the state’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), along with several other targeted clean energy measures.
Washington also enacted legislation bolstering its existing climate policies in 2020. SB 5811 directs state regulators to adopt California's vehicle emissions standards, including the zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) standards component of California’s Advanced Clean Car Program, which is considered a key policy tool for reducing emissions in the transportation sector. The ZEV standards require that a certain percentage of auto sales in the state be ZEVs. The state was already implementing the low-emission vehicle standards component of California’s clean car rules. Washington also enacted HB 2311 revamping its statewide GHG reduction and reporting requirements. The bill requires GHG reductions of:
- 45% below 1990 levels by 2030,
- 70% by 2040, and
- 95% by 2050.
The state’s previous targets were 25% by 2035, and 50% by 2050. The bill also establishes a requirement that the state achieve a net-zero GHG economy by 2050 and requires reporting of emissions from crucial sectors, including agriculture, manufacturing, buildings, transportation, and electricity, in addition to statewide GHG levels. Additionally, it directs regulators to include GHGs from wildfires within its biennial emissions report to the governor and legislative committees.
Tension between Legislative & Executive Branches
Although a few states enacted climate and clean energy policies in 2020, debate over how best to pursue climate action in other states revealed tensions between the legislative and executive branches of government. For example, in Massachusetts, the legislature enacted climate and clean energy legislation that was debated throughout 2020 but vetoed by the governor in early 2021. SB 2995 would have adopted numerous climate and clean energy provisions, including a target of a net-zero economy and emissions reductions of 85% by 2050; an enhanced RPS for 2025 through 2029; and other energy-related measures focused on efficiency, workforce development and environmental justice. After Governor Charlie Baker (R) vetoed the bill, lawmakers refiled the legislation as SB 9 in January 2021 and successfully passed the bill that same month. As of February 2021, the measure is on the governor's desk for signature.
The Vermont legislature encountered a similar obstacle after passing HB 688. The bill establishes enhanced and enforceable statewide GHG reduction targets of 80% by the beginning of 2050. It also creates a climate council to develop a climate action plan with programs and initiatives to achieve GHG reduction targets. To address enforceability, the bill includes a citizen suit provision allowing any person to commence legal action for the state’s failure to adhere to the law’s implementation deadlines. Governor Phil Scott (R) vetoed the bill citing concerns over the climate council’s “structure and charge” and the cause of action provision. The legislature swiftly overrode the governor’s veto and the bill became law in September, the same month it was initially passed.
Also relevant is Pennsylvania’s HB 2025, which would have prevented state regulators from taking action to reduce carbon emissions without prior legislative approval. The bill passed both chambers and went to Governor Wolf’s (D) desk in September. Wolf vetoed the bill citing its disruptive impact on the state’s progress in pursuing policies that address climate change, including an ongoing rulemaking to join RGGI.
Disagreement between the legislature and the executive about how best to implement climate and clean energy goals is not unique to states where control is split, with Massachusetts and Vermont having a Democratic-controlled legislature and a Republican governor and Pennsylvania having a Republican-controlled legislature and a Democratic governor. Oregon, a Democrat-controlled state, has been considering comprehensive climate legislation, including the legal framework for a cap-and-trade program, for years. In 2020, after the legislature was not able to pass SB 1530, Governor Kate Brown (D) issued a sweeping executive order adopting the same GHG reduction targets outlined in the bill of 45% by 2035 and 80% by 2050, and directing state regulators to take actions aimed at reducing emissions and mitigating climate impacts.
It is likely that spirited debate, as well as disagreement among branches of government, will continue as more states consider comprehensive policies aimed at tackling climate change in 2021.
Policymakers in states across the U.S. continued to weigh policies designed to support solar energy, considering over 380 measures on the topic. Virginia enacted several bills focused on expanding solar energy to low-income communities, including multiple bills focused on community and shared solar. Virginia enacted SB 710 directing the state PUC to adopt regulations for a shared solar program for “multi-family customers of investor-owned utilities” and HB 1634 directing the commission to establish a shared solar program for Dominion Energy customers. Both programs cap project capacity at 5,000 kW and require at least three subscribers per project. The state PUC adopted final regulations for the multi-family shared solar and shared solar programs in December 2020.
Also relevant are Virginia’s HB 573, which amends the state’s community solar pilot program law to require that utilities ensure solar projects are in low-income communities, and SB 710, which increased the cap on net-metered renewable energy with a carve-out for low-income customers. Virginia HB 1656 allows Dominion Energy and American Electric Power to recover costs associated with a three-year $25 million incentive program to directly install or make accessible solar energy for low-income, disabled, and elderly individuals.
Some western states were also successful in passing measures related to community solar. New Mexico adopted Senate Memorial 63 to form a working group tasked with reviewing community solar policies in the state and making recommendations for implementation. The working group includes representatives from Indian tribes, nations and pueblos, local governments, utilities and utility regulators, and environmental organizations, among other stakeholders. The Washington legislature also passed community solar legislation, HB 2248, which was ultimately vetoed by Governor Jay Inslee (D). In vetoing the bill, Inslee cited the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to prepare for lost revenue. The bill would have authorized an incentive program to encourage broader participation in state community solar projects.
Virginia and West Virginia also passed legislation focused on supporting solar energy development broadly. Virginia enacted HB 1675 requiring solar facility developers to enter into a siting agreement with any locality qualifying as an opportunity zone prior to receiving necessary permits for construction. SB 504 prohibits community association restrictions on solar that increase the cost of installation by 5% above projected costs or reduce energy production by 10% below projected energy production. West Virginia’s SB 583 authorizes utilities to purchase, operate or own up to 200 MW of solar energy, including solar plus storage.