Americans are voicing more and more concern about unreliable and usually rising petroleum costs and the effects on climate of burning fossil fuels. In response this past week, Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) and six other Senators introduced a bill in Congress that might alleviate these threats to economic and environmental stability in the US and elsewhere. The legislation (S. 1264) would amend the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 to establish a nationwide Renewable Electricity Standard.
If passed, the Renewable Electricity Standard in the amended PURPA will create the first national mandate for utilities to provide a part of their electricity from renewable resources—wind, solar, biomass, and others. Municipal utilities and rural electricity coops are exempt. The law requires achievement of 8% renewables by 2016, about 1% higher than 2014 renewable generation (nonhydro), and it does not preempt any stronger state standards. The RES gradually increases thereafter to meet 20% by 2020 and 30% by 2030.
Senator Hirono from Hawaii points out the economic sense of the renewables bill. It would achieve these goals:
- Increase renewable energy generation 265% over current levels by 2030,
- Save consumers $25.1 billion in electric and natural gas bills from 2015 to 2030, and
- Generate nearly $4.3 billion of annual operation and maintenance revenue by 2030.
The Renewable Electricity Standard presents a welcome national step forward from business as usual that would change the current US energy generation mix. Initial support for a Renewable Electricity Standard exists coast-to-coast: its sponsors hail from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Mexico (both senators), Colorado, Oregon, and Hawaii. Over half the states in the US have a renewables standard or declared goal in place that increases the nontraditional energy they produce.
“It’s time to go all in,” comments Udall. He introduced similar bipartisan legislation as a Congressman that would have required utilities to produce 15% of their power from clean energy sources by 2020. A similar bill proposed by fellow NM Senator Jeff Bingaman passed the Senate also, but the versions were never reconciled and stood no chance of surviving a veto by then-President George W. Bush. The New Mexico senator also tried to introduce an amendment to Keystone XL legislation earlier this year by proposing a 25% by 2025 national RES, which failed 45-53.
Congress has not seriously considered a similar energy bill for quite a while. Elgie Holstein, senior director for strategy planning at the Environmental Defense Fund, told a reporter from ThinkProgress:
“It’s been about seven years since Congress passed a comprehensive energy bill. I think there’s an enormous and growing appetite on all sides to address the many issues that have come up over the years and the many changes that have occurred in America’s energy posture.”
The Renewable Electricity Standard legislation has now been referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska) chairs the committee, and Maria Cantwell (D., Washington) is the ranking member. Being from Alaska, a massive source of petroleum fuel in recent years and a strategic location for possible Arctic ocean development, Murkowski has strong reasons to favor fossil fuels. She has done so throughout her career, most recently backing an end to the crude oil export ban, but she also advocates renewable energy, efficiency, and otherwise reducing emissions.
In addition, Murkowski inclines toward fairness in matters like education, protecting native subsistence, and human rights. In 2010, lacking the Republican nomination, she became the first Senate candidate in more than 50 years to win a seat through a write-in campaign. Although she has waffled on what causes climate change, Murkowski firmly believes that it exists:
“I come from a state where we see a warming. We’re seeing it with increased water temperatures; we’re seeing it with ice that is thinner; we’re seeing it with migratory patterns that are changing,” she said. “So I look at this and I say this is something that we must address.”
The committee chair has pledged to work out a truly bipartisan energy bill this summer. That’s the reason for the series of four full advisory hearings currently taking place before her committee on energy efficiency, infrastructure, supply, and accountability and reform. Senator Udall has endorsed the idea of including the national RES in this larger energy bill.
Murkowski proposed an “Advanced Energy Trust Fund” two years ago to finance renewable power, energy efficiency, and advanced vehicles with petroleum revenues. Her dedication to the ideal of bipartisanship, history of crossing the aisle on diversity issues, and chance of a career triumph also argue for a fair shake for–or at least a sizable nod to–renewables as an upcoming fuel source.
On the other side of the aisle, Senator Cantwell considers the taxpayer and environmental savings from the bill a totally win-win situation. At the first hearing, she noted:
“Energy efficiency is the most obvious of energy sources. Why? It’s just the math. It’s compelling economics. Energy efficiency costs less than half of a unit of new energy production. And a typical household’s energy costs [after the RES] are about $500 a year less than would be the case if there had not been national efficiency standards.”
Cantwell points out the wisdom of embracing efficiency policies because energy efficiency saves consumers money, adds flexibility to the US electric grid, strengthens the economy, and reduces carbon pollution (thus slowing climate change).
Compelling support for the Renewable Electricity Standard has also come from a comprehensive analysis published last week by the Union of Concerned Scientists. It found that with 30% renewables, energy generation would be 57% higher than with business as usual by 2030. The savings for consumers: a total of $25.1 billion on electricity and natural gas bills from 2015-2030.
As for its chances of success in the current Congress, the RES is only one of dozens and dozens of energy-related proposals before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee for the energy omnibus bill Murkowski has proposed. In ThinkProgress, Ari Phillips references the Washington Examiner, saying,
“These are not high-profile bills that will elicit major attention similar to the recent Keystone XL saga, but rather ‘fairly technical’ efforts that could have broad-ranging impacts on U.S. energy policy. They include things like updating the country’s aging grid, investing in energy efficiency, adjusting electricity markets to prevent price distortions, and funding new ways of extracting natural gas.”
Thus the bill might make it through committee on a barter basis with some of the other elements. Too, as Holstein has suggested, even an unsuccessful run through this Congress might become a “dress rehearsal” for efforts next year. “It’s still worth doing,” he says.
A final comment on the possibility of achieving positive results: for both parties, women play the leading roles. The debate may play out as a testimony to the negotiating skill or failure of the “fairer” sex. Of course, plenty of men are also involved….
Opinion about the bill spans a wide range of sentiments. On one hand, fossil fuel advocates and ultraconservative senators and congresspeople will advocate killing the bill immediately, not only because it comes from Democrats, but also because they feel the petro industry still needs taxpayer support, as in its clinging to gargantuan subsidies. On the other, liberal idealists will insist that the proposal does not go far enough and that only a total switch to renewables can solve the decarbonization problem.
The reality lies somewhere in between. As Christiana Figueres of the UN climate change committee has pointed out, deep decarbonization may be attainable in the world by 2050, but zero carbon power is a more realistic target for 20102. There is no way enough renewable energy can be implemented overnight to meet the needs of the United States, or any country, except for some very small and stable nations. Nonetheless, the RES represents a good start—even though carbon taxation would be a simpler and faster route and would produce much-needed revenues for federal budgeting, reducing the long-term deficit, and aiding those hit hardest by climate change.