President Joe Biden’s push for a green power revolution could expand the economic benefits of energy production to a significantly broader swath of communities across America – if he can maneuver past the blockade of fossil-fuel-producing states that has prevented congressional action on climate change for years.
Included in Biden’s massive $2 trillion infrastructure package is a provision that would require every state to generate all of its electricity by 2035 from fuels that do not produce any of the carbon emissions linked to global climate change.
Such a transition would trigger a massive spending boom in wind and solar power – at least doubling the pace of investment now underway – and that could disperse opportunity for energy-related jobs across many more states than benefit today, energy experts say. The reason: While relatively few states now dominate the production of the oil, coal and natural gas that currently provide most of the nation’s power, far more states are positioned to generate significant amounts of solar, on- or off-shore wind and other sources of carbon-free power, according to a recent study by the Decarb America Research Initiative that modeled the nation’s energy usage through 2050 under a plan like Biden’s.
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“There is a different story here than people are imagining,” says Lindsey Walter, deputy director of climate policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic group that is among the sponsors of the Decarb America project. “In today’s world, the states that have oil, gas and coal resources are the ones that have the most opportunity to play a role in energy production. But by 2050 every single state is playing a role in producing energy using the natural resources available in that state. That’s why you are seeing the opportunity for more states to benefit in this net zero carbon economy.”
The spread of clean energy jobs to more states, in turn, would enhance the industry’s political leverage to drive more policies through Congress in the years ahead to support the massive transition to a zero-carbon economy. The catch is that to set this process in motion, Biden and his allies in the clean energy industries must first find a way past the resistance of legislators from the heavy fossil-fuel-producing states, almost all of them Republicans, who have shut down discussion of virtually any legislation that would diminish the nation’s reliance on oil, coal and natural gas.
As on so many other issues, Biden’s success at accelerating a clean energy transition could come down to how far he can nudge conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia, the state that produces more coal than any other except Wyoming.
The “clean electricity standard” idea included in Biden’s plan has advanced in recent years across primarily Democratic-leaning states and was also embodied in 2019 legislation introduced by Democrats Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota and then-Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico (he has since been elected to the Senate). Thirteen states have set a goal of obtaining all of their electricity from zero-carbon sources by at least 2050, with another four establishing that milestone as a nonbinding goal, according to a recent tabulation by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
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But none of the states that have established those goals are among today’s major producers of fossil fuels. That points to the principal obstacle in Congress for the clean electricity standard, or any other measure that seeks to reduce carbon emissions and diminish the nation’s reliance on the fossil fuels that generate them: what I’ve called the “brown blockade” of GOP legislators from the states most heavily invested in the existing fossil fuel economy. In the 21 states that emit the most carbon per dollar of economic activity, Republicans hold 37 of the 42 Senate seats, almost enough to sustain a filibuster on their own. (Twenty of those 21 states also voted for Donald Trump last November.)
Fossil fuel states few but mighty
Smith, like many environmental groups and even energy industry analysts, argues that rather than resisting the clean energy transition, those states would benefit from embracing the opportunities it can create. “History is littered with stories of countries and states and communities that failed to see where we are going and got stuck in where we were,” Smith told me. “There’s a fundamental reality about a clean energy future, which is that it’s going to happen, and the United States, and states individually, can either lead or they can follow.”
But no Republicans co-sponsored her stand-alone clean electricity bill, and Republicans in Congress also appear to be solidifying in opposition to the broader Biden infrastructure plan that incorporates the idea.
The paradox facing those promoting a low-carbon future is that they may need something like a clean electricity standard to create the political coalition to pass one through Congress. By spreading the benefit of energy production across more states, a clean electricity standard would increase the clout of zero-carbon sources relative to fossil fuels in Congress. But the clean energy industry, while rapidly growing, still promises more investments and jobs tomorrow than today, while the fossil fuel industry is generating those benefits now – along with massive campaign contributions, which it has directed at a rate of about 4-1 toward Republicans in recent years.
Yet clean energy advocates still have a political opening – particularly as the costs of climate change in extreme weather become more irrefutable – because the opportunities associated with fossil fuel production are today concentrated in a surprisingly narrow band of states, according to federal data.
