Biden faces backlash from US states to his clean energy agenda

Republican-led state capitols are considering bills that would punch holes in President Joe Biden’s green revamp of the US electricity system by promoting fossil fuels or piling costs on to renewable energy.

The proposed legislation reverses a dynamic that played out over the past four years, when lawmakers in states controlled by Democrats moved to counteract Donald Trump’s climate rollbacks. One analyst described a “Biden backlash”. 

Legislators have sharpened their focus since a winter storm caused blackouts in Texas and Midwestern states in February. Despite a varied set of causes, some have invoked the crisis to propose new constraints on solar and wind power. 

If enacted, the bills would cloud Biden’s objective of driving down carbon emissions from the electricity sector, one that he intends to bolster with a $2tn federal infrastructure plan announced last week.

In Texas, where the legislature has been consumed by the blackout debacle, bills introduced by state House Republicans would tax renewable energy projects, keep new wind turbines at least a mile apart and require solar and wind farms to procure back-up power to cover some of their down time. 

The Texas Senate on March 29 passed a sweeping electricity reform bill which included an amendment forcing solar and wind farms to purchase “ancillary services” and “replacement power” to help manage fluctuations on the grid. Introduced by Kelly Hancock, a Republican from suburban Fort Worth, the language posed “a tremendous threat to the continued operation of renewable energy projects in Texas”, the Advanced Power Alliance, an Austin-based clean-energy trade group, said in an alert sent Thursday.

“Some of those proposals do nothing to address the root causes of the power outages but they are designed, self-evidently, to create commercial challenges for renewable energy projects,” said APA president Jeff Clark. 

Biden has pledged to remove carbon from electricity production by 2035. Through federal energy policy, environmental regulations, research funding and subsidies, the US government can prod the electricity sector towards that goal. 

But electric utilities are regulated mainly by states, not Washington, leaving much of the future US energy mix in the hands of state lawmakers. 

Between 2017 and 2020, more than a dozen Democrat-led states such as New York, Virginia, Washington and California enacted aggressive zero-carbon electricity targets that bypassed the Trump administration agenda.

Timothy Fox, vice-president of ClearView Energy Partners, a research group, has been tracking legislation that now takes an opposite tack. Indiana would bar towns and counties from making cleaner power procurements, Montana would prohibit municipalities from taxing carbon and West Virginia would require electric generators to file plans to ensure their fuel supply will maintain 2019 coal consumption levels, under provisions of bills introduced in these Republican-controlled coal mining states. 

“We saw how President Trump’s deregulatory agenda would encourage subnational decarbonisation efforts, and we called that the ‘rollback rebound’,” Fox said. “Now we’re seeing somewhat of a flip, and we call that the ‘Biden backlash’.” 

State representative Cody Vasut sponsored the Texas House bill that would require back-up power purchases by solar and wind farms. He acknowledged that all types of electric generation went offline during the winter storm, but he argued that while thermal plants could be fixed through stringent winterisation rules, wind and solar were uniquely subject to the weather. 

“Man cannot control when the wind blows, or where it blows. We can’t control when the sun shines, or where it shines. That’s all done by nature,” Vasut said. “So, in order to promote reliability on the grid, we have to address not only the man-made issues, but also the intermittent nature of some of our power generation.” 

Vasut, a lawyer who has represented the oil and gas industry, dismissed Biden’s zero-carbon plans as “pie-in-the-sky promises that are not based in reality.” Asked how to address the problem of carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere, he said: “That is something I do not profess to be an expert in.” 

Renewable energy still has momentum as its costs fall and as customers — including brand-conscious corporate buyers — seek it out. The wind power industry has also built constituencies in rural districts collecting new local tax revenues. The top four states for wind generation — Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas — have Republican legislative majorities. 

“The growth of the renewable industry does not have to be a partisan issue,” said Michael Jewell, an energy lawyer affiliated with Conservative Texans for Energy Innovation, a clean-power group.

Some bills have failed. Fox said that Wyoming’s Republican-dominated House revenue committee this month voted down a bill that would have taxed large-scale solar farms by $1 a megawatt-hour, while North Dakota withdrew a bill that would have taxed wind farms.

In Kansas, Republican state senator Mike Thompson’s bill to require one-mile setbacks for wind turbines stalled in the utilities committee that he chairs. The bill “would end wind energy development in Kansas,” said Alan Claus Anderson, a lawyer at the Polsinelli firm who represents renewable energy companies. 

Thompson said in an interview that he planned to revive the bill in the 2022 legislative session, arguing it was important to set a uniform standard across the state. A former TV meteorologist, he also dismissed Biden’s energy plans and denied the science of climate change.

“There is zero reason to reduce CO2 emissions,” he said, later adding, “What I worry about is we’re making horrible energy policy based on fake science — and it is fake science.”

Climate Capital

Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the FT’s coverage here 

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