Motivated by a desire to reduce carbon emissions, and in the absence of federal action to do so, 29 states (and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) have required utility companies to deliver specified minimum amounts of electricity from "renewable" sources, including wind and solar power. California recently adopted the most stringent of these so-called renewable portfolio standards (RPS), requiring 33 percent of its electricity to be renewable by 2020.
Proponents of the RPS plans say that the mandated restrictions will reduce harmful emissions and spur job growth, by stimulating investment in green technologies.
But this patchwork of state rules—which now affects the electricity bills of about two-thirds of the U.S. population as well as countless businesses and industrial users—has sprung up in recent years without the benefit of the states fully calculating their costs.
There is growing evidence that the costs may be too high—that the price tag for purchasing renewable energy, and for building new transmission lines to deliver it, may not only outweigh any environmental benefits but may also be detrimental to the economy, costing jobs rather than adding them.
The mandates amount to a "back-end way to put a price on carbon," says one former federal regulator. Put another way, the higher cost of electricity is essentially a de facto carbon-reduction tax, one that is putting a strain on a struggling economy and is falling most heavily, in the way that regressive taxes do, on the least well-off among residential users.
To be sure, the mandates aren't the only reason that electricity costs are rising—increased regulation of coal-fired power plants is also a major factor—and it is difficult to isolate the cost of the renewable mandates without rigorous cost-benefit analysis by the states.
That said, our analysis of available data has revealed a pattern of starkly higher rates in most states with RPS mandates compared with those without mandates. The gap is particularly striking in coal-dependent states—seven such states with RPS mandates saw their rates soar by an average of 54.2 percent between 2001 and 2010, more than twice the average increase experienced by seven other coal-dependent states without mandates.
Our study highlights another pattern as well, of a disconnect between the optimistic estimates by government policymakers of the impact that the mandates will have on rates and the harsh reality of the soaring rates that typically result. In some states, the implementation of mandate levels is proceeding so rapidly that residential and commercial users are being locked into exorbitant rates for many years to come. The experiences of Oregon, California, and Ontario (which is subject to a similar mandate plan) serve as case studies of how rates have spiraled.
A backlash may result that could even imperil the effort to protect the environment. Some of the renewable-energy projects being built in California are so expensive that "people are going to get rate shock," according to Joe Como, acting director of the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, an independent consumer advocacy arm of the California Public Utility Commission. "In the long run," he said recently, the approval of overpriced renewable energy will harm "the states’ efforts to achieve greenhouse gas reductions."
Given that the RPS mandates have not received enough study and that they appear to be posing risks to a fragile economy, the prudent course of action is to put the state programs on hold. Existing mandates should be suspended and new ones blocked pending a thorough cost-benefit analysis to determine responsible levels of renewable electricity. In the meantime, where practical, natural gas, the cleanest conventional fuel as well as the least expensive, could fill any gaps in energy supply.