Looking at coal, for instance, just Wyoming and West Virginia produce more coal than the other 23 states with enough production for the federal Energy Information Administration to measure. The situation in oil is very similar: The top three states – Texas, North Dakota and New Mexico – together produce about 2 ½ times as much oil as the next 25 with enough production to measure, and Texas alone generates more than twice as much as the next two. Natural gas resources are distributed relatively more widely, with nearly a dozen states hosting significant production.
But the overall distribution of fossil fuel resources – and the economic output that follows them – remains highly concentrated. Today, Walter notes, just 10 states combine to produce 75% of the nation’s energy; the top five alone produce slightly more than half of America’s energy.
Decarb America – a project of Third Way, the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Clean Air Task Force – recently commissioned the Evolved Energy Research firm to model what the energy landscape would look like under policies that eliminated all carbon emissions from the US economy by 2050, as Biden has pledged to do.
That exercise produced a radically different picture in which far more states generate significant amounts of energy – and all the economic gains that accompany it. Under that scenario, Walter says, the share of energy production generated by the top five states falls below 40% and 20 states, rather than today’s 10, combine to produce three-fourths of the nation’s total supply. In that forecast, heartland states with robust onshore wind resources – including Iowa, Illinois and Kansas – substantially rise in the ranks of energy producers, as do several Southeast states – including Florida, North Carolina and Georgia – with significant opportunities for more production of solar and offshore wind.
Fossil fuel states would benefit too
Surprisingly, though, the states that dominate fossil fuel production today remain among the nation’s largest energy producers in a carbon-free future, the study found. Of the 10 states that produce the most energy today, the study found that all but one remain in the top 10 in a carbon-free scenario through at least 2040 – and West Virginia, the one that falls below that list, slips only to number 11 by then. (West Virginia slips further over the decade of the 2040s in the forecast, but even by as late as 2050 six of today’s top 10 producers remain in that ranking, with Texas still far in the lead.)
“In a way it can end up being the best of both worlds: You are spreading out the opportunity to other states, but that doesn’t mean you are removing opportunity from states that are producing energy today,” Walter says. “There is opportunity to create jobs in every single region.”
Today’s big fossil-fuel-producing states would remain near the top of the energy hierarchy, the study found, for several reasons. Many of them could also become big sources of solar and wind power. And, the study found, even in a carbon-free future demand for natural gas would remain high, because it could be used – in chemical processes that capture the carbon emitted – to create massive amounts of hydrogen that would fuel trucks, other heavy-duty vehicles and trains.
“These industries are going to have to evolve and transition with the times … but it is not going to suck out all the opportunity from today’s fossil fuel states if we are clever about how we go about this,” Walter says.
No one needs to squint too far into the future to see how these scenarios might unfold. Already, both fossil-fuel-producing and Republican-leaning states are among the largest producers of carbon-free electricity. Five red states – Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas and North Dakota – rank among the top 10 in the amount of electricity produced from wind and solar power (mostly because of big wind industries), according to recent calculations by Hitachi ABB Power Grids, an energy consultancy. Red states already comprise four of the 10 states that generate the highest share of their electricity from all carbon-free sources, the firm found.
“There is no question that there are economic opportunities in red states,” says Heather Zichal, the chief executive officer of the American Clean Power Association, the main trade association of renewable energy producers. Renewable power, she adds, “makes economic sense everywhere. We have projects in all 50 states.”
Under the proposal Biden included in his plan, utilities could rely only on carbon-free sources to generate electricity – a list that would include not only solar, wind and hydro power, but also biomass, nuclear and some fossil fuels so long as the emissions were contained and buried in a process known as “carbon capture and sequestration” – by 2035. That represents an extremely ambitious timeline, both operationally and politically.
Today, carbon-free power from all sources provides just under 40% of the nation’s electricity. The Evergreen Collaborative, an environmental group, calculated in a recent study that the US would need to install 40 to 100 gigawatts of new wind and solar capacity every year to meet a goal of zero carbon electricity by 2035; the 33 gigawatts installed in 2020 are by far the most the US has ever deployed in a single year.
All but one of the states that have set zero-carbon electricity targets have put the date for the transition at 2040 or later (Rhode Island, with a nonbinding goal of 2030, is the exception). The Smith-Luján bill sets a goal of 90% by 2040 and 100% by 2050.
In the interview, Smith made clear that she views the 2035 target as very negotiable. “2035 is a good place to start the discussion and our job, though, is to get a bill that can pass,” she says. “I think the most important thing is to look at the tool of a clean electricity standard and figure out how to make that tool work, and then it’s a question of how fast you dial it up.”
