Environment

The 7 States Leading the Charge for Clean Energy

Solar, wind and other green power projects are sprouting even in the most polluted of places.

A solar farm near Rifle, Colorado.
Photo Credit: Tara Lohan

Full disclosure. I'm greenvesting thousands in solar and other no-brainer renewable energy alternatives, because I want to help save the world from an exponential mass extinction thanks to crap energy policy. 

Sure, some bigshot and small-time "investors" and "innovators" may be in it for the money (see: Anschutz Corporation, below), but these days who cares? Climate change's clock is short. Thankfully, solar, wind and other green power projects are popping even in the most polluted of places.

What brings them all together are the inevitable political and economic compromises born of resource shortages and shared cosmology. For all of our imagined differences, we share the same singular paradise spinning through space. But we're knowingly trashing it at light-speed, when we could be living clean off the sun, sea and wind.

"Civilization has been around for thousands of years," the Solar Energy Industries Association's new spokesveep Ken Johnson told AlterNet. "The idea that we're going to pretty much blow through most of our natural energy resources in a couple hundred years is pretty frightening. What are we going to do about future generations? Just shrug our shoulders and say, Sorry! We enjoyed it while we were here. Good luck, and try burning wood again! That's just not an option."

The solar sector's explosive year so far is one brilliant alternative Johnson is aware of, having migrated to SEIA from the cozy political and industry environs of Capitol Hill, Homeland Security, PhRMA and more. He's following the money like the rest of us. From massive investments from billionaires like Warren Buffet to recent stock-market performances that shame new-school blue-chips like Apple and Google, the renewables sector is on an evolutionary roll, gaining significant momentum across what advertisers like to call Democrat and Republican territories. 

Here's a refresher on the realities of recent green blooms in red states and blue, including some who may be worse polluters than you think, like the so-called Golden State, land of airborne lung death.

1. California

For all of the Golden State's leadership when it comes to pathbreaking the green economy, it remains the United States' most confused paradise. American Lung Association's list of America's most polluted cities scores several California notables across brackets, led by Los Angeles and cities smack dab in the state's breadbasket. California also ranks second in America's highest CO2 emissions, after Texas, which is the worst state in the country. Sure, California's per-capita CO2 emissions are lower than almost every state in the country, but it still annually spews out nearly 400,000 metric tons of CO2 on top of its reigning particle and ozone pollution. As a figurative country within a country, populated by so-called red and blue cities the size of states, California still has a long way to go before it can truly call itself a green state.

But it's on the right track, said Johnson. "We're trending in the right direction. Lancaster, which is under Republican leadership, has mandated solar on all new construction. Palo Alto recently approved contracts which will have the city getting 18 percent of its electricity from solar." 

Ivanpah—billed as "the largest solar plant under construction in the world" by its bankrollers Brightsource, Google and NRG—will bring on hundreds of megawatts of generating capacity. Warren Buffet's twin Solar Star farms in nearby Antelope Valley are together larger than Ivanpah, which is why he doubled down a cool billion to further fund construction. It's no accident that after he did just that, Sunpower, who built his solar stars, watched its stock skyrocket to a 52-week high. (Full disclosure: It's also no accident that I've greenvested in Sunpower since last year.) Because rich and poor alike know that solar is simply a no-brainer.

And yet Ivanpah and Solar Star are within spitting distance of Owens Lake, drained decades ago to create Los Angeles' image industry and unsustainable sprawl. L.A.'s continuing legal battles with Owens Lake over geoengineering's inevitable blowback should be a sobering reminder that Los Angeles and California need to seriously crank up their ambition before the rest of America takes them seriously as scolds.

2. Texas

Ivanpah may be in California, but its behemoth energy co-parent NRG is based in New Jersey and Texas, which annually farts out over 650,000 metric tons of CO2. NRG recently closed a deal to annually provide half of Houston's electricity using solar, which would rule if the state wasn't right behind California in ozone pollution, or well above the national average in per capita CO2 emissions. 

