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Policy / ENERGY

Clean-Energy Bill a Conversation-Starter

The largest photovoltaic solar power plant in the United States is becoming a reality at Nellis Air Force Base. When completed in December, the solar arrays will produce 15 megawatts of power.(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Nadine Y. Barclay)

photo of Amy Harder
March 1, 2012

The clean-energy proposal that has always been the Plan B lawmakers only supported when they didn’t like Plan A is now the only plan out there.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., is introducing a bill on Thursday morning to set a national clean-energy standard. Lawmakers—mainly Republicans—have only considered a CES when they didn’t like the initial plan Democrats offered: a renewable-energy standard that promoted solar, wind, and other renewable energy but not other relatively clean or carbon-neutral sources, such as natural gas and nuclear power.

It’s happened twice in recent sessions of Congress. Former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., as ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in 2007, offered a CES to counter a RES sponsored by Bingaman. Last Congress, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., pushed two similar CES proposals as alternatives to a renewable standard and to a broader climate and energy bill. None of those proposals went anywhere, and this year promises no better with Congress caught up in election-year politicking.

 

Bingaman has long been in the camp of Democrats insisting on a strict renewable-energy standard over a broader standard that included nuclear power, natural gas, and even "clean coal" technology to capture carbon emissions from dirty coal-burning power plants. The so-called carbon capture and sequestration technology is not yet commercially viable but has been shown in a handful of demonstration projects to significantly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from coal-fired plants.

Bingaman, who is retiring this year after serving as the top Democrat on the energy panel since 1999, knows his proposal isn’t going anywhere this Congress. He doesn’t have any Republican sponsors, and he probably won’t get any. Former supporters of CES bills—like Lugar—are too busy bashing President Obama on other energy issues like the Keystone XL pipeline.

That’s not lost on Bingaman or his staff who have been working on this measure since President Obama called for a national clean-energy standard in his State of the Union address last year. Bingaman wants to start a conversation, and one that will last long after he retires.

“There is a lot we can do to lay the ground for new ideas that might find a way forward when the current level of partisanship abates,” Bingaman said at an Energy Department conference on Wednesday.

A clean-energy standard is not a new idea, but Congress has never seriously considered it since it’s always been in the shadow of other energy proposals.

“Look at the history, we’ve had different versions of this for a number of years,” said Eileen Claussen, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, who plans to be at Bingaman's press conference to introduce the bill on Thursday morning. “I don’t think we’ve ever really had a good conversation about it. I don’t know if we’re politically capable of it. I think it’s worth another try.”

Proponents of renewable energy worry that any CES would push out wind and solar development for natural gas, an energy source that emits half as much carbon as coal but still far more than carbon-neutral energy sources. In the short term, Bingaman’s proposal will likely favor gas, but in the long term, renewable energy should benefit the most, an aide to Bingaman told National Journal.

Coal-fired electricity, which is the dirtiest form of energy but also the most prevalent in the country, will find it the hardest to comply with Bingaman’s proposal. But that’s how it has been with any legislation promoting clean energy or seeking to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to climate change. That’s a hard fact to sugar-coat, especially as costly carbon-capture technology is not commercially available.

Bingaman’s staff has come up with an innovative way to grade how clean an energy source is. “It will take all electricity-generating technologies that exceed the carbon efficiency of the current state-of-the-art supercritical coal generation, and award them credits scaled to their relative improvement in carbon intensity over that baseline,” Bingaman said at the conference on Wednesday. In simpler terms, Bingaman’s proposal will offer credits or a fraction of credits depending on how clean a plant is compared to a super-efficient coal plant. For example, a natural gas plant that produces half as many carbon emissions as a super-efficient coal plant will get half a credit. No other CES proposal has done that in the past. It was either all or nothing, which didn’t matter when it was simply a Plan B compared to a less-popular Plan A.

But Bingaman wants to have an actual conversation about this, even if he may think there are better ideas out there. After all, it took Obama’s call to get him on board with a CES.

“We need more predictable long-term policy signals, if we want energy innovation to truly flourish,” Bingaman said. “If there are better ideas for how to do that than a clean energy standard, then I hope they are proposed in concrete form as we discuss the proposal that I’m going to make.”

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