Energy & Environment

Pushing Ahead on Clean Energy

Without a national clean energy standard, states find new ways to grow green technology.
by | February 2011

For years now, states have far surpassed the federal government in implementing clean energy technologies. That balance isn’t likely to change anytime soon, however, since neither climate change nor green energy will be high priorities in the Republican Congress this spring. Still, even without a nationwide clean energy standard -- and in spite of dwindling American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds -- states continue to move ahead.

"Federal action would drive change more powerfully across the nation as opposed to what can be done on an individual stage," says Robert Keough, assistant secretary for communications and public affairs at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. "But I think states are showing that it is possible and even desirable from an economic standpoint to make real progress in substituting dirty energy with clean energy."

In many ways, the federal delays have given some states time to experiment with renewable energy alternatives beyond traditional options like wind and solar. Iowa, for instance, recently had its first biomass harvest in which it converted biomass into ethanol, and the state is planning to build its first commercially viable plant that converts algae into biofuel. "I think that diversifying our energy portfolio in this country is arguably the most important thing we can do," says former Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, who lost his seat to Republican Terry Branstad this past November.

But states can go only so far. Without a federal energy policy, energy companies can’t really gauge the stability of the U.S. market, which can hamper clean energy expansion on the state and local levels, according to Patrick Quinton, business and industry division manager at the Portland Development Commission in Oregon. "We have made big bets around these companies, and they’re here because they’re looking at the potential of the U.S. market," he says. "But they're not really sure of what the landscape is. Their growth rate would be different if they had certainty around how the U.S. will be treating renewable energy sources in the next 20 years."

In the meantime, states can still push clean energy innovation through key policy strategies, according to A Clean Energy Roadmap: Forging the Path Ahead, a report from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Based on outcomes from three clean energy summits, the report highlights five ways states can help accelerate the national green agenda:

  • Cooperate. Through smart collaboration, governments can create interstate policies that spur the economic development on a regional level.
  • Standardize. With consistent energy policies, states can reduce uncertainty in the market and establish viability for utility companies.
  • Democratize. By opening up access to the power grid, utility companies can bypass operational requirements, and customers can potentially generate and store their own energy.
  • Expand. Cross-sector collaboration can help states create regional energy innovation clusters that promote job creation and accelerate clean tech in the market.
  • Support. With so many universities at the forefront of innovation, states should encourage the development of products and processes, and make investments in commercially viable projects.

States can’t afford to wait, Culver says, because an effective national clean energy policy must start at the state level. "We still need the states to push the limits of what’s possible," he says, "and then shape state and federal policies necessary to help new innovations grow to the next level."


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