This week, California is hosting a Global Climate Action Summit. The summit is intended to “bring leaders and people together from around the world to take ambition to the next level” and “celebrate the extraordinary achievements of states, regions, cities, companies, investors and citizens with respect to climate action.”
It couldn’t happen at a better time or a better place. The Trump administration is busy swinging a wrecking ball at the pillars of climate progress in the United States, including the Clean Power Plan, our nation’s first ever limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, and the fuel economy/tailpipe emissions standards that cut carbon pollution from cars and trucks. And his administration is hatching a scheme to bail out aging coal plants that increasingly can’t compete against renewables or natural gas.
Given these actions at the federal level, the world community, which joined us in signing the historic Paris Agreement, can reasonably question our national commitment to combating climate change. And that’s why it is so important that the United States is hosting this summit, and can present many success stories to show that Donald Trump does not speak for this country when it comes to addressing climate change. There is so much to be proud of in the private sector, cities and towns, and universities and others, but I will focus on the particularly encouraging success at the state level. Here are some of the major state success stories that should be highlighted at the summit, but also the areas that the summit should focus on to build upon and expand that success.
California—the gold standard
Today, Governor Brown signed an extremely ambitious and inspiring new law –a mandate of —100% carbon free energy by 2045. This a breathtaking standard for any state to adopt, and it is particularly transformative given California’s size as the world’s fifth largest economy were it a nation. This goal, if achieved, would put California on the track of net zero emissions by mid-century—the level of reduction that scientists across the globe have indicated is necessary for us to meet the goals of the Paris agreement and prevent runaway climate change impacts. Moreover, California has solid policies in place to make a major head start to meeting this goal, including renewable energy standards, a low carbon fuel standard, a cap and invest program, and many others.
The wind miracle in the Texas panhandle
Texas is ranked number one in wind energy generation in the United States; it generates more wind energy than all but five countries. Wind energy powers about 15% of the Texas economy, or over 6 million homes, with thousands more megawatts under construction. Texas’ success is derived from its strong steady winds and large open spaces, and the foresight of state leaders to invest over $7 billion in transmission infrastructure to connect these open areas to population centers. Wind energy is so plentiful and cheap in Texas that some customers even get their electricity for free at night.
Sunny solar in North Carolina
In 2017, North Carolina ranked second in the US in solar by the Solar Energy Industries Association. It currently powers over 500,000 homes with solar, about 5% of its energy production, and that amount is projected to double in the next five years. North Carolina has made this progress with state incentives and renewable portfolio requirements, investments by utilities, and solar energy purchases from major in state firms such as Apple and Ikea.
Offshore wind in Massachusetts
In the 19th century, Massachusetts was the maritime leader of the world in whaling industry. In the 21st century, it is on its way to becoming the national leader in a new maritime industry–offshore wind. To take advantage of the strong steady winds across the Atlantic ocean, Massachusetts enacted a far-sighted law to authorize utility companies to purchase, after competitive bidding, approximately 1600 megawatts of offshore wind, enough to power about a third of the homes in MA and about ten percent of the power for the state. And MA has followed this up by signing a twenty year contract for the first 800 MW project, at a surprisingly low cost (levelized 6.5 cents per kwh), with more projects to follow.
What more should states do on clean energy?
The astonishing success of renewable energy in these states and many others (e.g., New York, South Dakota, Washington, Iowa, and others) coupled with gains in energy efficiency and switching from coal to gas, is helping to dramatically drive down emissions from power plants to the point where nationally we are about 28% below 2005 levels. This is solid progress, but much more needs to be done. Many states have renewable energy standards that require utilities to purchase certain percentages of renewable power; many of the targets can be easily ratcheted upwards as the falling costs of wind, solar and energy storage make much higher levels of renewables cost effective. In addition, states can do much more to modernize their electric grids and build out transmission lines to make sure that renewable power is being used whenever the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, and invest in energy storage to store that renewable energy when they are not.
Transportation is the Next Frontier
In contrast to the electric sector, the picture is very different for emissions from the transportation sector, which is now the largest source of emissions in the US. While there have been some increases in the efficiency of cars and trucks, in large part due to rules issued by President Obama, these gains have been mostly offset by increased vehicle miles traveled and shifting consumer preferences for SUV’s and trucks, owing to sustained low gasoline prices.
It is here that states particularly need to step up. Twelve states have adopted California’s greenhouse gas emission standards for gas-powered cars, and nine have adopted “zero emission vehicle standards” that require higher sales of electric vehicles through 2025; other states should join these groups, as Colorado has indicated it intends to do.
And states can do much more to incent electric cars, buses and trucks and enjoy dramatically cleaner air and less carbon pollution. One of the biggest barriers now is the higher up-front cost of electric vehicles. While falling battery costs are expected to bring electric vehicles into cost parity with gas-fired vehicles by the mid-2020’s, we are not there yet. In the interim, states should help offset this higher cost with rebates, focusing particularly on EV customers of low and moderate income. States can also build out charging station networks, and should focus particularly on making EV’s convenient for those who don’t own a garage and can’t easily charge up overnight at home. States can also direct electric utilities, whom they regulate extensively, to offer EV-related services to customers, such as installing charging stations in homes and apartments, or offering discounted rates for charging at off-peak hours. Finally, states can lead by example by purchasing electric cars, buses and trucks for their needs.
A funding source will be needed to pay for the transition from gasoline powered transportation to electricity. Here additional experimentation is needed. One promising example is a “cap and invest” program that is in place in California and is being considered by northeast and mid-atlantic states. A cap and invest system would establish an overall cap on transportation emissions, require fuel distributors to purchase “allowances” for the right to sell transportation fuels, and use the funds to invest in cleaner forms of transportation.
We have a lot to be proud of when it comes to clean energy advances, the Trump administration notwithstanding. However, the federal rollback is so extensive, and time is so swiftly running out, that we will need states, and other key stakeholders such as cities, universities, businesses and others to step up the pace. The Global Summit will be a good way to mark progress, but its more important role is to stimulate ambition and jump start the next round of policies.
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