Energy democracy: Where have citizens voted on renewable energy portfolio standards?

When governments tell their utilities to start providing renewable energy over coal and gas-fired electricity it’s a big deal. While it’s very much in fashion for politicians to legislate renewable energy portfolio standards, there’s a new player in town. You. Citizens are behind a number of ballot initiatives that are pushing jurisdictions towards clean energy. But where have these measures succeeded and failed? What can we learn?

Renewable energy portfolio standards (RPS) are a great tool for driving the investment, construction, and production of wind, solar, hydro, and other renewable energy projects. What’s a renewable energy portfolio standard? I like the Solar Energy Industry Association’s definition for its simplicity, “A renewable energy standard requires utility companies to source a certain amount of the energy they generate or sell from renewable sources such as wind and solar.

Effectively, a government will legislate that the region must get X% of its power from renewables by a set date in the future. Sure, RE portfolio standards aren’t as economically efficient as market-based tools like carbon taxes or cap and trade systems, but they can bring a lot of certainty to a marketplace.

In Canada and the US, RE portfolio standards are common and many of them are pretty ambitious: Hawaii—100% by 2045, Maine—40% by 2017, California—33% by 2020, and Nova Scotia—40% by 2020 for example.

Most US states have them on the books, but only two Canadian provinces do. It should be noted that, on a whole, Canada derives nearly 2/3rds of its electricity from renewable resources, which may explain the lack of RPS legislation here.

Here’s a map of US state RPS policies


Source – DSIRE (2015)

The vast majority of these policies have been passed in state legislatures over the last decade.

Ballot initiatives

Most states and the province of BC allow citizens to initiate ballot measures. With enough signatures, citizens can put a piece of legislation up for popular vote. According to my research (and correct me if I’m wrong), there’s been five cases in the US where enough signatures have been collected to initiate a vote on renewable energy portfolio standards.

The winners

  • Colorado became the first US state to enact a RPS by ballot initiative, doing so in 2004. Over the years, the laws have been beefed up and now call for 30% RE generation for investor-owned utilities.
  • Washington state voters brought in a 15% renewable energy target by 2020 for all utilities serving more than 25,000 people. Very strange that a state with 90% renewable electricity would do this, but I suppose WA is geographically large and diverse.
  • Missouri: passed its RPS by a 66% vote in 2008. The state requires that investor-owned utilities generate 15% of their electricity from renewables by 2021. Given that the vast majority of Missouri’s electricity comes from coal, that’s great news!

Driven by health and climate concerns, energy independence, economics, or the trend away from centralized generation—RE is becoming increasingly popular and enjoys widespread support across party lines.

The losers

  • California lost its 2008 ballot initiative in a 40% “Yes”—60% “No” vote that would have required its utilities to move to 50% RE by 2020. Not to fear, however, as CA has a 33% renewable energy by 2020 target on the books and could go to 100% renewable energy in the not too distant future.
  • Michigan voters failed to ratify their 25% by 2025 target. The vote lost by a ratio of 2-1.

As popular as renewable energy is, policies have to be well designed, equitable, and affordable, which is why the California initiative never took. In addition, entrenched industry lobbying can also undermine clean energy campaigns.




It’s hard to know when and where the next ballot initiative will come from, but a group in Maine has been trying to organize a campaign for a 20% RE target for a couple years now.

Could a RE ballot initiative happen in Canada? Probably not. According to my research, only BC has a mechanism for ballot measures and the high signature threshold makes it very unlikely that enough people would get behind a ballot campaign.

In my opinion, there’s a lot to be learned from concerted national campaigns like Beyond Coal. Baseline legal and regulatory knowledge as well as coordination could go a long way to supporting grassroots RPS ballot initiative work. As could an information body like the Center for Transportation Excellence, which tracks transit referenda and provides centralized information and educational pieces.

On the urban front, a number of local governments are going through municipalization campaigns to bring utilities back under the public fold. Boulder, Colorado is among those leading the charge in this direction and renewables are near the top of the agenda.

I like the idea of ballot campaigns for higher renewable energy standards. They’re a nice counterpoint to NIMBYism and help bring people together for positive energy solutions.

Images (Flickr): thomashawk, bilfinger

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