Is There an Energy Partisan Divide?

Look to the States to Understand Renewable Energy in the U.S.

by Kathleen Hancock
CSTPR Faculty Affiliate, Associate Professor, Colorado School of Mines

Photos by Kathleen Hancock

The United States seems to be regressing when it comes to renewable energy with Republicans leading the way.  But this picture is incomplete.  There is strong evidence that the current White House antipathy toward renewables, and support for coal, is off-set by state-led initiatives, even in solidly Republican states.

At the presidential level, there has often but not always been a partisan divide.  In the 1970’s, following the OPEC crisis, the U.S. shared with Germany world leadership in investing in renewable energy (Laird and Stefes, 2009). The issue was not politicized.  However, while Germany continued on an upward path of embracing renewables, the U.S. leadership on renewables collapsed when Democratic President Jimmy Carter was replaced by Republican Ronald Reagan. Most recently, Barack Obama introduced the Clean Power Plan linking Democrats with renewable energy.  Announced in 2015, the Plan called for three building blocks: improve coal-fired power plants to reduce carbon, replace coal plants with ones fueled by natural gas, and increase zero-emission sources like wind and solar.  Obama also signed the Paris Accords calling for reduced emissions to mitigate climate change.  There was even a brief period in which the U.S. seemed poised to resume a global leadership position: Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed their states, the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters, would work together to reduce emissions.

Obama’s advocacy for renewables was quickly abandoned when Republican Donald Trump – whose primary pre-election comment on climate change was a 2010 tweet suggesting it is a Chinese hoax ­– assumed the presidency.  More recently, Trump dismissed his own administration’s warnings about catastrophes related to climate change, stating simply “I don’t believe it.”  When it comes to energy sources, Trump is most strongly associated with a pro-coal stance, a position consistent with a lack of concern about climate change and that goes against support for renewable energy.

Adding to the evidence that Republicans are anti-renewable energy, Trump’s views are supported by a slight majority of his party’s rank and file.  A 2017 Pew opinion poll found that 81% of Democrats say alternative sources (generally assumed to be solar and wind) should be the most important priority for addressing America’s energy supply, whereas only 45% of Republicans supported that view.

Considering Carter vs. Reagan and Obama vs. Trump, is it fair to say that Republicans oppose renewables while Democrats embrace them?  Recent research shows that is not the full story.   

The key to answering the partisan question is to look at individual U.S. states (Emmons Allison and Parinandi, Forthcoming). There we find that the U.S. is collectively making strides toward including more renewables.  Some states are doing it quietly; others boastfully.  In addition, unusual coalitions sometimes form to push through policies favoring renewables. 

Before assessing state differences, it is critical to distinguish among the uses for energy.  The U.S Energy Information Administration reports five categories of energy consumption:  electric power (38%), transportation (29%), industrial (22%), residential (6%), and commercial (5%).  Electric power produces most of our electricity while the other four use most of that electricity.  Source uses vary widely by category. For example, oil accounts for about 92% of transportation but only 1% of electricity.  

To focus the discussion, let’s look only at electricity.  In this sector, renewables are playing a larger role than many might have expected, although fossil fuels combined still dominate the sector, as shown in Figure 1.  Renewables include hydropower, solar, wind, hydro, biofuels, and geothermal. These figures are for utility-scale only.  Rooftop solar, one of the most important forms of distributed energy, has also been steadily rising as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 1: Fuel sources for electricity in the United States, 2018. Source:  U.S. Energy Information Agency.

To check for a partisan divide, we can break down electricity generation and politics state-by-state. Specifically, do Democratic states have the highest production of renewables?  The answer is no.   As shown in Figure 3, a good mix of Republican and Democratic states make up the top renewable energy producers. The dominant political party shown here is based on which party has the majority in the state legislature and the party of the governor as well as the majority party according to a 2018 Gallop opinion poll.  If the same party had two of three of these indicators, it is scored for that party.  Only North Carolina shows as purple due to a mixed response on the Gallup poll, a Republican state legislature, and a Democratic governor.  This is only a snapshot meant to give an indication of party dominance which does change over time.  Still, many of these states have long been dominated by the same party. 

