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Trying Again: Proposing a National U.S. Renewable Energy Standard

Several U.S. Senators are resurrecting legislation seeking to create a national Renewable Energy Standard (RES), while more proposed RPS changes crop up in some quieter markets.

Senate Bill S.1595 from Mark Udall (D-Colorado) and Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), and days later the "American Renewable Energy and Efficiency Act" from Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), both call for call for a national RES policy, proposing a short-term 6 percent requirements of renewables adoption (2015 for the Udall bill, 2014 for Markey) gradually increasing to 25 percent by 2025. Both would complement (not override) individual state RPS programs; include renewable credits, both handed out and purchasable (Markey's plan gives a bonus for distributed generation, and renewable energy projects on Indian lands and distributed brownfield sites.). Both cite benefits for hundreds of thousands of jobs nationally, billions in economic boons in certain states and communities, and energy independence and a cleaner future for all.

There was some communication between the Senators' offices about these bills before they were launched within two days of each other, noted Mike Saccone, communications director for Sen. Mark Udall.

But there are a couple of differences in the proposals, too:

Low-Impact Biomass. Markey's plan calls for use of biomass that yields 50 percent reduced greenhouse gas emissions vs. a combined-cycle natural gas plant (20-year life cycle). That distinction between perennial crops and grasses, wood waste and reclaimed wood, and treetops and branches -- vs. cutting and burning entire trees -- is important because "far from being 'carbon neutral,' whole trees are a bigger carbon polluter than coal," points out Franz Matzner, associate director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Markey's bill also charges the EPA to track such emissions reductions.

Energy Efficiency. Markey's bill also emphasizes energy efficiency programs, through combined heat/power, fuel switching, reduced distribution losses, codes and standards, and end-use efficiency gains from equipment upgrades. Electric utilities would be required to implement energy-efficiency programs that save 1 percent of sales by 2015 and cumulative 15 percent of sales by 2025. Natural gas plants would have similar requirements: half a percent by 2015, and cumulative 10 percent by 2025. For U.S. households, such improvements would add up to savings of $49 annually, and $90 billion cumulatively by 2030, while reducing CO2 emissions by 480 million metric tons annually by 2025, the equivalent output of 120 coal-fired plants.

The Udalls' legislation doesn't include energy efficiency, but it is being introduced as an amendment to the proposed Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill. That bill has garnered welcomed broad bipartisan support but been bogged down amid debates about some other amendments and other political gamesmanship.

The issue of a national RPS has come up often in recent years but there hasn't been enough sustained momentum behind it. The Udalls themselves hoisted the 25x25 banner before, back in 2002 while members of the House and later repackaging and reintroducing it to the Senate in 2009. Markey, meanwhile, offered his own crack at energy efficiency in 2009 with the Waxman-Markey bill also in the House, and there are many echoes from that proposal in his newest one.

It's hard to say what traction a national-RPS debate will get (let alone two separate ones), much less in the Senate than the Republican-controlled House which was already unfriendly toward them, before the current state of gridlock. In the meantime, more than half of U.S. states have developed their own RPS standards and some are fast approaching their goals well ahead of schedule. RPS policies continue to work and be popular at state levels, repeatedly fighting off attempts to reign them in (ALEC et al.). But getting enough momentum behind any national RPS policy probably will require more direct accountability of fossil fuels' true costs and negative impacts, and that's not likely to happen in the current climate.

Sen. Mark Udall wants to see RES legislation passed "by whatever means present themselves," said Saccone, whether that means as an amendment to the Shaheen-Portman bill or as standalone legislation -- or maybe even some combination with the Markey bill. "We will certainly be open to that."

Meanwhile, a few updates on renewable portfolio standards (RPS) are emerging at the state level:

- Vermont's 2011 Comprehensive Energy Plan (CEP) mandates 90% renewables by 2050, but the state's renewable businesses want to push for more near-term targets: 20 percent of total energy consumption from renewable sources and energy efficiency by 2020. (The state's current renewables usage is around 11 percent, according to Renewable Energy Vermont, the state's non-profit renewable energy trade association.) REV also wants an official state renewable portfolio standard (RPS) beyond Vermont's "goals" dictating targets for providers' incorporation of renewables in their annual electricity retail sales. Other items on REV's wish list are more community-scale solar and wind, an even stronger net metering program, and a carbon tax. "This is an ambitious, daunting challenge, but we have to start somewhere," stated David Blittersdorf, president/CEO of AllEarth Renewables.

- In Ohio, SB 221, introduced in 2008 and amended in 2012, set a 12.5 percent RPS with a half-percent solar carveout. Now a new bill seeks to chip away at the state's RPS criteria. SB 58 would significantly rewrite those rules: eliminate the requirement of half of that being met in-state, include Canadian hydro, and adjust costs caps. It would also tweak the language to make penalties optional if utilities don't meet those RPS targets.

- Michigan's RPS established in 2008 is for 10 percent by 2015, not among the more robust state policies, though to be fair Michigan's renewables portfolio was starting from a much smaller place back then. Last year Michigan unsuccessfully tried to expand its RPS, but as that 2015 deadline approaches a new report shows that a 30 percent RPS is economically feasible.

Broader policy movements about state-level RPS are emerging in Midwest states from Iowa to Illinois to Minnesota. Check out what Howard Learner and Brad Klein from the Environmental Law & Policy Center had to say at last week's Solar Power International:


Lead image: Green environment US map background, via Shutterstock

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