State policy matters. In our D.C.-centric media universe, that’s easy to forget – the only time we tend to hear about state policy-making these days is when there’s a hot-button social issue at play: gun control or abortion, for example.
But on issues related to energy and the environment, states play a critically important role that is often overlooked. States have access to an array of policy levers – from tax policy to utility regulation – that they can use to move the nation toward a clean energy future.
At Frontier Group, we have been documenting the impact of state policy for more than a decade – showing how state clean energy policies are addressing global warming, reducing water consumption and air pollution, and achieving other important goals.
Our latest report, Lighting the Way: What We Can Learn from America’s Top 12 Solar States, fits squarely into that tradition. The report uses data from the Solar Energy Industries Association to identify the top 12 U.S. states for solar energy per capita, and then compares those states with others based on the degree to which they have adopted a series of pro-solar public policies.
Those 12 states, which account for just 28 percent of the nation’s population, possess 85 percent of the nation’s solar energy capacity. And on every single measure of policy adoption, those 12 states (which we nicknamed the “Dazzling Dozen”) were far more likely to have implemented strong public policies that open the door for solar energy than other states.
Our report shows that there is a clearly defined pathway that any state can follow to jump-start solar energy. You don’t have to be the sunniest state in the country to benefit from solar energy; you just need to have the right policies.
It is important to note that not all of those policies are financial incentives. Financial incentives for solar energy – delivered through renewable energy credit payments, rebates or tax breaks – remain critically important. While the price of solar panels is falling fast, there remain few places in the U.S. where solar energy is cheaper than electricity from the grid. To ensure that the solar energy industry continues to grow to the point where it will be cost-competitive with fossil fuels – a point that is not too far in the future – we will need to continue to find ways to incentivize solar for the time being.
Other steps states can take, however, can be just as important. Zoning policies and solar access laws can remove barriers that might otherwise prevent individuals from “going solar.” Net metering and related policies can ensure that consumers get a price for the solar energy they supply to the grid that corresponds with the benefits that energy delivers to other ratepayers and the public at large. New financing tools can enable citizens to start benefiting from solar energy from Day 1, rather than having to wait years to break even. Government agencies and utilities can do their part, too, by committing to solar as a major source of energy in their procurement decisions.
When it comes to solar energy, where there’s a will, there’s a way. The Dazzling Dozen states show us the way. Let’s hope that other state and local governments, as well as federal decision-makers, muster the will to commit the United States to a clean energy future in which solar power plays a major part in meeting the nation’s energy needs.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.