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How the West Was Won and How Congress Can Win America’s Energy Future | Commentary

Congress is running out of time to drive new economic development this year, during a year when most Americans agree that new jobs and smarter economic choices are paramount. With just a few days left in session, while there are many important issues to address, it’s imperative that Congress focus on a subject all Americans agree on: economic development and jobs.

Featuring the 21st century bonanza in the West, a new report released at the recent Renewable Energy Finance Forum details the rapid spread of renewable energy across the western states. This study by the American Council On Renewable Energy solidifies a theme familiar to the West — lucrative opportunities are drawing droves of pioneers, investors, and entrepreneurs to lay claim to abundant western resources.

Think of this rapid western development as a modern day gold rush — except far more sustainable.

With limited time on its hands, Congress should know two things before it adjourns: How did the West win so much renewable energy capacity and investment? And how can we help this development spread to the rest of the country?

The fact is, there’s really no great secret, just look at the series of regional and state-by-state market assessments.

Renewable energy projects of every size and type are appearing at a growing rate in the vast lands of the western states. Utility-scale solar, wind, geothermal, and other projects, as well as homeowners and businesses, are harvesting the infinite renewable resources found across the West. More than two-thirds of the country’s new capacity additions occurred in western states in 2013. Six western states now generate more than 20 percent of their electricity from renewables. The region also attracted well over a third of the country’s combined venture capital, private equity, and asset finance investment in the renewable energy sector in 2013.

Most notably, the report found high market demand to be the biggest catalyst to renewable energy growth. Western citizens are calling for cleaner energy sources. With climate change and drought taking a poignant toll on western states, many see renewables as a sustainable, practical, and affordable way of producing homegrown electricity, thermal energy, and transportation fuel. Public opinion polls show that a vast majority of westerners favor renewables over fossil fuels, but perhaps more importantly, most business leaders — 73 percent — see renewables as an attractive future investment. Furthermore, because many renewable technologies use little to no water, turning to renewable energy is one of the most logical ways of generating electricity in the present water crisis.

The West’s rush of renewables also has everything to do with location. The western region is both figuratively and literally fertile ground for renewable energy development. Well known for its innovation, the region has attracted companies and research institutions to develop cutting-edge clean energy technologies and systems — such as wave energy, algal biofuels, and enhanced geothermal systems. Additionally, the region’s appeal to developers may just be its geography. The sunlight, heat from the earth, wind speeds, movement of water, and other strong renewable resources in the West create an ideal home for a diversity of renewable energy technologies. Additionally, western states have by far the most federal lands, which are now seeing huge increases in project deployment — including military installations.

But perhaps the most influential tool these states have used to spur growth in renewables is implementing business-minded policies. From Washington to Arizona, innovative state policies to harness the region’s renewable energy resources drive major investment. Nine of 13 western states have binding targets for renewable energy production. Take California’s 33 percent renewable portfolio standard (RPS), which has helped lead to its dominance in solar and wind project deployment this year. Or look at Nevada, which recently coaxed Tesla to build its new gigafactory in the Silver State with business-friendly policies — bringing with it $5 billion and over 6,000 jobs. RPS policies and financial incentives across the West have been beyond successful, opening the door for a rush of eager entrepreneurs to create thousands of jobs, billions of dollars in investment, and substantial savings for millions of consumers.

Even though other U.S. regions may not share the same perks, the industry is steadily expanding across the country. But without a strong, complementary array of state and federal policies — such as net-metering rules, production incentives, and other state encouragement — some states might not experience the same success. Congress needs to do its part and support clean, domestic energy production across America. The advantage gained by western states ought to be shared across the country, and Congress has the ability to make this happen.

Gains from this year are adding up faster than ever, but much more can and will be done to ensure the successful spread of renewable energy across the country. By following the West’s example, we can curb carbon emissions, increase energy security, and make for a more prosperous America.

Lesley Hunter is the lead research and program manager at the American Council On Renewable Energy.

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