States are where clean energy action is

Texas is leading the way on wind, solar

ON THE ISSUE OF CLIMATE CHANGE and energy policy, the candidates for president couldn’t be farther apart, as evidenced by their brief exchange at last week’s first debate. For Hillary Clinton, decisive action is needed immediately to head off “the most catastrophic consequences” of global warming. Donald Trump has often used the word “hoax” to describe climate change and specifically would forbid the EPA from regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

Among ardent environmentalists, it’s normal to see a Trump presidency as doomsday for the climate. But it’s useful to remember that even a second Clinton presidency is unlikely to have a Democratic House and Senate, so the chances of an effective federal climate policy remain largely in the hands of the courts. The fate of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, now under review at the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, is uncertain.

While policy paralysis is the norm in Washington, the real action on clean energy initiatives is happening in the states, driven by a combination of environmental vision and new technology. For those in the power business, there are indications that more and more power companies – regulated as well as unregulated – increasingly are looking at what the Clean Power Plan represents as an opportunity, and a challenge, rather than as a problem.

The fact is, the nation’s electric infrastructure is old and needs renovating, setting the stage for clean energy transmission. It’s also true that more and more renewable energy is quite competitive with oil, coal, and gas power. Even as conservative a state as Texas has invested billions in new clean energy generation (wind and solar), as well as clean energy transmission to bring that power in huge quantities into the bulk power markets in the southern parts of the state.

It’s quite interesting that supposedly green New England can look to Texas as a model for how to integrate large amounts of clean energy into the grid at affordable prices. There is now so much wind in Texas that energy prices sometimes go to zero because, after all, wind is a free good, while gas and coal – while relatively cheap these days – still cost something.

Surprisingly, as goes Texas, so go California, New York, and New England. This phenomenon is evident in recent commitments made by governors (some Democrats, some Republicans) to embrace clean power. Here in Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker introduced a bill that was passed in June 2016 committing the Bay State to very large procurements of on- and offshore clean power. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced a “50 by 30” policy (50 percent of electric power must come from clean energy sources by 2030). The idea is that by developing clean energy at scale, and in a competitive process, the price of renewable energy will go down over time. In California, which has heretofore treated clean energy as an in-state economic development program (resulting in the development of more expensive in-state energy), Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown is now promoting a “western” clean energy grid so that California can import cheaper wind from as far away as New Mexico and Wyoming.

This state activity will continue regardless of who inhabits the oval office. Precisely because it is Texas, California, and New York that are leading the way, the power sector will not revert back to coal or oil. So even though Donald Trump favors rescinding the Obama moratorium on new federal coal leases (“make coal mining great again”), there’s not likely to be much of a market for coal, at least in the power sector.

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Of course, leadership at the top matters. But the debate between Clinton and Trump about climate and energy may be much ado about nothing because the market, with the help of smart policy, is already way ahead of them. America’s leading states have decided what they want to do to create a renewable energy future. And soon the rest of the country will hustle to catch up.

Edward N. Krapels is CEO of Anbaric, a clean power infrastructure development firm.