There’s good and bad news to deliver when it comes to the American solar leadership landscape. The good news is that solar has gone mainstream across the United States. The bad? More battles are brewing on the sunny horizon.
The first is borne out nicely by research firm Clean Edge’s recently released 2014 Leadership Index (PDF), which found 11 states now generating “more than 10 percent of their electricity from non-hydro renewable energy sources.” California and its metros San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Los Angeles and Sacramento convincingly led the way forward, shouldering a 40 percent year-over-year increase in solar installations as well as 100 percent increase in all-electric vehicle registrations.
But California didn’t do it alone.
“There are absolutely other states and metro regions aggressively pursuing and achieving results in the clean-energy marketplace,” Clean Edge founder Ron Pernick told me. “Other leading states that come to mind are Massachusetts, Oregon, New York and Colorado. And while California leads by a pretty wide margin in our overall rankings, compared with second-place Massachusetts, Massachusetts actually beats out California in both our Capital and Policy rankings, coming in at #1. Connecticut and Vermont both cracked the Top 10 for the first time; both states are actively pursuing clean-tech leadership and initiatives.”
However, those achievers must make way for others falling back, which is where some of the bad news comes in. Vermont’s rise has partially come at Hawaii’s fall, a dispiriting affair that Greentech memorably called a “solar shipwreck.” According to Pernick, Oahu’s underachievement does have a silver lining.
“Hawaii did drop out of our Top 10 this year, but they are still #3 in our Technology rankings,” he added. “In fact, they are #1 in installed solar PV capacity, with solar power now representing nearly 13 percent of installed peak capacity and are very strong in our Clean Transportation sub category. However, their low performance in the Capital section this year (#34), along with average Policy score (#13), put them lower in our Overall rankings.”
Capital and policy are at the heart of the battles raging, and those to come. A subsequent Clean Edge report Benchmarking Utility Clean Energy (PDF) ranked the renewable energy and efficiency of American utilities, only to find that it took state policies to finally get them moving with a purpose. And even then, there was “variability in performance even among utilities operating in the same states.”
Look back to Hawaii. In April, Governor Neil Abercrombie argued that “the time for talk has ended, and the time for action is upon us” — and yet his state’s utility Hawaiian Electric Company has slowed net metering permit approvals to a crawl while it figures out ways of securitizing the solar pie to its advantage. Similar maneuvers are underway in other states with little chance to crack Clean Edge’s Top 10, such as Utah, whose utility Rocky Mountain Power is leaning hard on legalese to pass what is basically a craven solar tax frivolously discriminating against net metering adopters who dare take the reins of their energy and emissions. Or Arizona, recently sued by SolarCity and Sunrun for the Department of Revenue’s decision to tax homeowners with leased solar panels while unfairly offering exemptions to those own them. All while utilities like Arizona Public Service suspiciously decide to jump into the solar game, instead of out of it.
The annoying list goes on, all throughout a United States looking to solarize without being nickel-and-dimed by entrenched dinosaurs like ALEC and the Koch Brothers. But the overall renewable energy war has already been won, no matter the current battles or those to come. That’s the best news.
“While there have been partisan attacks against clean-tech supportive policies like net metering and renewable portfolio standards in places like Ohio and Arizona, for the most part the clean-tech industry and its allies have successfully fought off such efforts,” said Pernick. “We expect the attacks to continue, but a number of trends and developments are on the side of clean energy. These include strong public support for clean-energy deployment, regional and state governments and corporations demanding ever increasing amounts of renewables, and the decreasing costs for clean energy. Add to all of this a utility industry in major upheaval and disruption, as well as growing carbon constraints, and you have the recipe for ongoing clean-energy expansion.”