Mixed results for clean energy in state elections

Among Tuesday's election returns, voters in two states issued a split decision on ballot measures to boost clean energy. California approved a plan to fund clean energy jobs, but voters in Michigan defeated a plan to put a stronger clean energy standard for the state’s utilities into the state constitution.

California voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure, Proposition 39, aimed at generating as much as $2.75 billion over five years for a Clean Energy Job Creation Fund. The money comes from changing the tax code for multistate businesses so that they must pay taxes based on their sales in California, instead of being able to place facilities and employees outside of state borders to lower tax rates.

The Clean Energy Job Creation Fund will be important to California’s pursuit of its clean energy goals. In 2006, California's Renewable Portfolio Standard set a goal of generating 33 percent of the state’s energy from renewables by 2020. The state’s Global Warming Solutions Act, known as AB 32, established a cap-and trade program and other market-based programs to lower greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

California’s three large electricity producers already generate more than 20 percent of their portfolio with renewable power, compared with 14 percent in 2003. The Clean Energy Job Creation Fund will provide money for solar power installations on schools and other public buildings, and promote the creation of new private sector jobs to improve the efficiency of commercial and residential buildings.

Revenue available for clean energy programs has been capped at $550 million annually for five years. Once that money runs out, California lawmakers may need to pass legislation to ensure there is enough revenue to fund renewable energy projects and that California meets its greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.

The other major clean energy initiative decided on Tuesday was Michigan’s Renewable Energy Amendment, which was defeated by a wide margin. The proposal, commonly referred to as “25 by 25,” would have amended the state’s constitution to increase the state’s renewable energy standard to 25 percent by 2025. That's the same standard already in effect in the nearby states of Illinois, Ohio and Minnesota. A current Michigan law, passed in 2008, sets a 10 percent renewable energy standard by 2015.

Had the measure passed, Michigan would have become the first state to set a renewable energy standard through a constitutional amendment. The 30 other states with similar energy standards have enacted bills or initiatives into the state code. Some opponents of the ballot initiative argued that the state constitution was not the proper place for such a mandate. Others said that Michigan’s renewable portfolio standard is already so strict that utilities strain to meet it.

A review from the Michigan Public Service Commission reports that except for three small providers, accounting for a total of less than 4 percent of Michigan’s retail electricity total, all state utilities are expected to be able to meet the 10 percent renewable energy standard by 2015. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates there is ample land and enough consistent wind to provide a significant portion of Michigan’s electricity demand from wind turbines. The state ranks 14th in the nation for prospective wind development.

Renewable energy standards are effective at driving clean energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Even though this particular initiative failed, the more than 1.6 million Michiganders who voted for the proposal indicate that there is substantial support to strengthen the current standard.

Both California and Michigan have taken great strides to improve their clean energy portfolios. Although not every effort to push clean energy has been victorious, state action has been and continues to be critical to the steady increase in clean energy nationwide.