State clean energy leadership is providing hope in the fight against climate change.

The U.S. doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to decisive national climate policy. The states, on the other hand, are leading the way to victory.

Clean energy

Sarah Nick

Policy Associate

World leaders are meeting in Glasgow, Scotland to plot the next steps the world will take to address climate change. The U.S. brings a lot of baggage to the table.

The U.S. is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world and is responsible for more of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than any other country. Our federal government has struggled to take strong and consistent actions to address the crisis. While the bipartisan infrastructure bill was approved by Congress last week and the Build Back Better framework, which includes historic investments in clean energy and climate action, continues to creep toward passage, the history of federal involvement on climate change has been disappointing.

The story is quite different, however, at the state level. On issues ranging from clean cars to clean energy, state policy action has led to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and paved the way for even bigger and bolder changes in the future. 

Our latest report, Renewables on the Rise 2021, outlines the remarkable growth of renewable energy and other clean energy technologies over the last decade. 

  • Wind and solar produced 11% of our nation’s electricity in 2020, up from 3% in 2011.
  • In 2019, electricity efficiency programs saved enough electricity to power more than 2.5 million homes.
  • Plug-in electric and battery electric vehicle (PHEV and BEV) sales have surpassed 2 million.
  • Battery storage grew more than 18-fold from 2011 to 2020, and grew by 67% in 2020 alone.

While federal policies such as clean energy tax credits and funding for research and development have helped to fuel those changes, state policy has also played a leading role. According to researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, roughly half of all renewable energy additions since 2000 have been driven by state renewable electricity standards.

Perhaps no state has done as much to drive the growth of clean energy technology as California. Policies like the Million Solar Roofs Initiative (adopted in 2006) and its ambitious renewable electricity standards have accelerated the growth of solar energy in the state to the point where it now produces almost a quarter of the state’s electricity. California also leads the nation in electric vehicle sales, with over 772,000 plug-in vehicles sold since 2011 – in large part due to the state’s zero-emission vehicle requirement, which has since been adopted by a dozen states nationwide.

It is not just “blue” states like California that have taken critical steps to unleash clean energy progress. Texas, certainly no leader on climate change, now produces the most wind energy in the country, in part due to a $7 billion investment in the state grid in the early 2010s that allowed energy produced in windy areas to be transmitted to its cities. 

How much of a dent can state leadership make in America’s overall carbon footprint? It’s a question we asked in reports released in advance of the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 and the Paris conference in 2015. The answer: state policies can make a big difference. Both of those analyses found that state policies then in place, coupled with key steps taken by the Obama administration, went a long way toward meeting the nation’s commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

State leadership has done more than drive short-term emission reductions and put lots of wind and solar power on the grid. As we detail in Renewables on the Rise, the scaling up of wind and solar power, electric vehicles and other clean energy technologies has resulted in economies of scale and technological breakthroughs that are making those technologies cheaper and better with every passing year. A homeowner installing solar panels in Indiana may not live in a state with a strong renewable electricity standard, but they benefit from the reductions in price and improvements in efficiency made possible by other states that have taken the lead.

State leaders in renewable energy are paving the way for the nation to reach its climate goals. Nine states have committed to 100% clean or renewable electricity goals — but that number can and must increase. Federal climate leadership may come and go, but the work of the states —  as well as local governments, businesses, organizations and ordinary Americans — can enable the U.S. to grow into climate leadership, regardless of who is in charge in D.C.

Image via pxfuel


Sarah Nick

Policy Associate