Massachusetts may consider itself a progressive leader in many respects, including on climate action, but a new report is challenging that perception on at least one front: renewable energy.
Though wind and solar power generation soared in the United States last year, that growth was led not by Massachusetts but — perhaps surprisingly — by red states, according to an analysis from independent research organization Climate Central.
Massachusetts ranked 29th in total power generated from wind and solar combined, compared to Republican-led states Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kansas, which all ranked in the top five.
“People will say certain states care about renewables and other states don’t,” said Jennifer Brady, a senior data analyst at Climate Central. “But when you look at this data, you see this can pretty much be done anywhere. And we’re seeing it everywhere, all across the country.”
To be sure, it’s not easy for a small, densely populated state like Massachusetts to compete with large ones such as Texas that have much more available land away from population centers. And the study looked only at the amount of renewable energy each state produced, not the percentage of energy each state derives from clean sources.
But a separate February analysis of federal data from Yale Climate Connections, which considered not only wind and solar, but also hydropower, found that 16 states now generate at least half their electricity from renewable sources, and Massachusetts is not one of them. South Dakota, another red state, has the largest share of renewable energy at 83 percent, largely as a result of impressive adoption of wind energy.
“This definitely should be a wake-up call for Massachusetts,” said Mireille Bejjani, co-executive director of the New England climate activist group Slingshot.
More clean power projects are on the way in red states. A January Politico analysis found that since the Democrats’ major federal climate bill became law last year, roughly two-thirds of new renewable energy projects announced have been in Republican-held congressional districts, despite their party’s opposition to the bill.
The new study by Climate Central found that last year, the United States produced enough electricity from wind and solar to power 64 million American households, a 16 percent increase from 2021. Of that amount, 73 percent came from wind while 23 percent came from solar.
The analysis, based on data from Climate Central’s own weather-based generation forecasting tool and the US Energy Information Administration, examines the 48 contiguous states and Washington, D.C. It makes clear that it’s not just liberal, coastal states driving growth in clean energy.
“The fact is that wind and solar make sense: They’re becoming cheaper and cheaper, they’re less polluting, and they make our electric system more resilient by diversifying our energy sources,” said Bejjani. “The sooner we can move away from seeing clean energy as a polarizing topic that belongs on one side of the aisle or the other, the sooner we can make progress.”
Good news = 16 states now generate at least half their electricity from zero-carbon sources (wind, solar, nuclear, and hydro)— Brent Peabody 🇺🇸🇺🇦 (@brent_peabody) February 26, 2023
Notable outliers: CO, NM, MA, CT, and NJ, which are fully controlled by Democrats but still use an inordinate amount of coal and gas pic.twitter.com/5IgaIsp48s
According to the report, Texas generated nearly 130 million megawatt hours of wind energy in 2022, or enough to power some 7 million homes and a 17 percent increase from 2021. Iowa came in second, generating roughly 48 million megawatt hours from wind energy (22 percent higher than the previous year), while Oklahoma generated about 46 million. Kansas was fourth, at 34 million megawatt hours, and Illinois in fifth place, with 24 million.
Republican-controlled states also dominated solar power generation in 2022. The top solar energy producer was Democratic California, which generated almost 59 million megawatt hours from solar last year — enough to power more than 3 million homes — marking an 8 percent increase from 2021. But next in line was Texas, which generated 23 million megawatt hours, followed by three more states that have voted red in recent years: Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona.
Despite its lofty climate goals, Massachusetts fell low on the list of wind power generators. With 307,451 megawatt hours generated, the state landed 34th on the list. The state fared better when it came to solar power, ranking 10th with more than 4 million megawatt hours. But when the two power sources were combined, the state ranked in the bottom half.
Several factors are shaping where states rank on renewable energy, including one obvious one: geography.
Sunnier states like California and Texas, Brady said, are well-suited for solar panels. And some states simply have more physical space than others.
“A lot of the red states are big states. They have a lot of land,” she said. “It’s not surprising that you’re going to want to put up windmills in Oklahoma or Texas.”
Many red states are also less populated and include more rural areas, making it easier to build large projects, said Josh Basseches, a professor of environmental studies and public policy at Tulane University in New Orleans who studies renewable energy policy in red states. Still, he said, some states aren’t taking advantage of their geographies, such as South Carolina, which has massive solar potential but has restrictive policies on the books.
The expansion of offshore wind, said Brady, could help smaller, coastal states such as Massachusetts build out wind power production. The state could generate more than 20 times its current electricity consumption with offshore wind, according to a 2021 report from Boston-based environmental nonprofit Environment America.
Though just two offshore wind projects are operating in the United States, several more — including in the waters of New England — are in permitting or under construction. One planned off Martha’s Vineyard would generate enough energy to power 400,000 homes, though its future is uncertain.
Ben Hellerstein, state director for the advocacy group Environment America, said the new report also illustrates the importance of collaboration for small states.
“There’s a lot that Massachusetts can do on its own, but to take full advantage of our abundant renewable energy resources, we should work together with our neighboring states,” he said, noting that some collaboration is already underway. In January, for instance, Massachusetts agreed to finance up to 40 percent of a wind power project in far northern Maine.
Of course, the policy landscape in each state also plays a major role. Hellerstein said it’s “no accident,” for instance, that the small state of Massachusetts ranked relatively high when it came to solar generation.
“It’s because of policies that were put in place on the state level more than a decade ago to support solar energy,” he said, noting that under former governor Deval Patrick’s administration, Massachusetts increased incentives to boost access to solar power and championed net metering — which credits solar panel owners for the electricity they add to the grid — among other steps. Hellerstein’s organization is now calling for Governor Maura Healey to redouble those efforts and install the equivalent of one million solar roofs in the state by 2030.
Basseches said some Republican states have a forgotten history of pro-renewable policies. Texas, for example, was an early adopter of a renewable portfolio standard, a regulatory mandate to increase renewable production.
“In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Texas had one of the most aggressive renewable portfolio standards in the country,” he said. “So Texas had a real headstart when it came to wind.”
Dharna Noor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.