Signal the change ahead, but be skeptical when states pass laws to transform their energy economies but put most of the hardest choices years or decades into the future

Be skeptical when states pass laws to transform their energy economies but put most of the hardest choices years or decades into the future. — Mike Vandenbergh, environmental and energy law at Vanderbilt Law School.

Despite this, he thinks the laws serve an important purpose because they provide a strong signal to companies, especially utilities, about what the future is going to look like.  “All of these are not going to be simple, beautiful, tidy efforts,” he said. “But they signal to utilities that resisting decarbonization is not a viable long-term business strategy, regardless of what the federal government does.”

Underscoring this point, another utility announced plans this week to move to carbon-free electricity. MGE of Wisconsin said it would eliminate fossil fuels from its generation mix by 2050.

“In creating an energy future for our customers and shareholders, we need ambitious and crucial reductions in carbon emissions that align with the work of the scientific community, specifically the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its assessment of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050,” Jeff Keebler, the company’s top executive, said in a statement.

Wisconsin is not one of the nine or so states seriously considering some form of 100 percent clean energy proposal right now. But as the state’s utilities begin to move in that direction, it becomes much easier to see how such a policy would be politically viable.

MGE, which stands for Madison Gas & Electric, has about 150,000 electricity customers and is at least the second Wisconsin utility to make this kind of commitment. Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, which has about 210,000 customers in Wisconsin, announced its 100 percent carbon-free plan in December.

This is not yet a tidal wave of government actions and corporate decisions embracing clean energy, but that wave feels a lot closer than it did just a year ago.

SC: Years of contentious debate over solar power in South Carolina has ended in a unanimous vote for a bill dubbed The Energy Freedom Act.

The bill passed both houses of the South Carolina General Assembly last week, with not a single “no” vote, and has now been signed by Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican.

The bill increases the cap on the amount of rooftop solar generation that is eligible for net metering, the policy that allows solar owners to sell excess power to the utility for a credit. The state’s largest utility, Duke Energy, had hit the 2 percent cap last summer, intensifying the push by consumers and solar advocates for lawmakers to take action. (The 2 percent is rooftop solar’s share of the generation capacity in each utility’s service area.)

The measure also begins the process of changing the rates customers receive for selling excess power. Right now, consumers receive the full retail rate. The new rate or rates would be set by regulators in a future case, which is similar to what is happening in many states as rooftop solar gets more popular. The results vary substantially but usually lead to a decrease in how much credit solar owners receive.

The South Carolina bill is a compromise among many groups, including the utilities. Solar advocates say this is a big step forward and much better than the alternative of letting the cap remain in place.

“We had a good deliberative process on some pretty groundbreaking clean energy legislation,’’ said Rebecca Haynes, deputy director of Conservation Voters of South Carolina, quoted by The State newspaper. “This saves the rooftop solar industry.’’