The Future of the Climate Debate Is in the Laboratories of Democracy

A key fight over efforts to curb climate change is happening in the relative anonymity of various state legislatures. Colorado just voted to increase its use of renewable energy. North Carolina voted to do the opposite. But only one side wins.

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A key fight over efforts to curb climate change is happening in the relative anonymity of various state legislatures. This week, Colorado voted to increase its use of renewable energy, while the North Carolina State Senate voted to do the opposite. But only one side won.

Environmentalists have long pushed increases in the use of renewable energy. As the EPA notes, coal power production is the number one contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Many of those power plants are owned by public utilities. In asking legislatures to allocate a percentage of that generation to renewable sources, advocates simultaneously boosted the renewable sector and decreased the amount of pollution it created.

Both Colorado and North Carolina implemented allocations, generally referred to as renewable energy standards. But the two states are in vastly different places on renewable energy use. North Carolina is in the middle of the pack in terms of percent of energy generation that's renewable. Colorado is near the bottom. Here's the percent of each state's energy portfolio that was renewable according to the Department of Energy. Several states generate all of their energy from renewable sources.

Those ratios are changing. Earlier this week, Colorado's legislature voted to boost the percentage of energy it gets from renewables, focusing on an increase in rural areas. Though the measure passed on a party-line vote, as the Huffington Post reported, many rural representatives advocated for the measure, arguing that it would bring needed jobs in solar and wind. Mirroring the traditional debate on the topic, Republicans argued against the proposal, suggesting that the increased use of renewables would increase utility bills. While electricity from coal power is generally cheaper (if you exclude the external costs associated with it) the cost gap between fossil- and renewable-based generation has shrunk significantly.

The jobs argument, on the other hand, wasn't enough to protect North Carolina's renewable standard in the Senate. In a highly contentious vote last night, the body moved to end its program. The Raleigh News & Observer described the scene, tallied after a controversial voice vote.

Republicans are split on the legislation that would end a state policy of requiring electric utilities to buy green electricity from solar farms and other renewable generators.

At least a half-dozen Republicans voted with Democrats against the controversial bill Wednesday. Supporters say the program has created new jobs and generated economic activity.

Opponents in North Carolina were bolstered by support from various conservative groups, a number of which have made the repeal of renewable standards a key priority. The News & Observer notes that "American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform and The Heartland Institute are among the organizations pushing to make North Carolina a testing ground for rolling back policies that favor renewable energy." Those groups aren't alone. The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council has similarly targeted the policies, prompting a number of renewable companies to end their memberships. Several of the organizations, including ALEC and the Heartland Institute have ties to the fossil fuel industry — which supports rollbacks of renewable energy standards for fairly obvious reasons.

America is slowly embracing renewable energy, which is why the sector is facing increased friction. For environmentalists desperate to address looming climate change, any slowdown in progress is bad news. A slow victory, in other words, is hardly a victory at all.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.