“Houston is already known as the energy capital of the world, but we are committed to becoming the alternative energy capital of the world as well," said Mayor Annise Parker, whose metropolis is now reportedly the largest buyer of municipal renewable power in America. It's almost enough to erase memories of Reliant Energy's sinister role in California's manufactured energy "crisis" or that energy corporation is one of America's worst CO2 emitters.

But Texas is nevertheless leaning green, especially on the municipal level, and it's not alone. "A lot of new solar is going to come online this year," said Johnson. "We've got 30 utility-scale projects under construction around the country. Other areas are watching carefully to see how solar takes hold, but costs to consumers have dropped by more than 40 percent. So solar is rapidly becoming very competitive with traditional energy sources. And we're doing it without adversely impacting the environment. So despite the amazing progress solar has made, its best days are ahead."

3. Iowa

Responsible for some of the nation's lamest Republican leadership and per-capita CO2 emissions, Corn Belt states like Iowa, Indiana and others stick out like a sore dinosaur's thumb when it comes to the so-called red states. But they are making better and better green-state bedfellows, as global warming inevitably dries out their powerhouse farming industries and economies. 

Routinely advertised as America's heartland, Iowa reportedly generates a higher percentage of its energy from wind power than any other state. Along with his cool billion on California solar, Buffet also recently dropped two cooler billions on wind farms in Iowa, the largest investment in economic development in state history. Iowa governor Terry Branstad may be a red-state Republican, but he's still parted ways with the GOP on obvious green-state solutions like wind energy, and it's likely going to take a Democrat with more ambition to beat his environmentally friendly track record.

“The stakes for the wind industry and the country in general will only get worse with delay," warned Iowa's senator Charles Grassley, along with a host of other Republicans evidently hell-bent for greener pastures on the Red State Renewable Alliance's official site. That includes politicians from GOP strongholds like Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and more in fierce favor of the government's Production Tax Credit (PTC), whose subsidies have galvanized the Midwest's renewable energy portfolio, especially in wind. 

It is a supreme green irony, given the region wastes no shortage of hot air when it comes to admitting global warming is actually happening. Whatever works, dude.

4. Colorado

What the PTC is to Midwest wind, the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) is to nationwide solar. They serve the same function: Backstopping renewable energy policy and economic investment with the power of the government's purse, which in turn entices greedier private capital off the sidelines. And one state developing clever variations on the ITC is Colorado, which has ridden the fence between being a red or blue state for about as long as the reductive binary metaphor has been in contemporary usage.

"Senator Mark Udall of Colorado recently introduced the Solar Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) Act," explained Johnson. "Today, if you put solar into your business or home, you qualify for the ITC's 30 percent tax credit, but you're not eligible if you pool your resources together as a community. Senator Udall's legislation would allow those who pool their community resources into a solar facility to receive the same tax advantages."

"This bill ensures that all homeowners are eligible for the individual renewable energy tax credit even if they participate in solar farms because their homes are unsuitable for solar panels," Udall said in June. "The SUN Act makes our tax laws fairer and encourages all homeowners to contribute to our nation's pursuit of true energy independence." Whether these homes can continue to stand in a state experiencing some of the most destructive firestorms in the drying state's history—which only promises to get warmer, faster—remains an open question.

Either way, the ITC should remain, explained Johnson.

"Since the ITC went into effect, we've tripled the numbers of jobs in America," he told AlterNet. "Last year alone, investment in solar doubled from $6 billion to $12 billion. The number of businesses has grown from a handful to more than 5,000. Clearly, solar is having a huge impact on the economy; it's one of the fastest growing industries in America."

"All we are asking for is a fair fight when it comes to the energy sector," he added. "The oil and gas industries have enjoyed tax benefits embedded into the code for nearly 100 years. The ITC has only been on the books since 2006. So given a fair playing field, we have clearly demonstrated that solar can compete with any other energy source."

