Even when the federal government wages war against clean energy, states can build their own robust solar industries with the right governor in charge. Or they can fall behind with an obstructive, anti-solar leader.
Two Northeast states have seen it both ways.
Maine’s former Governor Paul LePage (R) was about as hostile to solar as possible during his eight-year tenure. LePage vetoed multiple bills that would have assisted the solar industry in the last three years of his term, so it’s no surprise the state only had about 35 to 40 MW of solar to its name, according to Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association (MREA). That number even included multiple solar arrays at small liberal arts colleges, like Bowdoin College and Colby College.
“Meanwhile, we were all sitting up here watching most of the rest of New England — and, frankly, a fairly big chunk of the rest of the country — moving forward on this, and that was pretty frustrating I think for a lot of us,” Payne said.
Maine doesn’t have a ton of natural resources, but it does have what it takes to make solar work: lots of open space, plentiful skilled workers and supportive residents, he said.
So when then-candidate Janet Mills (D) campaigned on solving climate change and prioritizing renewables, it was a welcome shift to say the least.
“She really helped change the tone of the conversation, and that’s been critical,” Payne said.
Mills just took office at the beginning of 2019, but Payne already sees signs that the solar industry is reinvigorated. Ten new members have joined MREA since December 2018, which is unusual.
Payne said it’s too early to tell the effect the new administration will have on the market, but it’s looking promising. In June, Mills signed three pieces of bipartisan legislation into law to help renewable energy. The bills created a goal to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, double the RPS and form new solar incentive programs. During the bill signing, Mills tweeted, “Maine is once again leading on clean energy.”
Mills’ support was very helpful in turning solar policy around in Maine, but the fact that the Democrats secured control of the House, Senate and governorship in the 2018 election is also a big factor. Still, Payne thinks even without that trifecta control, pro-solar bills would’ve had a good chance of being passed — after all, the sponsor of the solar incentive bill was a Republican.
“I think part of that is an outgrowth, frankly, of people’s frustration and, at least in my case, boredom with the previous governor’s irrational opposition to all things clean energy,” Payne said.
While having Gov. Mills on the solar industry’s side now is helpful, he doesn’t think it’s the only way to pass clean energy legislation. It really depends on who else is advocating for solar in the state.
“If you’ve got your Senate President, your Speaker of the House, members of the minority party’s leadership team and others [in favor of solar], you can overcome a governor that opposes it. We nearly did,” Payne said.
Now that the state has support from nearly all angles though, more time can be spent determining the best ways to make solar grow in Maine instead of working on convincing leaders of its usefulness.
“We’re looking forward to seeing the shackles being taken off solar and watching it grow for everybody’s benefit across the state,” Payne said.
New Jersey’s new solar outlook
New Jersey dealt with similar solar stalling from former Governor Chris Christie (R). Christie was not as much of a solar obstructionist as Maine’s LePage, but he wavered back and forth on solar policy during his eight years in office.
Pari Kasotia, Mid-Atlantic director for Vote Solar, said Christie appeared to support solar in some decisions, like in 2012 when he signed a bill stabilizing solar incentives, because it was a major aspect of the state’s economy. That year, Greentech Media even called him “the rare solar-friendly Republican.”
But favorable legislation was bookended by slaps in the face to the solar industry. When Christie first took office, he cut the state’s RPS from 30% to 22.4%, and when he was leaving office in 2018, he pocket vetoed a bill that would have raised the RPS and the solar carve-out.
Kasotia said it’s possible Gov. Christie made the outgoing veto decision to align himself with the Trump administration’s energy priorities in the hope of securing a cabinet position. It was confusing to the industry to see the governor support bills that helped solar one moment and then strike down legislation the next.
“It almost seemed like he would be in conflict with his own personal beliefs vs. what his supporters or his party expected from him,” she said. “In comparison, he’s still better than other Republican governors, but New Jersey is also a very progressive state, so did he fully reflect the values of New Jersey? I don’t think he did.”
So when then-candidate Phil Murphy (D) entered the race with a clear vision for New Jersey’s solar future, it was a welcome change for advocates.
“He was just very visionary. He recognized that clean energy is an important part of New Jersey’s economy, but it’s also important to address climate change,” Kasotia said. “So he took the environmental view as well as the economic value the clean energy industry created.”
Nicole Sitaraman, senior manager of public policy at Sunrun, entered the solar industry near the end of Christie’s time as governor but said she noticed his administration wasn’t interested in going deeper on solar and looking at issues of access, inclusion and environmental justice. But candidate Murphy was.
“I had never heard of that before, of a candidate making environmental justice a part of their campaign,” Sitaraman said. “But he did, and it really reflected that he had been listening to community leaders and champions for environmental justice (EJ) in the state and really took their input and advice to elevate that as a key component of moving the state forward on climate issues and clean energy expansion.”
Kasotia said Vote Solar’s only issue with the current Murphy administration is it wants to see more concrete policy steps it will take to address EJ issues — including Vote Solar and the EJ coalition’s goals of solarizing 250,000 low-income solar households by 2030 and installing 400 MW of storage for low-income communities and those historically adversely affected by fossil fuel development. To that end, Vote Solar has started a coalition of solar and EJ groups to strategize about next steps for expanding access to solar and battery storage to more communities throughout the state. Those advocates, including Sunrun, then plan to reach out to the governor’s office to incorporate these goals into future legislation.
Aside from more explicit EJ action, it appears Gov. Murphy is doing right by solar advocates in New Jersey. In May 2018, he signed a multi-faceted bill intended to stabilize and expand the state’s renewable energy sector and extend the benefits to more communities by establishing a community solar program.
“You definitely want strong leadership at the top who is clear on what they want to see in the state,” Kasotia said. “I think governors do have an integral role to play in shaping the clean energy policy of a state, and Gov. Murphy has shown how it can impact how quickly work gets done.”
Electing a pro-solar governor can make it easier and faster to pass legislation that helps grow the solar industry without leaving any residents behind.