Republican states are going strong on solar and wind, but not for the climate
People are building clean energy for economic and energy security reasons, and that's fine.
Lefties tend to be more concerned about climate change than right-wingers. I think the media often exaggerates this gap, but it’s still a consistent finding in surveys.
One country where this divide is strong is the United States. Pew survey data shows that 88% of Democrats were “Sad about what was happening to the Earth”. This share was just 50% among Republicans. A much smaller share were anxious about the future or were motivated to do more to address climate change.
That sounds like bad news. Progress will inevitably be slow – or non-existent – if a big chunk of the country is blocking action.
But the data tells a different story. Republicans might not be big on climate, but they’re moving ahead on clean energy anyway.
Here I’m going to look at wind and solar power generation across US states. The underlying data comes from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), which I have accessed from Ember Climate. The full dataset – including other sources – is free to download from Ember here.
Note that this is based on electricity generation, not consumption. So it doesn’t account for imports and exports.
The final data for 2023 is not yet in, so I’m using data from 2022. I don’t think 2023 data will change the story much.
Red states are the largest producers of wind power
In 2022, the five states with the largest share of wind power were Republican.
This is shown in the chart below, with Republican states in red, and Democrats in blue. ‘Swing’ states are in grey. I’ve explained my rationale in the footnote: if you spot an error in these colourings, then let me know: state-by-state politics isn’t my expertise so I could have missed an important nuance for a few states.1
Only the top 10 states are shown, but you can explore the full set in a little data explorer I built for free, here.
Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota all generated more than one-third of their power from wind.
We can also look at this in absolute terms – how many total units of wind power were generated.
Again, the top 10 states on this metric are shown below. Texas leads the pack by a long stretch. And the next three – Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kansas – are all Republican.
Around 70% of the US’s wind power is generated in red states.2
Blue states tend to lead on solar power
It’s different for solar. Blue states tend to be much more enthusiastic.
The chart below shows the share of power produced from solar PV in 2022. Democrat-leaning states have the highest shares by a long shot.
This is still mostly true when we look at absolute units (not shares) of solar power generated. California tops the rankings, but Texas falls into second place, and Florida and North Carolina are also in the top five.
Republican states are less bullish on solar but not as opposed to it as some would imagine. They produced one-third of the US’s total output in 2022.
Republicans like clean energy, even if they don’t care about climate change
Red states aren’t building clean energy to solve climate change. At least, that’s not the primary reason. They’re doing it for economics. Make it cheap and easy, and it’ll often get built.
This article by Sarah Mills – who studies US energy politics – goes into much more detail on this. Here’s a quick summary.
Many red states have extremely large wind and solar resources. They lie in the USA’s ‘wind belt’: which means high capacity factors and good returns on investment. The economics work out well for landowners. They make extra cash, with little disruption to their farms. And this income is much more stable than agriculture, which is vulnerable to poor harvests and erratic weather.
It also provides economic benefits to communities. Renewable energy developers pay property taxes, which boosts public funds. These states also have low electricity prices well below the US average (not all of this is explained by renewable energy generation though – California, by contrast, has very high prices).
Now, it’s not just about free-market economics here. Policy does play an important role. First, regulations and building restrictions affect how quickly renewable projects can be built. On this, red states seem to doing better. As Noah Smith wrote in a recent article: Blue states don’t build. Second, red states have – ironically – been the biggest beneficiaries of Biden’s IRA package. National – not just state-level – policy matters too.
But the headline point is that people don’t need to be interested in climate to be supportive of clean energy. Support for clean energy is strong, even on the political right. But it’s for reasons unrelated to climate – economic or employment opportunities, energy security, or lower energy bills.
Abel Gustafson and colleagues studied the attitudes on clean energy among Republicans and Democrats.3 They found strong support for renewables across the political spectrum (although stronger among Democrats) but for different reasons.
Democrats gave “reducing global warming” and “reducing air pollution” as their top reasons. Climate change was very low on the list for Republicans. Instead, they voted for “Reduce energy costs”, “Get energy from sources that never run out” and “Increase America’s energy independence”.
Some might find this discouraging: they want everyone to be passionate about climate action. Me too. But I also think it’s positive news: it means we don’t need to wait for everyone in the world to become a climate activist (which will never happen) to make progress. In fact, pushing the climate narrative too hard will push many people away from clean energy.
This matters for communication. Messaging needs to be tailored to the correct audience. Many people (including me) are highly motivated to tackle climate change. Great: talk to them about that. But for others, this approach is not effective. Talk about the other benefits of clean energy, and say almost nothing about climate. The outcome can be the same: less fossil fuels and emissions.
Now, it’s not that I think this position is optimal. I’m sure we would be moving faster if there was no political divide, and it was among the top priorities for everyone. There is no doubt that strong figures and lobbying against climate action have been effective in slowing us down.
I just think we need to work with political realities, and we can still make a lot of progress without complete reconciliation. Waiting for – or actively pushing – everyone to be on board with clean energy for the reasons we want could be the thing that slows the energy transition down the most. We can try to fight against the wind, or turn around and have it at our backs.
My book is published in just over a week (9th January in the US, and 11th January elsewhere).
If you got some book vouchers for Christmas and are interested in reading it, you can find all of the links for places to buy below. Thank you very much in advance if you do!
Here I’ve allocated states based on the political leanings of the previous two terms. If a state has had a Republican or Democrat majority in the previous two terms, that’s the designated leaning. If it switched from one to another in the last election, I’ve designated it as a “swing” state.
I’m sure there are state-by-state complexities – such as independents – that I’ve missed. But I’ve gone with it for simplicity.
The United States produced around 434 TWh of wind power in 2022. Republican states produced 306 TWh, which is 70% of the total [ 306 / 434 * 100 = 70%].
Gustafson, A., Goldberg, M. H., Kotcher, J. E., Rosenthal, S. A., Maibach, E. W., Ballew, M. T., & Leiserowitz, A. (2020). Republicans and Democrats differ in why they support renewable energy. Energy Policy, 141, 111448.