Redefining "renewable" to get a clean energy bill through Congress

  • Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., takes a final stab at introducing a federal clean energy standard, before retiring in 2013 from the Senate and his chairmanship of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

    Jonathan Black

Seven times since the 101st Congressional session in 1989, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., has sponsored or co-sponsored some bill establishing a national energy policy to reduce global warming. Each in some way called for U.S. utilities to get a certain percentage of electricity from renewable sources by a certain year; a few had bipartisan support. As recently as 2010, Bingaman had four Republican senators on board, including Kansas' Sam Brownback.

But somewhere along the road to law, every one of those bills died. Environmentalists complained that the 2009 legislation asked too little when it set the standard at 15 percent renewables by 2020; many Democrats withdrew their support. The next year, a nearly identical standard lost Democrats, too, but for the opposite reason: In the run-up to the 2010 election, with his own seat in jeopardy, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., considered it too extreme to even bring to the floor.

All the energy mandates Bingaman had pushed up to then had defined "renewable sources" as non-fossil fuels such as wind, solar, geothermal, tidal power and certain kinds of biomass. Republicans, and some conservative Democrats, objected: In 2007, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., sponsored a "clean" energy bill to promote low-emissions fuel, renewable or not; in 2010, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., proposed more ambitious targets -- 13 percent by 2012 and 25 percent by 2025 -- but included nuclear power and low-emissions coal.

Bingaman opposed those efforts. "He wanted to see emerging energy technologies achieve better penetration in the marketplace," says spokesman Bill Wicker. But after the 2010 failure, "we decided (a renewable energy standard) wasn't the highest and best use of our time." Bingaman, who will retire in 2013 after 30 years in the Senate, realized that if he wanted to get any kind of climate-friendly energy standard to the floor before he left, he had to give up on the word "renewable." When President Obama in his 2011 State of the Union address set a "clean" energy goal of 80 percent by 2035, Bingaman "promised he'd try to get that passed."

On March 1, Bingaman introduced the Clean Energy Standards Act of 2012, which would require most large U.S. utilities to produce a certain amount of their electricity without emitting greenhouse gases: 24 percent by 2015, 84 percent by 2035. The bill specifies no particular means of producing electricity; it simply allows utilities to earn credits toward their percentage goals for whatever emits less carbon than a modern, efficient coal plant. Solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal and nuclear get full credit; natural gas, which burns about half as clean as coal, gets half credit. Utilities with an abundance of clean energy could sell credits to utilities having trouble making the grade.

Environmentalists aren't completely happy: Although the bill calls for a study of energy efficiency, there's no direct provision to give utilities credit for using fewer watts per customer. And although utilities could never meet an 84 percent clean-fuel goal with natural gas alone, the legislation would give it at least a temporary boost. "It's giving windfall profits to an industry that needs no support at the policy level," says Jeff Deyette, assistant energy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. The same goes for nuclear. "(Uranium) is not a renewable resource," he says, "and nuclear already supplies 20 percent of our electricity. Including it does nothing to diversify our power supply."

Nor does the bill quell Republican opposition. Even Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who worked with Bingaman last year to define the energy mix, said she'd support it only if the Environmental Protection Agency withdrew its plans to regulate greenhouse gases from new coal plants.

"That's the irony of the whole thing," Wicker says. "Republicans in Congress used to complain that 'renewable energy' was too narrow and picked winners and losers; we needed a broader approach. So we say, 'OK, let's do a clean energy standard.' And now none of them want anything to do with it."

So why fight for a federal energy standard at all? Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have some sort of renewable energy mandate; four others have non-enforceable goals. Even George W. Bush, while he was governor, supported Texas' push for renewable energy -- rightly so, as wind brought "enormous investment," says Richard Caperton, an energy expert with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "It's also had a positive impact on grid reliability," he says.

But that's also the very problem with leaving renewable energy goals to the states: The ones who stand to benefit economically will embrace it; the ones that don't, won't. In coal-dependent states like Wyoming -- which lacks a renewable energy mandate or goal -- an emphasis on sun and wind energy looks like a job-killer. Even in states with robust renewable energy industries, eligible fuels have proved fungible as economic circumstances change. Washington recently allowed wood products from pulp mills built before 1999 to qualify as renewable biomass, an explicit effort to boost suffering timber-dependent rural economies.

For similar reasons, Republican state legislators in Colorado have tried to open up the state's renewable standard to include electricity generated with methane that coal mines would otherwise vent. Some environmentalists support it, arguing that because methane is 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, it's better to burn it than release it into the atmosphere.

Others worry that including coal-mine methane in the definition of "renewable" is just another attempt to cut into the wind and solar industries, a charge leveled at Arizona Republican State Rep. Debbie Lesko two years ago, when she tried to add nuclear to Arizona's renewable mix. Pro-solar Republican Gov. Jan Brewer diplomatically strong-armed Lesko into dropping her campaign, but Lesko continues to fight the state's renewable goals -- for, she says, the consumer's sake: Electricity from wind and solar costs more per kilowatt hour.

Theoretically, that's true: For now, it costs more to put wind and solar on the grid than to continue burning coal, a cost consumers have to bear unevenly in states with renewable energy mandates. But the best way to solve that problem, Deyette says, is to establish a federal standard. "It would mean that everyone, in every state, shares the financial burden of bringing new technologies onto the grid," he says. A U.S. Energy Information Administration analysis of Bingaman's 2010 proposal projected that, in 20 years, the renewables standard would raise the national average price per kilowatt hour by a mere 2 percent.

The EIA will analyze this year's bill, too, which is partly why Bingaman introduced it, however doomed the cause. The language in the Clean Energy Standards Act has been meticulously crafted to render moot the bickering about solar and wind subsidies that's hamstrung Congress; it focuses the debate, laser-like, on climate. "It's a starting point for a longer conversation," Wicker says. "When the 113th Congress comes in, they'll have a legislative history they can build on. Ultimately, something like it will succeed."

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