More than half of U.S. states have a renewable standard or target in place that determines the amount of renewable energy they produce. Now, seven Democratic senators want the U.S. to follow suit, and are pushing for the country to establish a nationwide standard for renewable energy.
This week, the group of Democratic senators introduced legislation to establish a national Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) that would require utilities to get 30 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030. U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), the bill’s lead sponsor, has been pushing for a national renewable standard for almost a decade, and helped pass similar legislation in the House prior to his 2008 election to the Senate.
In announcing the bill, Udall said its passage would “help slow utility rate increases and boost private investment in states like New Mexico — all while combating climate change.” He further stated that with more than half the states having “widely successful RES policies” that “it’s time to go all in.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D), the other New Mexican senator, is a co-sponsor on the bill along with Sens. Edward Markey (D-MA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI).
Heinrich said creating a national standard would “help unleash the full potential of America’s clean, homegrown energy while putting people to work at the same time.”
An analysis published Tuesday by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) supports the New Mexican senators’ statements. In examining the impacts of a 30 percent renewable energy by 2030 national RES, the researchers found that renewable energy generation would be 57 percent higher than business as usual by 2030, and that it would save consumers a total of $25.1 billion on electricity and natural gas bills from 2015-2030.
The report also found that local economies would benefit in a number of ways. A national RES would drive $294 billion in cumulative new capital investments over the next 15 years — $106 billion more than under a business-as-usual scenario. It would also provide $2.6 billion in cumulative property taxes received by local governments from 2015-2030 and generate $830 million in cumulative wind power land lease payments to rural landowners over that same time frame.
According to UCS, the national RES would also put a significant dent in domestic power sector carbon dioxide emissions, which are responsible for nearly 40 percent of of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. UCS found that implementing the national RES would reduce power plant emissions by nearly 11 percent in 2030, and that the cumulative impact between 2015 and 2030 would be to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector by 1.5 billion metric tons.
This additional 11 percent reduction would do a lot to help achieve the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan target of cutting national electricity emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. It would also add a major element to the Obama Administration’s broader commitment to reduce overall U.S. emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 and 26 to 28 percent by 2025.
CREDIT: Union of Concerned Scientists
A national RES may seem like a stretch for the current Congress, but there may be more promise than usual this year, as the bill is one of a number of energy related proposals to be considered by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee over the next couple months. As the Washington Examiner notes, 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.
Elgie Holstein, senior director for strategy planning at the Environmental Defense Fund, told ThinkProgress that the clean energy and energy efficiency bills are part of a number of ideas coming forward from the Democratic minority to “ensure that any energy legislation is balanced.”
He said a number of bills on the Republican side have to do with oil and gas — initiatives that would do things like accelerate permitting and increase infrastructure — and that balancing these priorities out will be a major part of any large energy bill.
“It’s been about seven years since Congress passed a comprehensive energy bill,” he said. “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.”
Holstein said that while it’s hard to tell yet exactly how this will all play out — especially considering that the House is even more divided than the Senate — even if the legislative process in this Congress “ends up being a dress rehearsal” for a renewed effort next Congress, “it’s still worth doing.”
Udall said on Tuesday that he’d like it if the national RES became part of a larger energy bill being put together by Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), chairwoman of the Senate’s energy committee.
If it becomes law, the national RES would be imposed incrementally, starting with an 8 percent requirement in 2016 — just about 1 percent higher than non-hydro renewable power generation in the U.S. in 2014 — before moving up to 12 percent in 2020 and eventually 30 percent in 2030. It would exclude municipal utilities and rural electricity coops and would not preempt higher standards already in place at the state level.
Udall appears to have his own source of renewable energy in pushing for a national renewable energy standard. He came closest during his time in the House, when he managed to pass a bill requiring utilities to produce 15 percent of their power from clean energy sources by 2020. A similar version actually passed the Senate as well, ushered through by then-Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D), a fellow New Mexican and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. However, the bills were never reconciled between the two chambers, and in any case President George W. Bush would not have been amenable to signing the legislation.
Udall even tried to take advantage of the acrimonious Keystone XL approval debate in Congress earlier this year by offering an amendment to the legislation that would have established a 25-percent-by-2025 national RES, which ultimately failed 45-53.
For the time being, when Udall is home in New Mexico he can appreciate the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, which requires 20 percent of utility’s power to come from renewable sources by 2020. Passed by Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson in 2007, even this standard has come under fire in recent years by House Republicans, who view it as government overreach and a threat to electricity prices.
In arid states like New Mexico, ramping up renewable energy output provides a particularly tangible benefit: it saves water. A recent study by New Mexico’s largest utility, PNM, found that renewable energy provided by the utility will save 382 million gallons of water by 2016.
“Once a solar panel and a wind turbine is made and installed, neither one requires any water consumption,” Sanders Moore, executive director of Environment New Mexico, recently said while discussing the state’s RPS. “So based on that, we’re seeing a huge net benefit in water savings.”
In a blog post on the Senate’s opportunity to pass energy legislation, Franz Matzner at the Natural Resources Defense Council writes that the Senate should embrace proposals like Udall’s national RPS that build on the country’s growing foundation in clean energy.
Congress “should build a national energy bill with measures that move toward the shared goals of cleaner, safer, more sustainable energy,” he writes. “The roadmap is there. Congress just needs to stay on the path.”