“There is a different story here than people are imagining,” says Lindsey Walter, deputy director of climate policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic group that is among the sponsors of the Decarb America project. “In today’s world, the states that have oil, gas and coal resources are the ones that have the most opportunity to play a role in energy production. But by 2050 every single state is playing a role in producing energy using the natural resources available in that state. That’s why you are seeing the opportunity for more states to benefit in this net zero carbon economy.”
The spread of clean energy jobs to more states, in turn, would enhance the industry’s political leverage to drive more policies through Congress in the years ahead to support the massive transition to a zero-carbon economy. The catch is that to set this process in motion, Biden and his allies in the clean energy industries must first find a way past the resistance of legislators from the heavy fossil-fuel-producing states, almost all of them Republicans, who have shut down discussion of virtually any legislation that would diminish the nation’s reliance on oil, coal and natural gas.
Fossil fuel states few but mighty
Smith, like many environmental groups and even energy industry analysts, argues that rather than resisting the clean energy transition, those states would benefit from embracing the opportunities it can create. “History is littered with stories of countries and states and communities that failed to see where we are going and got stuck in where we were,” Smith told me. “There’s a fundamental reality about a clean energy future, which is that it’s going to happen, and the United States, and states individually, can either lead or they can follow.”
But the overall distribution of fossil fuel resources — and the economic output that follows them — remains highly concentrated. Today, Walter notes, just 10 states combine to produce 75% of the nation’s energy; the top five alone produce slightly more than half of America’s energy.
That exercise produced a radically different picture in which far more states generate significant amounts of energy — and all the economic gains that accompany it. Under that scenario, Walter says, the share of energy production generated by the top five states falls below 40% and 20 states, rather than today’s 10, combine to produce three-fourths of the nation’s total supply. In that forecast, heartland states with robust onshore wind resources — including Iowa, Illinois and Kansas — substantially rise in the ranks of energy producers, as do several Southeast states — including Florida, North Carolina and Georgia — with significant opportunities for more production of solar and offshore wind.
Fossil fuel states would benefit too
Surprisingly, though, the states that dominate fossil fuel production today remain among the nation’s largest energy producers in a carbon-free future, the study found. Of the 10 states that produce the most energy today, the study found that all but one remain in the top 10 in a carbon-free scenario through at least 2040 — and West Virginia, the one that falls below that list, slips only to number 11 by then. (West Virginia slips further over the decade of the 2040s in the forecast, but even by as late as 2050 six of today’s top 10 producers remain in that ranking, with Texas still far in the lead.)
“In a way it can end up being the best of both worlds: You are spreading out the opportunity to other states, but that doesn’t mean you are removing opportunity from states that are producing energy today,” Walter says. “There is opportunity to create jobs in every single region.”
Today’s big fossil-fuel-producing states would remain near the top of the energy hierarchy, the study found, for several reasons. Many of them could also become big sources of solar and wind power. And, the study found, even in a carbon-free future demand for natural gas would remain high, because it could be used — in chemical processes that capture the carbon emitted — to create massive amounts of hydrogen that would fuel trucks, other heavy-duty vehicles and trains.
“These industries are going to have to evolve and transition with the times … but it is not going to suck out all the opportunity from today’s fossil fuel states if we are clever about how we go about this,” Walter says.
“There is no question that there are economic opportunities in red states,” says Heather Zichal, the chief executive officer of the American Clean Power Association, the main trade association of renewable energy producers. Renewable power, she adds, “makes economic sense everywhere. We have projects in all 50 states.”
All but one of the states that have set zero-carbon electricity targets have put the date for the transition at 2040 or later (Rhode Island, with a nonbinding goal of 2030, is the exception). The Smith-Luján bill sets a goal of 90% by 2040 and 100% by 2050.
In the interview, Smith made clear that she views the 2035 target as very negotiable. “2035 is a good place to start the discussion and our job, though, is to get a bill that can pass,” she says. “I think the most important thing is to look at the tool of a clean electricity standard and figure out how to make that tool work, and then it’s a question of how fast you dial it up.”
“It would turbocharge the industry,” she told me. “It would allow for us to have a more planned transition. Right now, we have supply chain issues, we have deployment issues, in some areas of the country, when you are hitting peak [energy usage], we have transmission problems that slow you down. If you had a road map that … puts you on a path to net zero by 2050 you have a far more organized system of doing it.”
Likewise, Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California Santa Barbara and a co-author of the Evergreen study, says that only a clean electricity standard could unlock the level of investment required to drive a transition of this magnitude.
“I seriously doubt you could push the electricity system [that far] through regulation alone,” she says. “You can’t do it with tax credit extensions alone. They will get us a good chunk of the way, but they won’t get us all the way. … You have to be ensuring that the system is going to be moving at the scale and pace that is necessary.”
Sen. Manchin might be key
Smith, Zichal, Stokes and other advocates generally endorse the idea of embedding the clean electricity standard within Biden’s broader infrastructure package. That’s because the package includes most of the other investments and tax incentives they say would be necessary to execute such a massive transformation of the nation’s power sector, including spending to modernize the electric grid, research and development into new renewable power sources and energy storage, tax credits for the deployment of solar and wind facilities, and transition help for communities that would be hurt by diminished production of fossil fuels.
“I will work as hard as I possibly can to build support across party lines for a clean electricity standard,” she says, “but if we get to the point where we just have to take no for an answer, we have to have other options.”
But even some lobbyists sympathetic to the idea remain uncertain that the Senate parliamentarian will consider a clean energy standard eligible for reconciliation.
Given the GOP opposition, even if the clean electricity standard did qualify for reconciliation, it could pass only if every Senate Democrat voted for it — including the relatively small number of them from states that produce substantial amounts of fossil fuels. Topping that list is Manchin, from West Virginia, which now ranks fourth in energy production overall.
“I think he is reasonable and … there’s lot of room for negotiation and for a solution,” she says.
Meeting that challenge will be daunting, but it could also ignite enormous economic activity, across a much wider range of states than now benefit from fossil fuel production. The fundamental choice facing the nation in the debate over a clean energy standard, and the broader transition to a zero-carbon future Biden is proposing, is whether to ride that inevitable wave of change or to try to resist it for as long as possible.