Energy efficiency progress in 2021 Southwest legislative sessions

August 13, 2021 | Elise Jones

Now that the 2021 legislative sessions have gaveled to a close in state capitals across the Southwest, it’s time to celebrate what we accomplished on energy efficiency and clean transportation. While most eyes were on the new leadership in Washington, D.C., important progress was being made in both Democrat- and Republican-led legislative chambers throughout the region. These successes came in the form of bills to eliminate wasteful energy use, cut air pollution and climate altering emissions, electrify our transportation systems, and catalyze clean energy jobs. The issue of equity also was increasingly debated this legislative season, leading to the passage of measures to increase investment and reduce pollution impacts in less-resourced neighborhoods, often communities of color, which have disproportionately shouldered much of our collective pollution burden — important work that will hopefully continue and expand in years to come. 

Taking a tour around the Southwest, here are some of the most notable legislative gains in efficiency and clean transportation this year.  

Colorado led the region with a medley of far-reaching building and transportation legislation. At the top of the list was the passage of a ground-breaking four-bill clean buildings package that provides a model for slashing carbon emissions from the building sector while producing good jobs and better indoor air quality in the process. An innovative and overarching “clean heat” bill, Senate Bill (SB) 264, sets climate pollution reduction targets for gas utilities and directs them to craft plans to meet these through efficiency, electrification, pipeline leak repair, and, to a limited extent, methane recovery projects at wastewater treatment plans, landfills and other sites. The other three measures, conceived and promoted by the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP), facilitate and amplify these goals. Under the building electrification measure, SB246, regulated electric utilities must develop strategies to help their customers swap out gas-powered furnaces, water heaters and stoves for electric ones, with extra help for low-income households. House Bill (HB) 1238 will improve the efficiency programs of gas utilities, requiring all cost-effective efficiency measures to be undertaken, and targeting at least 25% of spending on poorer households. Since approval of utility programs is based on a finding of cost effectiveness, an important feature of both measures was requiring the inclusion of the social costs of carbon and methane in cost-benefit calculations. Finally, HB1286, directs large commercial building owners to measure and report their buildings’ energy performance, and then sets buildings performance standards that will result in at least a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from covered properties by 2030. Completing the package was the inclusion of labor standards in the various bills, which helped inspire support from organized labor — the only buildings decarbonization legislation in the country to do so.  

Additionally, after years of failed attempts, the Centennial State also finally passed a significant transportation funding measure, totaling some $5 billion in new fees, stimulus monies, and general fund monies. While the amount of new funding potentially available for pollution-inducing highway expansion is concerning, SWEEP is celebrating SB260’s investment of more than $730 million for electric cars, trucks, buses, and charging stations over the next decade — the biggest state investment in transportation electrification outside of California — as well as hundreds of millions for multimodal transportation projects. Of note, the measure also included new planning requirements, triggering a pending rulemaking before the Transportation Commission to reduce climate emissions in state and regional transportation plans, as well as address pollution hot spots in disproportionately impacted communities.   

Utah also saw passage of a critical infrastructure bill, HB433, that will provide over $1 billion for the state’s transportation system, including $100 million to expand the UTA Frontrunner commuter rail, $232 million in new bonding funding for public transportation projects, and $35 million for transportation projects that enable biking, walking, and other active multimodal travel choices.  

The New Mexico legislature’s top efficiency achievement was its update of the state’s 2015 Sustainable Buildings Tax Credit, designed to spur new construction to go above and beyond what’s required in the code for energy efficiency and sustainability. To qualify for the improved credit under HB15, new homes and commercial buildings must be highly efficient, have broadband access, and be wired to enable electric vehicle (EV) charging, with extra credits available for structures that are net zero energy, water and waste, or are fully electric. And, for the first time ever, tax credits will now be given for efficiency improvements like better insulation and electric heat pumps in existing buildings and homes too. The measure works to address equity through double tax credits for low-income households or affordable housing. And because these are both refundable and transferrable, everyone can benefit regardless of whether they have enough income to use a credit to their taxes.  

Just a few states to the west in Nevada, SWEEP helped lead coalition advocacy efforts on Assembly Bill 383, which sets efficiency standards for 13 common consumer and business products and appliances, including air purifiers, water coolers, computer monitors, and commercial dishwashers. According to the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, this measure will save consumers over $29 million annually by 2035 while cutting more than one million tons of climate pollution, the carbon equivalent of removing 28,000 cars from the road. 
Another Nevada success story was the passage of an omnibus energy bill covering a broad range of key energy topics, from transmission and efficiency, to EVs, to rooftop solar and storage. Approved with strong bipartisan support, SB448 champions both efficiency and equity by doubling energy efficiency program monies benefiting low-income homes and schools in historically underserved communities, and securing a $100 million from NV Energy for EV charging stations and electric school buses, with a minimum of 40% of this investment targeted for disadvantaged communities.  

Sometimes victory came in the form of good defense against damaging proposals and funding cuts. For example, in ArizonaUtah, and Nevada, SWEEP and other clean transportation advocates defeated proposals to significantly increase fees on EVs or on the electricity they consume. Also, in Arizona we helped lead successful efforts to block two attempts to strip the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) of its power and authority to finalize and implement its far-reaching Clean Energy Rules, which will hopefully be approved by the ACC this fall. A Colorado bill to ban local ordinances requiring all-electric homes was also killed in committee. Unfortunately, a measure barring local communities from restricting new gas connections passed in Utah; however, the legislation was at least amended to allow local incentives to cut building emissions and to manage power for public facilities. Despite all of these meaningful legislative victories, we are still faced with a summer of lousy air quality, intense heat waves and rampant wildfires — reminding us that there is much more work to be done. Indeed, the brainstorming has already begun on ideas for next year’s legislative sessions…

Elise Jones is Executive Director of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP).