Democratic gains in state capitals in the midterm elections may signal a shift toward more ambitious renewable energy policies in Maine, New Mexico, and other states that have been slow to adopt them.
“I would say that it’s less of a shift than a continued acceleration across the board at the state level toward more clean and renewable energy policy,” David J. Hayes, executive director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at NYU School of Law and a former deputy Interior secretary in the Obama and Clinton administrations, told Bloomberg Environment.
Democrats flipped seven state governorships from GOP control on election night—Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, and Wisconsin, while Republicans picked up Alaska.
‘Clean Energy Won Big’
Several states, including Colorado, Maine, New Mexico, and New York, saw Democrats take over both their legislatures and the governor’s office. The party also won attorney general offices in four of those states and made additional gains in some state legislatures.
“The message I’m taking away at the state level is that clean energy won big this election,” Jeff Deyette, state policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Bloomberg Environment. “It really does signal a green light to move forward with clean energy policies.”
Voters in Nevada preliminarily approved a constitutional amendment requiring utilities in the state to obtain 50 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2030, a decision voters will need to affirm in 2020 for the amendment to take effect.
Deyette said Election Day was a good day for state renewables policy even though Arizona voters rejected a mandate similar to Nevada’s, and Rep. Ron DeSantis (R), who has a 2 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters for his record in Congress, including votes against 10 out of 11 pro-clean energy bills, won the Florida governor’s race.
The election results set up opportunities for strides in state renewables policies all over the country.
Renewable energy was high on the agendas of the governors-elect of the states Democrats wrested from GOP control, especially in Illinois, Maine, and New Mexico, where Republican governors either did little to support renewables or, as in the case of Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R), outright opposed it.
Maine Gov.-elect Janet Mills (D) has pledged to promote offshore wind development, which LePage attempted to block. She also said she supports decentralized electric power production and the “solarization” of the Maine power grid.
“The Maine flip is incredibly important,” Hayes said. “LePage, he was incomprehensibly opposed to offshore wind despite the fact that Maine has one of the best offshore wind resources in the world. Janet Mills was attorney general of Maine and is well positioned to leapfrog Maine to the frontlines of offshore wind.”
New Mexico Democratic Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham’s support for wind and solar development and a more ambitious renewables mandate “is really quite exciting” because the state, which has some of the best solar power generation potential in the country, has been slow to adopt any clean energy policy under outgoing Gov. Susana Martinez (R), Hayes said.
Lujan Grisham campaigned on her support for electric vehicles and legislation that calls for the state to obtain 80 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2040.
“There is a lot of pent up support for renewables” in New Mexico, where officials are also expected to find funding for transmission lines for renewable electricity, Noah Long a Santa Fe, N.M.-based senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council who manages the group’s clean-energy work in western states, told Bloomberg Environment.
In the Midwest, where Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin elected Democratic governors, a lot of lost ground on clean energy needs to be made up after years of stagnation, NRDC Midwest Director Samantha Williams told Bloomberg Environment.
“The midterm election results are going to have a profound impact on the Midwest in the way we address major environmental issues,” Williams said.
Illinois Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker (D) made as a major part of his campaign a path toward obtaining all of Illinois’ electricity from renewables, and Wisconsin Gov.-elect Tony Evers (D) promoted renewable energy development as part of his platform.
“Another measure of whether we’re going to see more activity on the clean energy side is whether the new governors and attorneys general are talking about electric vehicles or not,” Hayes said. “Because electrifying transportation is perhaps the most direct way that we could deal with the most stubborn piece of the greenhouse gas equation—our fossil fuel-based transportation fleet.”
During her campaign, Michigan Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer (D) promoted electric vehicles and creating an “office of climate change.”
“She has vowed to make Michigan’s power grid more clean, efficient and modern. She wants the state to lead on elect vehicle deployment,” Williams said.
New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) won a third term and saw Democrats seize full control of the state legislature after a decade in which Republicans controlled the Senate, has the potential to make greater strides on renewable energy, Michael Wara, a climate and energy policy scholar at Stanford Law School, told Bloomberg Environment.
Cuomo’s administration has taken the lead on offshore wind power development and climate policy, but efforts to implement a more ambitious renewable energy mandate have been hamstrung in part by a more conservative legislature, Wara said.
“I think the question is going to be whether the progressive legislature, whether the relatively more progressive majority will take action that enables Cuomo and NYSERDA [the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority] to go further,” Wara said. “They’ve done what they can do with their legal authority, but they haven’t had that much legal authority.”
There’s enthusiasm about renewables policy in Kansas, too, where Gov.-elect Laura Kelly (D) is a supporter of continued wind power development, but didn’t make renewables policy a major part of her campaign.
Advocates expect Kelly to make renewables-friendly appointments to the Kansas Corporation Commission, which regulates energy, and push for the state to create an energy plan that promotes wind and solar development and climate resiliency, Dorothy Barnett, executive director of the Hutchinson, Kan.-based Climate and Energy Project, told Bloomberg Environment.
The Solar Energy Industries Association is eager to work with governors-elect who campaigned on clean-energy development, including Jared Polis (D) in Colorado and Steve Sisolak (D) in Nevada, Sean Gallagher, SEIA vice president of state affairs, told Bloomberg Environment.
The American Wind Energy Association told Bloomberg Environment Nov. 8 that it is unable to comment.
A Federal ‘Mixed Bag’
On the federal policy level, the midterm elections were a “mixed bag” for renewable energy, but maybe more bad than good, Keith Martin, a project finance and renewable energy lawyer at Norton Rose Fulbright U.S. LLP in Washington, told a crowd of renewable energy dealmakers at the Southeast Renewable Energy Summit in Atlanta on Nov. 8.
Republican gains in the Senate suggest possible challenges ahead for renewing solar tax credits that are set to begin phasing out and wind production tax credits are set to expire in 2019, Martin said.
—Chris Marr contributed to this report.