More States Are Finally Following California’s RPS Lead

California has long led the push for renewable energy mandates, and others are catching on

California’s renewables portfolio standard (RPS) is a flagship component of the state’s robust portfolio of climate change policies. The RPS is complex, but the basic concept is simple: state law requires electric utilities to procure a minimum percentage of their retail electricity from qualifying renewable sources under rules set by the California Public Utilities Commission. California has successfully employed the policy for over 15 years, and last fall set a new standard with a target of 60 percent renewables by 2030 (as well as zero-carbon electricity by 2045).

California is by no means the only state to employ an RPS; wind-heavy Midwestern states pioneered the policy in the 80s and 90s, and last year over half of states had some minimum renewable procurement requirement. But California’s RPS has long been the most aggressive for a state of its size, and the most prominent in the country due to California’s market influence and diversity of population, energy needs, and physical environments. Apparently news of California’s success—and it’s ambition to obtain more than half of its energy from renewables in a decade—is spreading, since a growing number of other states are starting to follow its lead:

  • New Mexico: Last week the legislature passed and the governor signed a law setting the state’s RPS at 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2040, with a zero-carbon goal for 2045.
  • Nevada: This week three state senators introduced a bill that would accelerate the state’s RPS to 50 percent by 2030 and set a zero-carbon goal for 2050.
  • Maryland: Last month state house and senate Democrats introduced legislation setting a 50 percent RPS for 2030.

These are only the most recent and concrete examples of increasingly aggressive RPS requirements around the country. Hawaii, with its unique island geography and high insolation, has actually met or exceeded California’s standards since 2015, when the state enacted an RPS of 30 percent by 2020, 70 percent by 2040, and 100 percent by 2045. In 2017, Oregon set a California-level RPS target of 50 percent by 2040. And the Washington, DC city council set a 100 percent RPS by 2032 earlier this year, although its laws are subject to congressional approval.

It may not be fair to give California all the credit. But California’s consistent success in meeting and increasing its renewables targets has clearly played a role in pushing more states to match them.

A brief history of that success is informative. The original 2002 RPS legislation, SB 1078, set a target of 20 percent renewable power by 2017. In 2006, seeing rapid uptake, the legislature advanced that target to 2010. In 2011, SB X1-2 (Simitan) set a further target of 33 percent by 2020. In 2015, SB 350 pushed the target to 50 percent by 2030. And in 2018, SB 100 increased the 2030 target to 60 percent (along with the 2045 zero-carbon electricity goal, which does not currently follow the same rules as the RPS).

California has exceeded the RPS minimum every year since 2011. In 2017, the three major utilities reached 36 percent renewables, achieving the 2020 goal far in advance, while other retail sellers were on track to meet their minimum requirements. And California’s economy has grown faster than the nation’s during this same period, showing that states can meet aggressive RPS targets without harming their economies. As the recent New Mexico, Nevada, and Maryland examples show, the rest of the states are catching on.

Progress has not come without costs, of course. The state cannot always employ its (primarily solar) renewable resources optimally, achieving the highest percentages of renewable power will present a whole new challenge, and Californians pay among the highest retail electricity prices in the nation (although appropriately high electricity rates to discourage excessive consumption should be part of any comprehensive climate policy).

Moreover, the RPS is only one part of a much larger climate policy framework. If states like New Mexico, Nevada, and Maryland do not also follow through with aggressive vehicle electrification targets, low-carbon fuel standards, building energy efficiency codes, carbon pricing via cap-and-trade or a carbon tax, and more, their RPS successes will have a helpful but inadequate impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And just following California’s lead is inadequate: we have tremendous work ahead, from increasing housing density and curbing vehicle miles traveled to reducing oil and gas extraction and modernizing the electricity grid in order to handle the RPS mandate and new physical risks posed by climate change.

Nonetheless, more states representing diverse geographies and needs (if not diverse politics) taking on ambitious legal mandates for renewable power is undeniably a hopeful sign. California has shown that a strong RPS is feasible and effective policy, even if it is only the first step of many. As the rest of the country catches on, it may see that the rest of the climate policy framework is achievable too.

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Reader Comments

One Reply to “More States Are Finally Following California’s RPS Lead”

  1. California is a proven leader in climate change solutions, and its continued leadership will be essential for the benefit of everyone around the globe.

    But while we are talking about the tremendous work ahead, let’s not forget carbon emissions from vehicles — which are regulated by the California Air Resources Board (not the Public Utilities Commission). Under current standards (Health and Safety Code Section 38500 et seq.), vehicles are limited to 1990 GHG levels by 2020, which has been determined by CARB to be 431 million metric tons (about 9% of US total). A 40% reduction by 2030 has been mandated, with cap-and-trade allowances, and only goals and targets are set for subsequent years.

    Three factors are blocking greater progress in vehicle emission standards: 1) demand for gasoline powered vehicles; 2) abundance of oil reserves in California; and 3) the EPA

    Californians continue to purchase vehicles that are overwhelmingly powered by gasoline (about 9 to 1 vs electrics and hybrids). This leads to consumption of more than 14 billion gallons of gasoline per year (about 97% of total statewide gasoline consumption). Elon Musk will have to crank out a whole lot more Teslas to make a dent in this area. As long as there is demand for gasoline, the demand will be met.

    California is also the third largest producer of oil in the US, trailing only Texas and North Dakota. Kern County alone produces more oil than the entire state of Oklahoma, and San Joaquin County has more fracking wells than any county in the country. [Sidenote: Fracking has not only increased California’s oil production, it has also consumed precious groundwater (half of new wells) and caused environmental toxicity and seismic disturbances (San Joaquin Valley alone had 348 earthquakes of magnitude 1.5 or higher last year)]. As long as there is demand for oil, California will continue to produce it.

    California law is also subject to preemption by the Clean Air Act of 1970, which authorizes the EPA to set national standards for air quality that are less stringent than California’s standards. California was a primary mover in getting the Clean Air Act into law, and was granted a renewable waiver to set higher standards as a compromise. The EPA renewed California’s waiver under Obama, but it has been trying to rescind the waiver under Trump. We’ll have to see what happens after 2020, but California should take steps that will enable the State to act independently of the EPA.

    California deserves a lot of credit, but let’s not celebrate too soon.

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About Ted

Ted Lamm

Ted Lamm is Climate Law and Policy Fellow at CLEE. Ted’s research focuses on California policies regarding climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, and the relation…

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