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The US' greener red states

Wind and solar energy have put down roots across the US and will keep growing even if Washington turns hostile

The US oil and gas industry felt under siege from Washington during the Obama administration's eight years in office. Yet the numbers show it was a golden age of growth in output and brought a breakthrough for the shale industry. The renewables industry could be in for a similar period during the Trump years, with few friends in Washington but a bustling business nonetheless. Progress will be driven by states where support for the sector is broad and bipartisan.

As renewables costs have plunged and wind and solar power generation have spread across the country, the conversation around them at the state level has quietly forked off into a far different direction from the discourse in Washington.

For lawmakers and policy wonks in the capital, renewables are still intimately linked with the broader discussion around climate change. Acceptance of renewables is considered acceptance that climate change is real and action is needed to head off its damaging effects. Eschewing scientific consensus, many Republicans in Washington now openly reject the premise of human-induced climate change. That's affected their approach to green energy. In his doomed campaign to rescue the coal industry, Donald Trump has painted renewables as ineffective, expensive and a menace to birds.

The latest manifestation of this hostility came in February, when a group of Republican elder statesmen, led by former Secretary of State James Baker, brought a proposal for a revenue-neutral carbon tax to Washington. The plan reflected an idea that ExxonMobil, among others, had advocated in recent years as a market-based answer to emissions pollution. It was a carefully crafted roll out that garnered wide and largely positive media coverage. Yet it landed like a lead balloon in the Republican caucus and has zero chance of passing through a Republican-majority Congress.

The greening of middle America

Things are different at the state level. There, discussion about renewables has moved away from climate change to jobs and investment, much more fertile terrain for bipartisan agreement. Around the same time the carbon tax was proposed, a bipartisan group of 20 governors sent a letter to President Trump urging him to support the renewables industry. The letter pointed out that $100bn has been invested by renewables firms in low-income rural counties, an electoral stronghold for Trump. It also pointed out that wind-power facilities funnel hundreds of millions of dollars a year into rural communities and that the solar industry employed 200,000 people in 2016, and is adding jobs at an impressive clip.

Among the letter's notable signatories was Sam Brownback, the conservative Republican governor of Kansas. Brownback is no climate hawk and called the Clean Power Plan part of "the Obama administration's war against middle America". Yet, under his watch, wind power has grown to 25% of Kansas's electricity mix and he has backed the federal production tax credit to keep investment flowing into his state.

Kansas isn't the only Republican bastion where renewables have taken off. Last year, the Energy Information Administration noted that by 2015 wind power made up more than 10% of electricity generation in 11 states, the top five of which are governed by Republicans.

Then there are the Democrat-led states where concern about climate change is explicitly driving action to expand renewables. California, which has an economy roughly the size of France's, has set a target of reaching 50% renewables in its power mix by 2030. Wind and solar already account for around 15% of the state's electricity generation. New York's renewable portfolio standard also calls for renewables to comprise half of its power mix by 2030. Oregon is targeting the benchmark by 2032 and Washington DC by 2040.

Renewables could even end up being a big winner under Trump's proposed infrastructure spending plans. That is because many of the ideas for where to spend this cash will come from a broad swathe of local and state officials that want to see renewables grow. Indeed, a leaked list of potential projects put forward to the administration shows a number of investments to install wind and solar capacity, to build new transmission lines as well as investing in energy storage and grid modernisation.

Renewables have moved well beyond their days as a cottage industry serving liberally minded coastal types, and are increasingly woven into the communities and economies of middle America. That will make the steady march of renewables difficult to slow.

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