States: It's Time to Level Up to Hawaii and California's Standards


Attention, all states that are not Hawaii or California - it's time to get on their level. No, I'm not talking about transforming your state into one with sun-drenched beaches and killer surfing or lush, green hiking trails (although, it would be nice...) - I'm talking about renewable energy. Hawaii and California are the only states to commit statewide to 100% clean energy, which would eliminate emissions from power plants - which are responsible not only for greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide and methane that contribute to the climate crisis, but also for emissions of the toxic metals nickel, arsenic, and chromium and for emissions that contribute to smog.

The problem here isn't one of lack of knowledge. Emissions from power plants were first linked to air pollution in 1999, when the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) filed civil complaints against seven electric utility companies operating coal-fired power plants for illegally releasing air pollutants and contributing to severe environmental degradation. This action did very little though - by 2005, power plant emissions had decreased from 1990 levels by just 10 percent, revealing a lack of profess and enforcement. Much of this slow progress comes from the way the enforcement legislation was written; power plants only had to add the advanced emission controls if they went underwent major renovations.

Hawaii was the first state in the nation to take matters into their own hands and pass legislation that required the state to use 100% renewable energy by 2045. Hawaii is somewhat of a unique case because they had the highest electricity prices in the nation from imported oil, which was a powerful motivation to source their own energy. As of fall of 2018 the state had already reached 60% power generation by renewable energy on some days. This quick progress is at least partially driven by the state's choice to set an interim goal of adding nearly 400 MW of grid-scale renewables by 2021. The state has taken this opportunity to push ahead further, prioritizing rooftop solar and taking advantage of federal investment tax credits and power purchase agreements to implement upgrades and both the individual and utility level.

California was the second state to pass statewide legislation to reach 100% renewable energy by 2045. California followed Hawaii's example and set interim goals as well, with a goal to reach 50% renewable energy by 2026 and 60% renewable energy by 2030. California is also helped in their mission by a target to achieve 33% renewable energy by 2020 set by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and most utilities in California are set to achieve this goal. California is also taking advantage of a nation-wide trend of utilities decarbonizing and specifically retiring coal-fired power plants. Roughly 13.5 GW of coal-fired capacity was retired in California alone in 2017, following 13.5 GW of capacity retired in 2016 and 19.5 of coal-fired capacity retired in 2015. In light of these trends and this legislation, some utility companies have announced internal sustainability goals to reduce emissions and retire coal-fired power plants.

Hawaii and California show a feasible pathway to 100% renewable energy, and the national trend should help other states follow in their footsteps. The more states that pursue 100% renewable energy, the faster the transition will be able to occur. Additionally, legislation to require 100 percent clean energy in states will be more effective if paired with financing options to enable people to install clean energy as well as workforce training programs so that local communities can take full advantage of the new industry growth. With these additions states can expect a reduction in air pollution as well as economic growth.

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