Multiple states look to boost clean energy through the ballot box

Clean energy advocates have their eyes on three states — Michigan, Nevada, and Arizona — where they hope to strengthen renewable energy policies by getting voters to pass citizen-led ballot initiatives. As with previous battles at the ballot box over clean energy, the campaigners are expecting electric utilities and Koch-funded groups to fight against these attempts to give wind and solar energy a greater foothold in a state’s energy portfolio.

Despite the millions of dollars that industry groups will spend to defeat these measures, their supporters contend voters will be inclined to support greater use of renewables because of the dramatic decline in their cost. In parts of the western United States, building new wind, solar, and energy storage facilities has become cheaper than a new natural gas-fired plant.

“Renewable energy sources like wind and solar are much cheaper than they were in 2010 or 2012,” Dylan Sullivan, senior scientist in the climate and energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “We’ve always won on the health and future generations arguments. But now we can really win on the cost and jobs argument.”

Electric utilities and dark money groups have traditionally spent huge sums fending off such attempts to expand renewables. For 2018, though, billionaire Tom Steyer, through his NextGen America group, is backing measures that would strengthen state-mandated renewable energy requirements.

In Michigan, a NextGen America-backed ballot initiative called “Clean Energy, Healthy Michigan” is pushing for a 30-percent renewable energy mandate by 2030, up from the current requirement of 15 percent by 2021. The initiative defines renewable energy as solar, wind, biomass, and hydropower.

The group intends to use a combination of paid and volunteer staff to collect at least 252,523 valid signatures to put its proposed initiative on the statewide Michigan ballot in November.

Clean energy advocates believe these mandates, called renewable portfolio standards, are too conservative in most states. The standards require electric companies to provide a certain amount of electricity from renewable energy sources or through energy efficiency measures.

Among the policy options available to clean energy advocates, renewable portfolio standards are both effective in getting more clean energy built and are easy to explain to the public, said Sullivan. “The public really likes renewables, and it’s this broad support that these initiatives will tap,” he said. “Young people are overwhelmingly in support and recognize the economic and jobs potential of clean energy.”

Supporters of “Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona Committee,” also backed by NextGen America, kicked off a campaign this week to get the state’s utilities to use clean energy sources — not including nuclear energy — to generate 50 percent of the state’s electricity needs, up from 15 percent today. Campaigners need to collect 225,963 voter signatures by July to make the 2018 ballot.

In Nevada, the newly announced “Initiative to Promote Renewable Energy” would require the state to amend its Constitution to increase its renewable portfolio standard to 50 percent by 2030. The state’s current target is 25 percent renewables by 2025. The ballot language says the renewable energy sources can come from “solar, geothermal, wind, biomass, and waterpower.”

The ballot initiative has garnered the support of U.S. Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV), who pushed the state’s adoption of its first renewable portfolio standard in 1997 when she was in the state Senate.

“This ballot initiative puts the power in the hands of the people and sends a message to the nation that 25 percent by 2025 is not enough,” Titus said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress. “It is time our state does what Trump, Republicans, and the fossil fuel lobby are unwilling to do: cut emissions, create clean-energy jobs, and modernize more of the power sources that energize our neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces.”

If the Michigan measure gets enough signatures, it won’t be the first time the state’s residents have been asked to vote on a greater use of renewables. In 2012, a campaign to increase the state’s renewable energy standard through a constitutional amendment did not pass. But it did give voters a chance to witness the behavior of their monopoly utilities to prevent the growth of renewable energy that year, Matt Kasper, research director at the Energy & Policy Institute, wrote in a new report released Monday.

The 2012 ballot campaign sought to require companies to distribute 25 percent of the state’s electricity using wind, solar, and other renewable energy resources by 2025. But the initiative received only 36 percent of support among Michigan voters.

The pro-amendment groups were outspent by a three-to-one margin. DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, the state’s two largest electric utility companies, contributed millions of dollars to The Clean Affordable Renewable for Michigan Coalition (CARE) political action committee to oppose the proposal. Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity chipped in by sending mailers to voters that were one-sided and used debunked statements about the costs to implement the proposal, according to Kasper.

As part of these battles, anti-clean energy forces spend millions to convince the public that adding more renewable energy to a state’s resource mix would drastically drive up their monthly bills. For example, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and Beacon Hill Institute — both funded by the Koch network — released a study in 2012 about the costs of implementing the proposal, which was used in CARE’s attack ads against the Michigan measure. Clean energy supporters deemed the study flawed, claiming its authors overstated the costs of the proposal.

Sullivan said there will always be fossil fuel industry-funded think tanks that can conduct a “hack analysis” of clean energy. But the American public is becoming less receptive to this type of anti-renewables messaging because they are seeing in their own communities the benefits of low-cost wind and solar energy, he added.

Citizen-led ballot initiatives have been successful in the past. In 2004, for the first time in U.S. history, a renewable portfolio standard was put directly before voters rather than processed through a state’s legislature. The measure was passed by voters, requiring the state’s largest utilities to obtain 10 percent of their electricity from renewable energy resources by 2015. Colorado lawmakers have voted to strengthen the standard in the intervening years.

After Colorado, Washington became the second state to pass a citizen-led ballot initiative to create a renewable portfolio standard. In 2008, Missouri voters also approved a ballot initiative to create a mandatory renewable portfolio standard in the state.

For 2018, renewable energy is positioned to do well at the ballot box in Michigan, Nevada, and Arizona, according to Jeff Deyette, director of state policy and analysis for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “A lot has changed since that 2012 Michigan initiative. The technologies have come a tremendous way in driving renewable costs down,” he told ThinkProgress. “Yet the utilities are still prioritizing fossil generation in their long-term procurement plans.”

President Donald Trump’s pro-fossil fuel agenda also could backfire, creating more support for clean energy at the ballot box. This is an opportunity for voters to say they don’t want to resurrect coal, Deyette said.

Sullivan agrees that Americans are noticing the Trump administration’s assaults on renewable energy, environmental protection, and public lands. “As Trump shirks his responsibilities, people who support clean energy are energized to take action at the state and local level in a way that maybe they weren’t in 2010 and 2012,” he said.