Blue wave in Midwest raises hopes for more green energy

Source: Jeffrey Tomich, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, November 9, 2018

The exceptions for Republicans were Iowa, where incumbent Kim Reynolds narrowly won re-election, and in Ohio, a key state for Midwest energy, where Attorney General Mike DeWine defeated Democrat Richard Cordray.

While energy wasn’t a prominent issue in Midwest races, each of the Democratic governors elected Tuesday pledged to tackle climate change and advance clean energy in their states.`

And even while states like Michigan and Wisconsin remain politically divided with Republican legislatures, clean energy groups see Tuesday’s elections as a significant step forward for the Midwest, particularly in the era of Trump.

“New Democratic governors are likely to be looking for ways to step up on climate change solutions while the federal government steps back,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

Learner and other clean energy advocates expect new governors to work within their states on energy and environmental issues through appointments to agencies and their work with legislatures. But they also see opportunity regionally through groups such as the Midwestern Governors Association.

In fact, Tuesday’s elections put Democrats in control of five of the six states that more than a decade ago signed the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord at a summit in Milwaukee.

The 2007 accord, which also included the Canadian province of Manitoba, aimed to establish a regional greenhouse gas reduction program similar to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. The effort fell apart within a few years after Republicans took over governorships in four of the states.

There’s been no talk about three Democratic governors-elect — J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Tony Evers in Wisconsin — rekindling such a pact, but they all pledged during their campaigns to join the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group of governors committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

Whitmer, a former state legislator, promisedto create a climate change office within a new state department tasked with protecting the Great Lakes and water quality. She also vowed to upgrade Michigan’s grid, promote energy efficiency and transportation electrification to help bolster the state’s economy, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Evers, the state’s schools superintendent whose election marks a sharp contrast to Gov. Scott Walker (R), said he would support policiesto incentivize renewable energy, specifically small- and medium-scale wind and solar development.

Tyler Huebner, executive director of Renew Wisconsin, sees opportunity for the governor to advance renewable energy development through purchases to power state offices and Wisconsin’s university system.

Unlike expanding Wisconsin’s renewable energy standard, contracting for wind and solar energy to run state offices wouldn’t require legislative approval.

“If Walmart and Apple and Google can do this, we’re a pretty big customer too, as a state,” Huebner said.

Coal questions in Ill.

To the south in Illinois, Pritzker has said little specifically about energy. But he vowed to help Illinois meet its 25 percent renewable energy standard by 2025 and to help steer the state toward 100 percent clean energy by midcentury.

The most immediate energy policy question facing the Illinois governor when he takes office is a pending rulemaking that would give Texas-based power plant owner Vistra Energy Corp. more freedom to run its dirtier and more profitable coal units (Energywire, Oct. 5).

The change, which would cover 18 coal units representing more than 5,000 megawatts, was proposed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s Illinois EPA after closed-door negotiations with Vistra’s predecessor, Dynegy Inc.

The changes proposed to the state’s multi-pollutant standard are complex, but critics, including environmental advocates and Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D), are challenging it on grounds that it would enable Vistra to increase coal plant emissions and keep running dirtier plants in the fleet that otherwise may be shut down.

Ben Inskeep, a policy analyst at EQ Research LLC, a clean energy research firm, said a key way for governors to influence renewable energy development is through appointments to state utility commissions.

While regulators must work within the rigid framework of existing utility laws, and the makeup of commissions takes time to turn over because members serve staggered multiyear terms, the decisions they make can go a long way to shaping the grid.

More broadly, Inskeep said the presence of a state’s chief executive talking publicly about climate change and renewable energy makes a difference.

“Having that kind of leadership in the state can help set the tone and set the priorities for state agencies,” he said.

Another benefit of controlling the governor’s office? The check it provides against the power of the General Assembly. “Having veto power is critical,” Inskeep said.

GOP wins in Ohio

Unlike states where control of governorships is changing, Ohio will swear in a new Republican governor, DeWine, currently the state’s attorney general.

The GOP’s win in Ohio comes as policymakers continue to deal with a handful of lingering issues that could shape the state’s energy future for decades to come. Those issues include a Republican-led effort in the Legislature to scale back or eliminate the state’s renewable energy standard and a bipartisan push to ease setback restrictions for wind turbines (Energywire, June 20).

Bankrupt FirstEnergy Solutions Corp., which has announced plans to shut down its nuclear plants, is making a renewed run at subsidies to help keep them running. And it wouldn’t be surprising to see another attempt by utilities to subsidize two money-losing coal plants along the Ohio River.

Trish Demeter, who oversees energy policy for the Ohio Environmental Council, said it remains to be seen where DeWine lands on various energy issues simmering in Ohio.

A former U.S. senator, DeWine ran on an all-of-the-above energy platform. While he made public comments in support of keeping the state’s nuclear plants running, he’s said little specific about how or at what cost to consumers.

Demeter said her group’s priority is fixing Ohio’s wind setback — an issue it would like to see addressed during the legislative lame-duck session. A bill introduced nearly a year ago by Ohio Sen. Matt Dolan (R) was backed by half of the Senate Republicans. But the issue got tangled in negotiations to ease the state’s renewable and energy efficiency standards.

The debate stalled before the Legislature adjourned for the summer.

Discussions over Ohio’s renewable standard, meanwhile, have dragged on for years.

Republicans passed a bill in 2016 that would have continued a two-year freeze on the renewable mandate, only to see their own party’s governor, John Kasich, veto the measure.

Learner, from the ELPC, said Kasich’s successor will deal with all of the same pressures as he confronts energy questions facing Ohio. Among them: Who will pay the bill for subsidies to keep uneconomical power plants running?

“Gov.-elect DeWine is facing a series of market realities that don’t change with the election,” he said.