Governors Launch a New Offensive in the Fight for Clean Energy

The bipartisan push for wind and solar doesn’t have much to say about climate change.

Image Reuters / Jason Reed
Reuters / Jason Reed

You don’t have to care about climate change to want more clean energy.

That’s the message a group of 17 Republican and Democratic governors sent by signing the Accord for a Clean Energy Future on Tuesday. The agreement, which calls for states to work together to modernize their power grids and expand wind and solar energy, doesn’t even mention the phrase “climate change.” Instead, it touts a slew of other motivations for a greener grid: new jobs, grid resilience, less air pollution, and more choice for consumers. By focusing specifically on the economic benefits of locally sourced clean energy, state-level advocates hope to sidestep the partisan rancor over climate change that has stymied clean policies at the national level.

California Governor Jerry Brown, one of the signatories, said in a call with reporters that the genius of the accord is its ability to appeal to governors of different political philosophies.

“We think we can make major strides forward and bypass all the bickering in Washington, where you see this very toxic partisanship,” he said. “We’re going to leave that behind and work on what we can work on, and that’s the renewable energy accord.”

The announcement came a week after the Supreme Court put a hold on President Barack Obama’s new clean-energy regulations until the courts weigh in, which could take a few years. With federal government stuck in the mud, some states see a chance to lead the way for themselves. That’s fitting, because clean energy ultimately happens at the local level: on rooftops, in community solar gardens, at utility-scale wind and solar plants. Local knowledge matters for choosing the right incentives to adopt clean energy, and states have been experimenting with these approaches for years. For instance, California’s clean energy policies have carried it to dominance, with more utility-scale solar than every other state combined.

States can go further down this road by working together, Brown said. Specifically, he said he hopes states can team up for bulk purchases of zero-emission or highly efficient fleet vehicles, lobby the federal government for more research and development funding, and build a sophisticated regional grid for sharing the surplus power that arises when renewables gain a larger share of the energy portfolio.

The governors’ messaging could be effective in several ways. Some people will certainly respond to calls to sacrifice for the sake of the environment, but many more speak the language of local jobs and saving money. More importantly, the governors are ditching the language of sacrifice altogether, proposing clean energy as strictly a matter of gains. For Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, a Republican, this means jobs and revenue coming from the massive new Tesla battery factory opening near Reno. This neatly anticipates the standard coal and oil industry attacks that clean energy is a war on jobs: coal may be on its way out, but the clean power sector is booming.

Polling data back up this approach. Support for acting against climate change varies markedly based on political affiliation in the U.S., but clean energy manages to evade some of the partisan rancor, says Warren Leon, executive director of the Clean Energy States Alliance. A UT Austin poll from last fall found 52 percent of respondents would favor a candidate who wants to reduce coal usage, but 62 percent would favor a candidate who wants to force utilities to draw more power from renewable sources.

“Different states have different reasons for why they want to support clean energy,” says Leon, whose organization works with state governments on clean energy policy. “They don’t necessarily always agree on the reason for having that goal, and that’s OK, because it allows states to all move forward together while putting aside some of the issues that may be more politically contentious.”

Of course, the initial group of governors have been enthusiastically pursuing clean energy already. Almost all of them are supporting Obama’s Clean Power Plan in court. The outlier is Michigan, where the attorney general is suing the plan even though the governor decided to comply. We’ll see, in time, if their message sways other states that have resisted an energy transition. The accord could also draw flack from environmental groups for ceding the climate change debate to its detractors instead of linking it to the bevy of economic benefits from clean tech investment.

If the message sticks, though, this economic pragmatism could write the script for future clean energy advocacy. At the very least, the strength in numbers will give renewables advocates more of a say in how the country plans for the future of its grid.

About the Author

  • Julian Spector is a former editorial fellow at CityLab, where he covers climate change, energy, and clean tech.