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Midterm Elections Reveal Mixed Results for Clean Energy

On November ballots, voters across 3 states said no to 3 different bills designed to encourage the growth of clean and renewable energy. The success or failure of these high-stakes propositions led organizations on both sides to spend tens of millions of dollars on campaigns.

Arizona Voters Say No to 50% RPS Goal

At the November polls, Arizona voters overwhelming voted down Proposition 127, which would’ve created a constitutional amendment to increase the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) goals, requiring utilities to purchase or generate 50% of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030. As of 2018, Arizona already has an RPS goal of 15% renewable by 2025, fairly typical for western states, so Prop 127 would’ve pushed the utilities into overdrive while attempting to meet those 2030 goals.

The proposition was supported by the local Sierra Club and a handful of other organizations, and was initiated and mainly funded by the non-profit NextGen Climate Action, founded by California billionaire Tom Steyer and which provided over $22 million to the Arizona cause.

Considering the tenuous relationship Arizona utilities have had with solar energy in the past, it’s no surprise that both sides spent millions on the initiative. In fact, Prop 127 was the most expensive ballot measure in Arizona history, with Pinnacle West Capital – the company that owns APS, the largest utility in the state – spending almost $30 million in opposition to the bill.

Opponents argued the proposition, forced on Arizona by out-of-state political interests, could lead to higher customer bills. Proponents, however, argued the higher goals would lead to a cleaner environment and stronger local economy as solar costs continue to lower and the industry grows.

In a November press release after the bill was defeated, APS called the measure ‘ill-conceived’, with Chairman and CEO Don Brandt noting:

The campaign is over, but we want to continue the conversation with Arizonans about clean energy and identify specific opportunities for APS to build energy infrastructure that will position Arizona for the future.

APS has come out in favor of a different clean energy goal, proposed by the Arizona Corporation Commission. This plan creates a target of 80% clean energy, including nuclear power, by 2050. One of APS’ issues with Proposition 127 was that it didn’t allow nuclear energy to meet the RPS goals and APS feared they would’ve had to shut down their Palo Verde nuclear generator, which accounts for about 25% of the utility’s total generation. The utility claimed the defeated proposition was too constraining and simply not designed for Arizona’s specific needs.

Nevada Says Yes to RPS Goals, No to Deregulation

In Nevada, Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action also funded the inclusion of a similar measure on the ballot, Question 6. Under this proposal, Nevada will increase their RPS mandate from the current 25% by 2025 to 50% by 2030, the same as proposed in Arizona.

Unlike in Arizona, Nevada voters actually passed this measure, with 59% of voters approving. Proposed constitutional amendments, however, need to be approved in two separate elections before becoming law, so Question 6 will need to be approved in the 2020 election again. Exactly how that will go is anyone’s guess, but it’s a necessary – and promising – first step.

Nevadans also voted on another energy-related bill, Question 3, though this one was stopped in its tracks, with 67% of voters in opposition. Question 3 asked voters whether they were in favor of breaking apart Nevada utilities’ monopoly on electricity generation in the state and replacing it with a competitive electricity market, known as a deregulated electricity market and similar to Texas, Illinois, Ohio, and 16 other states. The map below, from the 2016 NREL report linked to previously, highlights the states that allow most energy consumers to choose their electricity provider.

Image via NREL, 2016

Nevada utilities currently hold a monopoly on both the generation of electricity as well as the distribution of that electricity to homes and businesses. If voters had approved Question 3, the state would’ve ended utilities’ monopoly on electricity generation, thereby allowing homeowners and businesses to choose their electricity provider. Utilities however would’ve held on to their monopoly on distribution, retaining ownership of the infrastructure as well as the responsibility to move that electricity to consumers.

While not specifically concerning clean energy, proponents argued that deregulating the electricity market gives consumers greater options in regards to their energy, giving them the ability to purchase clean energy if they so choose.

Voters’ apparent flip-flop isn’t too surprising. While voters initially approved the bill in 2016, Nevada’s unique laws require a 2nd vote to amend the state constitution. Approving a constitutional amendment the first time is a low-risk situation. The second go-around though, the stakes are higher and NV Energy, the state’s biggest electric utility, spent $62 million campaigning against the bill. The bills biggest supporters, Data center Switch and Las Vegas Sands, on the other hand, jointly provided a substantial, but underwhelming, $32 million.

Carbon Fee Voted Down in Washington

Image via Pexels

Moving to the Pacific Northwest, voters in Washington once again voted down a clean energy bill on the November ballot. Initiative 1631 would’ve placed a fee on carbon emissions from both large-scale carbon emitters as well as on fossil fuels and electricity generated or brought into the state.

Proponents of the measure included Bill Gates and Washington governor Jay Inslee, who voiced his support during the scourge of wildfires wreaking havoc on the state’s air quality in the summer of 2018:

Today, this smoke be opaque. But when it comes to children’s health, it has made something very clear, and that is the state of Washington needs to pass this clean air initiative, so these children can breathe clean air. They deserve that. The significance of this is profound.

That support wasn’t enough though, and 57% of voters voted against the initiative.

The fee would’ve started at $15 per metric ton in 2020, increasing by $2/ton each year until greenhouse gas reduction goals were met in 2035. A handful of states have already proposed carbon taxes, including Maryland, New York, Vermont, and Maine, but so far none have yet been approved.

This is actually the 2nd carbon tax Washington voters have voted down, defeating a similar initiative in 2016. Having voted down a carbon tax on both of the last two ballots, Washington voters clearly aren’t ready for a carbon tax yet, though with the opposition – led by the Western States Petroleum Association – spending $31 million on the cause, about twice as much as supporters’ $15 million, it’s no surprise the measure didn’t pass.

Things look a bit rosier on the federal level though, as Democrats now control the House and a handful, like Sean Casten in Illinois, specifically campaigned on a clean energy and emissions reduction platform. And even though our carbon emissions have actually continued to decrease despite President Trump attempting to roll back environmental policies, support for these policies on the federal level is still necessary to push clean energy forward in the United States. With this new majority in the House, hopefully we’ll see new environmental and clean energy legislation in the near future.

Image Credits: CC license via Pexels: 1, 2


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