Cutting carbon dioxide emissions isn't the main goal of a new Senate bill, but supporters think it will help push the utility industry -- responsible for a third of the country's greenhouse gas emissions -- toward renewable investments. (Photo: haglundc)
Two years ago hopes were high for tough legislation on climate change in this Congress. But a Senate bill failed this summer and left the policy mechanism "cap-and-trade" battered and bruised. Now green lobbyists are swinging behind a modest approach to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: a federal renewable electricity standard. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports this could be the 111th Congress's last chance to move the country toward a low-carbon economy.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Mass., this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. The sun’s rapidly setting on the 111th Congress, but before this session becomes a dim memory, a few Senators are trying to reach across the aisle to set new goals for renewable energy. Their bill would boost the amount of electricity that comes from sources such as the sun, wind, waves and biomass. But as Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj reports, the legislation aims low and comes late.
TAJ: When 2008 ushered in a Democratic-led Congress, many concerned with climate change thought the time was ripe for legislation to curb greenhouse gas pollution. Two years later, with a comprehensive climate bill dead in the Senate and little time left before the next Congress brings in a new political mix, the focus has shifted from what global commitments demand, to what U.S. politics allows. Introducing the Renewable Electricity Promotion Act of 2010…
BROWNBACK: The beauty of this one—it’s not cap and trade.
TAJ: Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, was turned off by a proposal to cap greenhouse gas emissions known as “cap-and-trade.” But now he’s co-sponsoring this bipartisan bill, which would require utility companies to use renewables for at least 15 percent of their electrical production.
BROWNBACK: It’s a low enough level— there are a number of people who would like it to be higher— but this is a level that we can attain to, and do in a balanced fashion, balancing energy, environment, and economic needs.
TAJ: If passed, the bill would bring the 15 percent goal into effect by 2021. But for the next few years, just three percent of electricity would have to come from renewables, slightly less than what the country as a whole is already producing. The relatively weak short-term goal is part of why many environmental groups criticized the legislation when it came up before. But things have changed.
WENTWORTH: The politics has changed, the probability of passing something in the Senate has changed.
TAJ: Marchant Wentworth lobbies Congress for the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental groups now supporting this stand-alone bill.
WENTWORTH: It’s not what we would have wanted. We would have preferred to have the Congress take prompt action on climate change this year. That’s probably not going to happen. But, you know, we believe this does set up the national framework to move renewables forward.
TAJ: The policy would become the first national market mechanism for renewable power. And it actually does allow utility companies that generate more than the required solar or wind energy to sell credits to others having a harder time. Smaller utilities are exempt from the requirement, and up to a quarter of the 15 percent target can be met through energy efficiency.
WENTWORTH: We’re looking to say industries throughout the world, come to the United States. We want you to set your renewable industries here, because there is a market.
TAJ: At least 29 states and the District of Colombia have already set their own renewable electricity targets, but a nationwide standard would encourage more trading of credits, more investments in renewables, and a small step toward a national carbon-constrained economy.
Last year, for the first time, China surpassed the United States in investments in clean energy— a finding not lost on Senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from wind-swept North Dakota.
DORGAN: The wind energy industry is falling off a cliff. The second quarter of this year showed a 71 percent decrease in wind energy production.
TAJ: Dorgan is also a co-sponsor for this renewable electricity bill, known as R-E-S.
DORGAN: In my state we have 770 wind towers at this point, could be a lot more, there are more projects ready on the shelf, designed, ready to be built, and the fact is—the RES is the catalyst that will drive this.
TAJ: But other states, particularly in coal country, might not have as much to look forward to in the bill as North Dakota. Energy policy expert, Nick Loris, of the conservative think-tank the Heritage Foundation:
LORIS: It may make sense in certain states but not others and that’s why a federal mandate isn’t the way to go. If wind and solar and other renewable energy sources could compete economically they wouldn’t need a mandate. This isn’t not about reducing carbon dioxide but picking winners and losers among energy sources.
TAJ: Supporters say federal policies for decades have favored the coal industry, and this would only begin to reverse that course. But the bill clearly does pick winners among renewables: solar, wind, geothermal and ocean energy, biomass, landfill gas, and hydrokinetic energy can all be tapped. Excluded are offshore wind, hydroelectric energy from new dams, ethanol, and nuclear energy.
The bill isn’t guaranteed an easy pathway to passage. One challenge, says Senator Brownback, is to keep the delicate compromise already achieved, in tact.
BROWNBACK: People can’t get cute with this. This needs to be 15 percent and set. Personally I’d like for ethanol to be a part of it. So if things get added on that are extraneous, you’ll see people shuck off of it.
TAJ: But already demands have been bubbling up. Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee says he won’t vote for it unless nuclear energy can count. Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana says she won’t support it unless the offshore drilling moratorium is repealed.
But perhaps most importantly, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnel’s has used a three-letter word to describe the policy, calling it a defacto tax on utility rates. And for those who watched cap-and-trade be vilified as “cap and tax,” those are fighting words. Marchant Wentworth with the Union of Concerned Scientists:
WENTWORTH: We’re saying bring that fight on.
TAJ: Senate Majority leader Harry Reid is expected to take up the bill in the lame-duck legislative session. For Living on Earth, I’m Mitra Taj in Washington.
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