Top 10 state energy legislative issues of 2021

Bill filings show environmental justice, electric vehicles and energy jobs in transition are on state lawmakers’ minds

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Sarah Steinberg is a policy principal at Advanced Energy Economy, an industry association for clean energy companies. This contributed content represents the views of the author, not those of Canary Media.

Since January, Advanced Energy Economy has been tracking hundreds of pieces of energy-related legislation filed in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the United States Congress. With some sessions already over and some just beginning, a number of trends have begun to emerge. Of course, just getting filed does not mean a bill will become law, or even that it stands much of a chance at all. But the patterns that arise in our survey of filed bills (which is by no means exhaustive) say a lot about what’s on lawmakers’ minds. Here is a look at our top 10 energy issues generating legislative activity across the country. (You can read AEE’s full version here, with links to specific bills.)

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The trends that emerge from 2021 legislative filings tell us a few things about the state of energy policy in the United States. First, there is a growing divide between states and lawmakers looking to accelerate the transition to cleaner energy and those looking to hang onto the status quo for a while longer. Among those gunning for rapid transformation, there is a new sector-specific focus, including and especially transportation. There is also an intensifying focus on how to use new growth in the energy industry to support those who have been previously been harmed by environmental or other systemic injustices and those for whom a career pivot is increasingly inevitable. Ultimately, states that can harness the shift that is underway and leverage a new federal focus on clean energy jobs and infrastructure will reap the most benefits. The first step to this, of course, is the introduction of bills.

1. Environmental justice and equity take center stage

Environmental justice (EJ) is appearing more than ever before in state legislatures. EJ-specific bills have been introduced in at least 17 states and the U.S. Congress. Many address facility siting, ensuring that EJ communities participate in public processes and that utilities and public service commissions consider health and environmental impacts when approving projects. These include bills in Massachusetts, New York, Georgia, Virginia, Colorado and Maryland. Notably, a few siting-related bills (in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Virginia, Georgia, Texas, Connecticut and Minnesota) explicitly note the need to identify cumulative impacts, rather than the impacts of each energy-related plan or policy in isolation.

2. In state fleets, electric motors get phased in as internal combustion engines get phased out

As states set goals to electrify and decarbonize their transportation sectors, they are running up against a hard truth: Consumer choices about personal transportation vehicles are not entirely within their control. But states do have direct authority over the procurement of public vehicles. With that in mind, many are considering bills to set phase-in schedules for state, county, municipality and transit agency light‑, medium‑, and heavy-duty zero-emission vehicles into their fleets. States where such legislation has been filed include Arizona, Maryland, Vermont, Hawaii, New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Other bills in Arizona, Minnesota, Hawaii, New Jersey, Connecticut and California set priorities or provide incentives for government agencies to favor zero-emissions vehicles for purchase.

3. States debate the future of natural gas

With coal in retreat nationwide, the push to decarbonize has begun to move beyond power plants and all the way into new homes and buildings, now with a focus on natural gas. However, this shift is not without opposition. Dozens of municipalities in California, Massachusetts, Washington and Colorado are looking to restrict natural-gas hookups in new or significantly renovated construction, and some state legislators have begun to push back, even taking preemptive action to prevent, or reverse, such natural gas bans. Arizona, Oklahoma and Tennessee passed legislation in 2020 to preempt localities from passing ordinances or raising fees to prohibit or otherwise restrict the use of any utility service based on its source of energy, and other states are now using the same playbook. So far in 2021, similar language has popped up in at least 18 states. Such bills have already signed by governors in Indiana, Kentucky, Arkansas, Utah, Wyoming, Mississippi, Iowa, Alabama, Georgia, Texas and West Virginia.

States with legislation taking a broader approach to considering the future of natural gas in a low-carbon energy system include Washington, Nevada and Massachusetts.

4. Legislating resilience against climate and weather threats

No surprise here: Grid resilience and emergency management take a top 10 spot in 2021. What might be surprising is the range of approaches that legislators are taking to prepare for the expected unexpected. Also notable is that some bills are going further to consider the interdependence of vulnerable infrastructure and systems, including water, gas and agriculture. Texas tops our list of states that have been thinking about resilience, with over 60 bills filed this session to respond to the devastating February power outages. California is next, evaluating bills to authorize bonds to fund wildfire prevention, drought preparation, flood protection and safe drinking water, for example. A Colorado bill would create a Natural Disaster Mitigation Enterprise to collect fees on insurance companies for mitigation measures, while bills in Oregon and Washington target wildfire risks and restoration. On the opposite coast and vulnerable in different ways, Florida has looked at similar bills that focus on resiliency.