5. Pennsylvania

The less said about Pennsylvania's filthy energy sector, which includes way too much coal and nuclear power, the better. Because it is extensive and tortured, and still annually responsible for over 250 metric tons of CO2, third worst behind California and Texas. Pittsburgh alone is a reigning particle polluter nationwide, so it's nearly safe to say that the state has hardly anywhere to go but up when it comes to being green.

And it's slowly moving that direction. With a steady stream of Appalachian winds at its back, Pennsylvania has over 20 wind power projects online and more on the way. One of red state's few Democratic politicians, state senator John Wozniak recently introduced legislation that would build another farm on state forest land that used to house a strip mine. Wozniak's proposal comes at a crucial time when entrenched Pennsylvania coal interests are wringing their hands over the potential of President Obama's recent climate action speech to throttle environmentally unsustainable coal production.

"We're not going to reopen coal mines," prophesied Jake Smeltz, president of Pennsylvania's Electric Power Generation Association industry group. "We're not going to reconstitute rail lines that deliver coal. We're not going to fire up boilers that have sat unused. When you say goodbye, you really do say goodbye."

Yeah, that's the point. That kind of change could come faster to Pennsylvania if its lowly Republican incumbent governor Tom Corbett loses to a Democratic challenger like John Hanger, former Secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, who has made industry regulation and renewables a tentpole of his candidacy. He's up against a fellow DEP Secretary in Democrat Kathleen McGinty, meaning the much-needed green-state upgrades that currently red-state Pennsylvania desperately needs could come faster than before.

6. Georgia

And then there is the South, out of which Georgia, spewing out over 170,000 metric tons of CO2 per year, stands pretty firm as a red state suffering from the intensified ravages of global warming, whether that's tornadoes, hurricanes or sea level rise. Perhaps that's why it has jumped more heartily into the renewable energy future other states are already working hard to bring to fruition. 

"With respect to some of the newer places where solar is going gangbusters, Georgia Power's Advanced Solar Initiative, which was approved by the George Public Service Commission late last year, is a good example," Johnson said. "The ASI will drive 90-210mw of new installation in Georgia by the end of 2016." 

Not bad for a state nowhere near the nation's top 25 in installed capacity. Billing itself as "the nation's largest voluntary solar portfolio" may be a stretch—it's still early, after all—but there's nothing wrong with being a bit confident after you've been way too complacent. Especially since Georgia's neighbor Florida, otherwise known as the Sunshine State, is quaqmired in a dirty energy portfolio with zero leadership pointing the way forward. Heavily dependent on coal, nuclear and gas, and in danger of drowning thanks to climate change, much of Florida is stuck in the 20th century and needing inspiration. Maybe it can find some in Georgia.

7. Wyoming

As the home of Dick Cheney, and the highest per-capita CO2 emissions in America (by an unbelievable country mile), Wyoming is about as red as states come, despite its heavily green environs and the fact that it receives more per-capita federal tax dollars nationwide than any other state. With dirty mining and declining agriculture as the prime drivers of its economy, the Equality State, as it is officially known, has a pretty unequal renewable energy portfolio. While it has evidently little problem unearthing death-bringers like coal, methane, oil, gas and even uranium, Wyoming traditionally hasn't been able to muster the same extractive enthusiasm for clean fuels.

But even staunch Wyoming is caving to climate change's new realities. A state with some of the highest wind power potential in America, Wyoming has experienced a land rush in the last few years intent on capitalizing on its dormant renewable market. And while it's been years in the making, the state's massive Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind farms are reputed to be the largest in the world. Another Wyoming-based wind project, the Transwest Express, recently released a draft environmental review to build a 725-mile electricity corridor bringing 3,000 megawatts to the desert Southwest and perhaps even California. The fact that it is bankrolled by the Anschutz Corporation—a George W. Bush bankroller that mindlessly lobbied against the Kyoto Protocol and same-sex marriage while defending creationism—might not sit well with the more scientifically inclined Golden State. 

Then again, maybe you should read California's entry again for a sobering refresher on its blue-state credentials. Hopefully, all of the United States will bleed green before the nation bleeds out from a self-inflicted wound brought on by an unsustainable dependence on dirty fuels.

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.