National RPS to Include Coal & Nuclear?

Energy policy is once again up for debate on Capitol Hill with Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) expected to introduce an amendment today that would require 15 percent of electricity generated in the U.S. to come from renewables by 2020. The legislation will be countered by Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), who is planning to offer a “weaker” amendment that defines coal and nuclear as clean energy, and eligible for renewable credits.

A National Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (RPS) that includes clean coal technologies and nuclear power will reduce the demand for “genuinely clean” renewables such as wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, and tidal, said Jim Rubens of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“There’s only 15 percent to go around,” said Rubens, adding that nuclear requires huge subsidies and clean coal technologies are at least 10 years away from being commercial. “There is no reason to dilute the bill. [Renewables] are ready for market now. They’re cost competitive now and they don’t require continuing operating and construction subsidies.”

The proposed RPS (or Renewable Electricity Standard) would be added as an amendment to bill S.1419, The Renewable Fuels, Consumer Protection and Energy Efficiency Act of 2007, which Bingaman, who is chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, co-authored with Domenici. The bipartisan legislation is intended to boost domestic renewable fuel supplies and spur regional diversity of biofuels production and infrastructure across the U.S.

But while Bingaman’s RPS amendment is considered to be the most far-reaching energy bill likely to make it through congress this session, it won’t pass without opposition.

“Undoubtedly, we will debate amendments that will bring out strong opinions, and we will have some heated—yet honest—debates,” said Senator Bingaman addressing Congress on Monday. “But I am confident that as long as we keep in mind our shared goal—to work together and produce legislation that makes meaningful progress on securing America’s energy future—the Senate will rise to the occasion. The American people expect nothing less.”

Heavy opposition, however, is not coming solely from oil lobbyists as many in the American public might assume, but the multi-billion dollar utility industry as well. Early last month, an article published on reported that the utility Southern Company openly opposed a National RPS—and was spending huge sums of money lobbying against such legislation arguing that it would increase costs for it’s 4.3 million customers in Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Mississippi.

“It’s a bit of moving target,” said Rubens, who noted Bingaman’s amendment is expected to be filibustered after being introduced. “The challenge will be overcoming the filibuster.”

According to a recent United Press International article, a National RPS has been proposed 17 times since 1996 by various policymakers—but none of the bills passed into law at the federal level. However, 23 states have now passed individual RPS legislation indicating that both elected officials and the American public are recognizing the environmental and economic benefits of renewable energy.

In addition, a new study released yesterday by The Network for New Energy Choices reports that a National RPS would create a level playing field for states. Renewing America: The Case for Federal Leadership on a National Renewable Portfolio Standard study notes that under the present system, some states enjoy deflated electricity prices from cheap, dirty sources of energy, which leaves ratepayers in other states with more stringent environmental safeguards picking up their tab.

While the government will be instrumental in establishing a National RPS, many believe that it should only create the rules and standards and define what technologies qualify for renewable energy credits. From there, said Rubens, it should let the market establish what technologies will be used to accomplish the goals set by the RPS.

“Government certainly has a place and a role,” said Rubens. “But to single out one particular technology for massive subsidies ends up distorting the marketplace and slowing the progress of development of sources that have the potential to make much, much larger contributions to satisfying the nation’s energy demand in future.”

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