5. What should EV drivers pay?

State legislatures across the country are having tough conversations about the future of their roads and highways, and how to pay for their upkeep. In most states, the gasoline taxes that were supposed to pay for roadway maintenance have not changed in decades, not even keeping pace with inflation. Rising fuel efficiency has meant that revenue from gas-powered travel has dropped. Into that conundrum have come electric vehicles, which don’t pay the gas tax because they don’t use gasoline at all. Though market share of EVs in most states is still between 1% and 2% — not nearly enough to impose wear and tear” on the road or make a dent in state highway funds — plug-in vehicles have gotten swept up into transportation infrastructure funding debates. These cars are increasingly being required to pay more than their fair share, which could discourage their adoption.

At least 14 states have seen legislation proposing flat annual or biannual registration fees or increases to existing plug-in vehicle registration fees, but a handful of others are getting more creative. These with bills looking to impose special costs on EV owners include Montana, Louisiana, Texas, Utah, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and North Dakota. Oklahoma and Nevada have bills that propose to charge EV drivers a tax or surcharge on the electricity that they use. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a California bill proposes to repeal the state’s existing $100 EV fee.

6. An offshore wind blows through coastal legislatures

While the rise in offshore wind legislation may be limited to coastal states, it is nevertheless a trend that continues to grow. A number of states have seen bills filed to set or increase procurement targets, including California, Oregon, New Jersey, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Bills in Virginia and New York focus on domestic or in-state manufacturing, giving priority to offshore wind projects that benefit their state economies, while bills in Massachusetts and the U.S. House of Representatives look to harness the workforce development potential of this renewable resource. On the flip side, Maine and South Carolina bills would require that all wind facility applications demonstrate that they will not adversely impact military operations before receiving approval.

7. Extending final lifelines for coal

Across the country, coal-fired generation is on its way out, no longer cost-effective or sufficiently flexible to operate in an increasingly dynamic and market-driven energy environment. Indeed, legislation allowing for securitization to reduce the coast of coal plant retirement is on the rise in Missouri, Indiana, Kansas and Minnesota. Still, lawmakers in a number of states are attempting to buck the trend. States that passed legislation this year to try to save their coal-fired power plants include Wyoming, Arkansas, West Virginia, North Dakota and South Dakota. Bills to do so are still pending in Montana.

8. What happens to workers?

As the clean energy transition powers forward, questions remain about how to best help workers displaced from fossil fuel industries. As a result, energy workforce considerations are appearing in an increasing number of bills across the country. Specifically workforce-focused bills have been filed in Illinois, Texas, Colorado and Massachusetts. Bills in Maine, Connecticut and Maryland would impose workforce-development requirements on certain renewable energy projects. Bills within which workforce is one piece among others have been filed in Rhode Island, Florida, Virginia and West Virginia, with the latter calling for education, training and retraining opportunities for displaced coal miners.

9. The rise of renewable natural gas

As states grapple with questions about the long-term viability of greenhouse gas-emitting natural gas, renewable natural gas has piqued some legislators’ interest as a potential pathway for use of existing pipeline infrastructure in a zero-carbon future, while environmental advocates remain skeptical. Bills to allow or promote the use of renewable natural gas — including some that set explicit targets — have been filed in Missouri, Florida, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Connecticut, Maine, New Jersey, Colorado and Illinois.

10. Electrifying parking spaces

Mass deployment of charging infrastructure is seen as at least half the battle to reach mass adoption of EVs. But new construction is not often coming prewired for the eventual installation of Level 2 chargers. Rarer still is the charging station itself, even though retrofitting parking spaces later to host charging infrastructure can be expensive and disruptive. Legislators across the country are looking to either mandate enough electrical capacity to host EVs through legislation or direct state agencies to add make-ready” requirements for future charging capacity into building codes. States considering such measures include New York, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Virginia, North Carolina, California, Pennsylvania, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Arizona.

(Article image courtesy of Joey Csunyo) 

Sarah Steinberg leads Advanced Energy Economy’s legislative engagement in Nevada and assists on the legislative and regulatory front in Colorado and Indiana.