When it comes to energy policy, our attention veers to Washington, D.C. But Berkeley Law Professor Dan Farber will let you in on a little secret: state governments actually control much of this terrain.
His new report, Beyond the Beltway, provides a revealing state-by-state survey of America’s energy landscape and the factors driving policy decisions. It shows that renewable energy is gaining real traction in much of the country—including some areas that may surprise.
As expected, California, Hawaii, and Northeast coastal states are leaders in renewable-energy policies, while coal-reliant states and the Southeast lag behind. What Farber did not expect, however, was seeing renewables surge in a number of politically conservative states.
A telling example: Texas is the nation’s wind power leader, with Oklahoma and Iowa close behind.
“There’s a wind belt in the open plains from mid-Texas up to the Dakotas,” explains Farber, faculty director of Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment. “There, it’s an easy resource. In other places, you see more economic incentives involved.”
Apple, Google, and other major corporations have exhorted states to provide them with clean energy.
To attract these companies, some states that had rarely made room for renewables are now shifting gears.
“A prevailing myth is that environmental concerns are driving these policies. That’s true in some places, but in many states what’s happening has much more to do with economics.”
— Professor Dan Farber
Political, economic, and geographic factors influence state energy policies—and sometimes create unlikely allies. Tea Party members, for example, routinely condone solar because they disfavor any government regulation on what people can put on their roofs.
Sometimes, a single person moves the needle.
“In South Carolina, a Republican legislator was visiting his sister in Portland (Oregon) and saw all these solar panels on people’s rooftops,” Farber says. “He thought, ‘They hardly have any sun in Portland. If this place can do it, we can do it.’ He started pushing for more favorable legislation for solar power, and succeeded.”
On the flip side? Florida. “The so-called Sunshine State has done virtually nothing with solar,” Farber says. “The big power companies have an iron grip on things down there, and there’s little political pushback.”
Although the Trump administration has encouraged coal production and proposed tariffs on solar panels, Farber does not anticipate major barriers to renewable-energy growth. He also sees the administration’s push to expand natural gas prompting a move away from coal, especially as natural gas prices dip.
“It’s striking to see just how much coal use is declining in individual states,” Farber says.
States are increasingly using tax benefits for renewables, requiring utilities to buy a certain percentage of energy from renewable sources, and approving net metering policies that allow people with solar panels to flow electricity back to the grid.
“Many of these states don’t care about the environmental angle, but technology is enabling greater flexibility and ability to handle renewable resources,” Farber says. “It just makes too much financial sense not to use them.”