The Good News About the Proposed Renewable Energy Standard

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States that already meet or exceed Renewable Energy Standards of 15% by 2021 would not be held back by the latest Democratic attempt to pass nationwide legislation requiring that utilities at least provide a minimum supply of clean energy.

Enviros are dismayed by the feeble requirements in Senator Bingaman’s Renewable Energy Standard S 3813 (pdf), because many states already exceed 15% by 2020 requirement. However, that misses the intent of the bill. This bill pretty much just addresses just the 15 coal states that don’t have any RES legislation, the states that are the equivalent of “clunkers”.

States that currently lack any clean energy requirements would now have to at least meet the federal requirement under this legislation, as Senator Bingaman (D-NM) said this week, once again reintroducing his hardy perennial Renewable Energy Standard.

At least five of the 15 get over 90% of their electricity from coal. To get the worst states to begin to switch to clean power is not easy. A little teaspoon for the first taste is fine. It gets them investigating it. Hard-core coal states are not going to suddenly embrace clean power, like the Green States do. But getting them to start, just a bit, is key.

This is why it doesn’t matter that the new RES is not at the cutting edge of Renewable Energy Standards. Federal policy is not needed to drive the Green states. On the contrary, it is needed to finally get the 90% coal-powered Kentuckys and Alabamas to try clean energy. Because they just might find that it’s really not so bad. A modest RES has led to greatness before.

For example, oil-powered Texas began its voyage to world leadership in wind power with a tiny RES that was so timid as to almost seem more like a quota (to forbid them to make more than 3%).

Iowa began with an RES requiring only about half an average coal plant’s supply of clean power for the state: 105 MW. Feeble. Yet by 2009, it made more than 10% of the entire state’s electricity just from wind power. In 2010, that leaped to 15% of its electricity, just from wind.

The legislation assigns credits to utilities for meeting their mandates, and will punish those that don’t. Bad utilities will have to pay good utilities for their credits. Building clean energy on Indian lands is worth two credits.

Adding more clean energy from distributed sources (up to a MW) is worth three credits. Under that kind of incentive to add more distributed energy, utilities in every state would be as motivated as they are in California and New Jersey, to help pay you to get those solar panels on your roof, because that would help their bottom line.

Utilities would pay a penalty of over 2 cents for every kilowatt hour sold that did not meet their mandate.

The Democrats have attempted to pass a Federal RES at least six or seven times over the last ten years. In the meantime, tired of waiting, more and more states simply enacted their own. Now a solid majority of states have a RES. The remaining 15 dirty states that would be affected by this legislation are mostly in the South, but also include 90% coal-powered Wyoming, and Idaho.

As a positive sign, this time, there are four Republicans declaring themselves on board, and a fifth is almost inevitable.

The most interesting is Senator Brownback (R-KS) from a state which only just signed an RES in 2009. Senator John Ensign (R-NV) is another big change. He has repeatedly joined the Republicans against the RES, as recently as the 2007 attempt (roll call vote) back when it was called an RPS: Renewable Portfolio Standard, or Clean Portfolio Standard.

Senator Grassley (R-IA) has signed on, and he recently said that he would only do so if it was more than just him and the Maine girls. The fact that he has suggests that Grassley and Ensign are solid votes, not just “bra-waving” as we saw from Senator Graham all this year.

Senator Collins (R-ME) is one of two regular supporters of clean power from 55% clean-powered Maine, and so her support is no surprise. Although she made no statement, Maine’s other senator, Snowe (R-ME), will be a 5th Republican. The two from Maine have always joined Democrats in every vote on clean energy over the last decade.

Two or three of the current Democrats will possibly defect. Senator Landrieu (D-LA) has routinely voted with Democrats to pass an RES through the years as in this ’05 attempt (roll call vote). But, upset over the oil moratorium in the Gulf, she is now threatening to join Republicans in opposition. Although she is ranting a bit now, there is no reason for her to hold up the bill.

Senator Nelson (D-NE) is more of a problem. But, with four Republicans now on board, his defection doesn’t matter.

Here’s the math. Take all 59 Democrats, subtract bad Democrats Senator Nelson (D-NE) and Senator Lincoln (D-AR), and even throw in Senator Byrd’s replacement from 90% coal-powered West Virginia — that leaves us 56 good Democrats. Add even four of these Republicans and we now have 60 filibuster-hurdling votes. Add Snowe, and we can even lose another bad Democrat, and still hurdle the Republican filibuster.

If you’re in the South and hoping that your electric utility may soon pay you to put solar on your own roof (as they do in the Green states like New Jersey) in order to meet mandated Renewable Energy Standards, you could soon be in luck.

This modest RES could finally start cleaning up the worst states that provide 80% of the pollution in the US, and are responsible for the vast majority of our national greenhouse gases from electricity.

Image: EPA
Susan Kraemer@Twitter

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