Power Outage

Renewable energy standards were cut from the recently energy bill, but experts say they’ll be back on the docket soon

By Alyssa Kagel

Click here to enlarge state time line and here to enlarge the federal time line 

A few weeks ago, it looked like renewable energy was going to get a major boost. Congress seemed to be on track to pass national standards that would sometime in the future require utility companies across the country to generate a percentage of their electricity from solar, wind, or other renewable energy sources. Renewable portfolio standards (RPS—also called renewable electricity standard, or RES) mandate that utilities reach a specified target by a certain date. Currently, 25 states and the District of Columbia have such standards, but no national standards exist.

And Congress just killed the most recent attempt to pass a national RPS. A few determined senators, including Pete Domenici (R-NM) and James Inhofe (R-OK), blocked the provision, which was dropped from the energy bill that President Bush signed into law on December 19.

The national RPS wasn’t the only renewable energy provision left out of the 2007 energy bill. Also scrapped was a reduction on oil industry subsidies—labeled by opponents as an “oil tax”—that would have funded renewable energy tax credits.

Renewable energy might have gotten the shaft, but renewable fuels made out alright: the energy bill requires that 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel be produced each year to blend with gasoline by 2022—a huge jump from today’s production. The bill also mandates tougher standards for energy efficient homes and appliances, as well as stricter fuel economy standards.  

Even though the national RPS didn’t pass this time around, experts say there’s still a good chance it will be signed into law within the next few years. “A federal RES is enormously popular—all kinds of groups have signed on,” says Marchant Wentworth, a legislative representative for clean energy with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a science-based, environmental nonprofit. “It has bipartisan support. We’re confident a national RES will pass, eventually.”

Plenty spoke with some of the major players in this debate. Read on to find out why these folks support or oppose national RPS, and check out the state timeline and federal timeline to learn about the milestones in the efforts to implement renewable energy standards.

Against: A National RPS is a Costly, Unfair Burden

“It’s simply a fairness issue,” Keith McCoy says of the federal RPS. “We oppose any mandate, whether five, ten, or 20 percent.”

McCoy is vice president of energy and resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the nation’s largest industrial trade association, representing manufacturers in every industrial sector and in all 50 states. He’s quick to say he’s “all for” wind, he just doesn’t think a federal mandate is the way to go.

McCoy and other critics claim that wind and other renewable resources might be plentiful in Texas, but they don’t exist in the Southeastern part of the country. According to vocal RPS opponent Southern Company, the premier energy company serving the Southeast, calm conditions in the region make viable wind power sites scarce and operation intermittent. That means, opponents say, Southeastern states would be hard pressed to meet national standards.

“Why should the average rate payer in Kentucky or Mississippi be punished because their state doesn’t naturally have the resources to produce [renewable] energy?” says Senator Domenici, ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, in a press statement.

Besides the fairness argument, opponents say meeting national standards will significantly increase the price of electricity, both for consumers and manufacturers.
According to a fact sheet produced by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the association of US shareholder-owned electric companies, “The RPS mandate could cost electricity consumers billions of dollars in higher electricity prices.”

The time frame is another point of contention. Critics say the increase mandated by a national RPS just isn’t feasible. Meeting a 15 percent RPS would require “a 400-percent jump from the roughly three percent of total generation that renewable energy sources now put onto the US power grid—in just 12 years” according to EEI.

NAM doesn’t completely dismiss the possibility of a national renewables initiative, says McCoy. But for the group to approve, the standard would need to be established region by region and work toward a renewable goal rather than a mandate. When asked about using biomass resources such as sawdust to meet an RPS in the Southeast, McCoy said NAM “would support that.” The group is not opposed to “any particulars” of the RPS; Rather, the association objects, to the “process” by which it was designed, says McCoy.

For: A National RPS Saves Money and Creates Jobs

The Union of Concerned Scientists’s Marchant Wentworth believes a national RPS will “save money and create jobs.”

As an example of how that might be, he points to farmers in West Texas who lease their productive land to wind developers, adding a much-needed stream of revenue. Because five percent or less of the land area needed for a wind farm is taken over by turbines and related equipment, what’s left can be used for farming or other productive uses. “A federal RPS will bolster rural economies,” says Wentworth.

Wentworth’s assertion contradicts many skeptics, who claim consumers’ electricity bills will increase under a federal RPS.

But the UCS says data backs up its position.

“Wind and other renewable energy sources are competitive with natural gas prices,” says Wentworth. “And it’s not just a bunch of greens saying this—the EIA [Energy Information Administration, an agency within the US Department of Energy] reports similar findings.”

According to a 2007 EIA study, the RPS the House passed in August and December (see timeline) would marginally impact electricity prices by 2020, increasing or decreasing prices depending on the scenario. UCS’s analysis, meanwhile, finds that the RPS would lower the cost of electricity and natural gas by tens of billions of dollars in 2020.

In response to the argument that the Southeast doesn’t have sufficient renewables capacity, Wentworth emphasizes both biomass and energy efficiency. Efficiency measures—available everywhere—would’ve counted toward meeting the standards in the provision, had the RPS that the House passed twice this year been signed into law.  

Wentworth isn’t the only one to point out the region’s biomass resources. According to the Southeastern Regional Biomass Energy Program, the Southeast could benefit “perhaps more than any region in the country” from the development of bioenergy from sources such as waste wood products, biomass crops, and animal wastes. The group’s website alleges that the region’s biomass potential could total four to seven quads—potentially more than double the total amount of energy produced from biomass last year.

Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) believes a national RPS would “encourage the growth of renewable energy across the entire country and reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change,” according to his website.  Studies reinforce Reid’s claims. According to EIA, fossil fuel power plants produce all sorts of emissions—including global warming inducing carbon dioxide.

Though skeptics say renewable energy capacity can’t possibly increase fast enough to meet the requirements set forth in the RPS that failed to pass this year, many experts disagree. According to a report by the major renewable trade associations, geothermal, water power, biomass, solar, and wind sources could supply 635 gigawatts of “technically feasible” electricity by 2025. That’s just less than 60 percent of the US’s current generating capacity, according to the EIA.

“We’ve seen substantial renewable energy generated in states with RESs in place,” says Wentworth. “We know the program works.”

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Check out Domenici and McCoy. This is why nothing gets done to save our planet. The whole article discredits their uninformed opinions.

This is why Americans keep getting screwed into having to depend on Iran and Russia for energy, and the whole world wonders what happened to this once great country. How can Domenici be on the energy committee? Oh that's right, what was George Bush's prior occupation to politics? Right oil...

Everyone knows the sun shines in the southeast. What... solar power? I guess Domenici and McCoy don't know about it. Maybe they need to park it where the sun truly does not shine?

The article exposes that the southeast has immense biomass potential and conservation potential, as well.

Overcome the filibusters for the big oil companies, i.e. Domenici and McCoy, or we will not dominate the industry of the 21st Century, alternative energy. Oh well, it will only be a quadrillion dollar industry in 20 years. What's the big deal, huh? Maybe China and India can just take it all over, huh?

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