State leadership shines through in federal climate action plan

Led by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, leaders on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released a comprehensive report on June 30, 2020, laying out a framework to tackle climate change at the federal level. The report builds on a swelling tide of state and local leadership.

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown signs SB 100 into law in 2018, as CALPIRG executive director Emily Rusch, Environment California director Dan Jacobson and allies look on.
Emma Searson

Led by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, leaders on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released a comprehensive report on June 30, 2020, laying out a framework to tackle climate change at the federal level. The core recommendation of the report is a nationwide transition to 100 percent clean electricity, coupled with a significant buildout of renewable energy technologies. 

At the time of the report’s release (just like now), the nation and the world was reeling from the public health and economic crises posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The policy paper’s authors acknowledged that, while it may feel like an odd time to present a federal climate action plan against this backdrop, climate action simply cannot wait.

In fact, the timing of this report makes perfect sense for two reasons. First, while we all understand that fighting the pandemic is paramount right now, this crisis also presents a rare opportunity to reflect and reimagine a better, healthier future for our nation as we do so. Second, with a critical mass of cities and states having enacted 100 percent commitments in the last few years, the moment is ripe for action at the federal level. The national vision for a future powered by clean renewable energy laid out in the Select Committee’s report is a long overdue response to that swelling tide of state and local leadership.

The history that brought us here

Over the past few years, cities and states across the country have embraced the vision of a future powered by 100 percent clean renewable energy. But that trend is, in large part, thanks to energy goals established decades ago.

Starting in the early 2000s, dozens of states began to establish specific targets for driving renewable energy progress. In 31 states, that meant adopting state renewable portfolio standards (RPS). These standards require that a minimum percent of the electricity sold in a state come from renewable resources. 

State RPS have been crucial in the rapid renewable energy growth seen over the past two decades. Since 2000, approximately 50 percent of U.S. renewable electricity generation and capacity can be attributed to these standards. For that reason, 26 states have strengthened their standards, requiring utilities to provide increasingly greater amounts of renewable energy. 

This map shows U.S. states with renewable portfolio standards (RPS) that specify a minimum percent of electricity that must come from renewable resources in blue. The vast majority, shown in darker blue, have strengthened their original requirements at least once.

While the RPS concept was a huge step, another key move was essential. In 2008,  Environment America wrote a report that highlighted the immense potential of renewable energy resources in America. We started to imagine what it might look like to actually power every aspect of our lives entirely with clean renewable energy. And, slowly but surely, we began to share our vision of a 100 percent renewable energy future, planting some of the early seeds for the movement that’s since spread to state houses across the country and, now, to Congress. 

In 2018, the passage of Senate Bill 100 (SB100) in California was the landmark victory that kicked off a nationwide trend. The policy committed the state to generating 100 percent of its electricity from zero-carbon sources by 2045 and established ambitious interim targets for renewable energy sources. 

Today, seven states and more than 150 cities have committed to achieving 100 percent clean or renewable electricity by 2050 or sooner. As a result, one in three Americans live in a community bound to that vision. Success is begetting success. Each action from states and cities  motivates others to follow suit. And now leaders in our federal leaders are joining the party. 

Seven states have committed to 100 percent clean or renewable electricity (orange), and Environment America is working to secure additional commitments to 100 percent in over a dozen others (yellow).

A national framework, informed by state policy

The Select Committee’s new report draws heavily on the core tenets of California’s SB100 — and for good reason. 

First, both plans are centered around the same visionary goal of meeting 100 percent of electricity demand with clean energy resources. While the Select Committee report acknowledges that we can’t know today exactly which combination of clean and renewable energy technologies will ultimately enable us to reach that objective, the goal is key to encouraging the innovation, policy action and accelerated deployment needed to get there. And, in both plans, clean electricity is a key gateway to an entirely clean economy.

In addition, California’s law and the Select Committee’s report both leave room for a broad range of zero-carbon energy sources to help meet our electricity needs. That said, both also place improvements in energy efficiency and conservation and deployment of renewable resources at the center of their action plans. 

Finally, the House report recommends setting ambitious interim targets to keep the nation on track, which takes a page from SB100’s book. The one difference in California is that the state’s interim targets are specific to renewable energy sources, which means they will not only ensure that the state is making timely progress toward its goal, but also spur rapid deployment of increasingly less expensive solar, wind and other renewable technologies. 

Environment America’s 100% Renewable Campaign has focused on building momentum for and winning commitments at the state level. As the campaign director, I don’t spend the majority of my time working on federal policy, even though nationally coordinated action is absolutely critical on this issue. That’s a strategic choice. However, the Select Committee’s new report just goes to show that state leadership bubbles up — that’s why Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis dubbed the states America’s laboratories of democracy. The national vision for a healthier future powered by clean renewable energy is beginning to take shape. But it didn’t start with the Select Committee. It started in the states.


Emma Searson