Zichal, who served as White House climate adviser to President Barack Obama, says that whatever date is chosen, a clean electricity requirement would catalyze a torrent of new investment and jobs deploying solar, wind and other resources.
“It would turbocharge the industry,” she told me. “It would allow for us to have a more planned transition. Right now, we have supply chain issues, we have deployment issues, in some areas of the country, when you are hitting peak [energy usage], we have transmission problems that slow you down. If you had a road map that … puts you on a path to net zero by 2050 you have a far more organized system of doing it.”
Likewise, Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California Santa Barbara and a co-author of the Evergreen study, says that only a clean electricity standard could unlock the level of investment required to drive a transition of this magnitude.
“I seriously doubt you could push the electricity system [that far] through regulation alone,” she says. “You can’t do it with tax credit extensions alone. They will get us a good chunk of the way, but they won’t get us all the way. … You have to be ensuring that the system is going to be moving at the scale and pace that is necessary.”
Sen. Manchin might be key
Smith, Zichal, Stokes and other advocates generally endorse the idea of embedding the clean electricity standard within Biden’s broader infrastructure package. That’s because the package includes most of the other investments and tax incentives they say would be necessary to execute such a massive transformation of the nation’s power sector, including spending to modernize the electric grid, research and development into new renewable power sources and energy storage, tax credits for the deployment of solar and wind facilities, and transition help for communities that would be hurt by diminished production of fossil fuels.
In a briefing last week, Gina McCarthy, the top White House climate adviser, told reporters, “We think with these investments and with standards that are properly set we can make” the 100% carbon-free electricity generation requirement by 2035 “a reality moving forward.”
Yet the attempt to link the zero-carbon standard with the broader infrastructure plan is likely to hinge on some familiar questions. With the GOP opposition to the overall infrastructure plan solidifying, it seems highly likely that Democrats will need to pass the package through reconciliation, the special legislative tool that allows budget-related bills to pass with just 50 votes (with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie). The Evergreen study offers several options for a clean electricity standard that would meet the budget-related criteria required for inclusion in such a bill, and Smith says she also believes it would qualify if necessary.
“I will work as hard as I possibly can to build support across party lines for a clean electricity standard,” she says, “but if we get to the point where we just have to take no for an answer, we have to have other options.”
But even some lobbyists sympathetic to the idea remain uncertain that the Senate parliamentarian will consider a clean energy standard eligible for reconciliation.
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Given the GOP opposition, even if the clean electricity standard did qualify for reconciliation, it could pass only if every Senate Democrat voted for it – including the relatively small number of them from states that produce substantial amounts of fossil fuels. Topping that list is Manchin, from West Virginia, which now ranks fourth in energy production overall.
Manchin, as is often the case, has sent mixed signals about his posture toward a zero-carbon future, and advocates are wooing him with arguments about West Virginia’s potential to become a major producer of wind energy; the possibility of investments to sustain some coal usage through technology capturing its carbon emissions; and the potential to locate manufacturing facilities for new renewable energy sources in communities losing fossil fuel jobs. While Manchin this week expressed resistance to the scale of the corporate tax increase in Biden’s infrastructure plan, he also made clear he believes Congress needs to pass such a plan and Stokes says she is “optimistic” that he will ultimately embrace some form of clean electricity standard within that.
“I think he is reasonable and … there’s lot of room for negotiation and for a solution,” she says.
Eliminating carbon emissions from America’s electricity generation system would be an undertaking of historic magnitude. Compounding the challenge is that, at the same time, the nation will need to electrify its cars, trucks and other vehicles to eliminate carbon emissions from the transportation sector as well. That means even as the US squeezes the carbon from its electricity generation system it will need to generate much more electricity than it does today (to replace the petroleum products that now power its vehicles).
Meeting that challenge will be daunting, but it could also ignite enormous economic activity, across a much wider range of states than now benefit from fossil fuel production. The fundamental choice facing the nation in the debate over a clean energy standard, and the broader transition to a zero-carbon future Biden is proposing, is whether to ride that inevitable wave of change or to try to resist it for as long as possible.
Smith cites the hockey great Wayne Gretzky to crystallize the dynamic. “Pardon me for using a hockey analogy,” she says, “but it’s a little bit like Wayne Gretzky always said: You’ve got to skate to where the puck is going to be.”