Renewable energy is commonly broken into two categories: traditional large hydroelectric power and other renewables, primarily wind and solar.  Hydroelectric has been around for decades whereas wind and solar are relatively new at the utility-scale. The largest hydro producer is the Democratic state of Washington while Republican Texas overwhelms the others with its high wind-sourced production. 

Figure 3: Top U.S. states for renewable energy. Notes: a. Generation for utility-scale electricity, 2018. b. Includes top 10 for non-hydro, mostly solar and wind and top 10 for traditional hydroelectric (with asterisks).  California scores in the top 10 for both categories.

While the numbers show renewables are not strictly a partisan issue, to understand how we get these numbers, one must understand the political processes behind getting more renewables. Political science frameworks suggest we should find key advocacy coalitions pushing for policies that open the door to more renewables. (For an example from Africa, see Hancock. 2015).

Looking for such coalitions, political scientists Michaël Aklin and Johannes Urpelainen compare the politics of renewable energy in the U.S., Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, and the U.K. (Aklin and Urpelainen, 2018).  While Aklin and Urpelainen focus on the national level (with the exception of California) their approach can be adapted to politics within the U.S. states.  Using their framework, we would expect to see pro-environmental groups, renewable energy industry representatives, and agricultural groups (who can earn money leasing land to wind farm developers) pushing for more renewable energy.  Indeed, wind farms are popping up around the country, with a vast number of them in Texas, sometimes right along side crops and oil wells.

Two vignettes demonstrate how this type of advocacy coalition can form regardless of the larger political landscape. First, South Carolina, a solidly Republican state, was once considered one of the least friendly states for solar energy.  In May 2019, South Carolina went from the state “where solar power rarely shines” to eliminating artificial barriers to solar installations and extending solar credits until at least 2021.  What accounts for this change?  Several factors were at work. A critical catalyst was the financial collapse of a nuclear power plant.  In 2006, South Carolina was one among several states that passed legislation to encourage nuclear power. With Congress talking about possible carbon taxes, nuclear energy seemed like a good idea.  But $9 billion later and construction far from finished, the state decided to pull the plug on nuclear. This opened the previously closed door to renewable energy. 

Second, in Nevada, a well-known wealthy Republican, who was also a key advocate and “patron-in-chief” of then-candidate Donald Trump, Sheldon Adelson, became a strong advocate for solar energy, playing a key role in taking on NV Energy, by far the largest electric utility in Nevada.  In this case, the high energy consumption costs associated with running a casino trumped any skepticism of climate change.  Able to produce their own solar energy, casinos can significantly cut costs.

While the national government’s actions – especially with the Trump administration’s rollback of key environmental laws and regulations – can give the impression that the U.S. is stuck in the fossil fuel world, the reality is that states are making significant strides toward embracing renewable energy, often for economic and health reasons, rather than climate change.  As they do so, the coalition backing renewable energy grows stronger, further cementing the transition that other leading countries, like Germany, have been building from the top down.  There will be a day, it seems, when renewable energy will no longer be politically contested, even in the United States.

Laird, F.N. and C. Stefes, 2009. “The diverging paths of German and United States policies for renewable energy: Sources of difference.” Energy Policy 37:2619-2629.

Emmons Allison, J. and S. Parinandi, Forthcoming 2020. “Energy Politics of the United States” in Oxford Handbook of Energy Politics. Ed. Kathleen J. Hancock and Juliann Emmons Allison.   

Hancock, K.J., 2015. “Energy Regionalism and Diffusion in Africa:  How political actors created the ECOWAS Center for Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency.”  Energy Research & Social Science 5:105-115.

Aklin, M. and J. Urpelainen, 2018.  Renewables: The Politics of a Global Energy Transition. MIT Press.

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