Senate Approves Weakened Renewable Standard

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, March 22, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Senate voted Thursday to require utilities to generate more of their electricity from renewable sources including wind and solar power. However, the standard adopted by the Senate disappointed many conservation groups, who say the measure excludes so many electricity providers that it will have little or no effect on the nation's use of renewable energy.


The renewable standard would provide support for facilities like the McNeil Generating Station in Burlington, Vermont, which turns wood waste into power. (Photo courtesy National Renewable Energy Lab)
On a voice vote Thursday, the Senate adopted an amendment introduced by Senator Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, that will require many utilities to produce at least 10 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020.

However, the measure excludes all public power companies, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Bonneville Power Administration, along with rural electric cooperatives and other smaller retailers. Conservation groups say those exclusions mean that the bill now requires only about four to five percent of the nation's electricity to come from new renewable sources by 2020.

The Bingaman amendment overrides language in the underlying energy bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, that would have mandated the 10 percent renewable standard with fewer exclusions, offering a true increase in renewable energy of about seven percent.

Less than two percent of the nation's electricity supply is now produced from renewable sources other than hydropower.

Conservation groups say the Senate vote is disappointing because it falls far short of what the nation is capable of achieving in switching to renewable power sources. Recent studies by the Energy Information Agency (EIA) and other groups indicate that the United States could be producing up to 20 percent of its electricity from new renewable sources by 2020, using existing technology and with little cost to consumers.


Senator Jeff Bingaman's amendment weakens the Senate's proposed renewable energy standard by about 40 percent. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
The Senate bill in its current form would require most utilities to produce at least one percent of their electricity by 2005, with that standard increase by 0.6 percent each year until it reaches 10 percent in 2020.

"We are extremely disappointed that the Senate voted to weaken the renewable energy standard in its energy bill," said Katherine Morrison, staff attorney for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). "A strong renewable energy standard is achievable, reasonable and will help the economy, consumers and the environment."

Last week, the Senate rejected a proposal authored by Senator Jim Jeffords, a Vermont Independent, to require that 20 percent of the nation's electricity come from renewable sources by 2020.

Supporters of an increased reliance on renewables say that renewable energy use would boost national security by decentralizing power sources. While a power plant or nuclear reactor offers a site specific target, a wind farm or solar panels on the roofs of buildings throughout a city reduce that risk, says the national conservation group Sierra Club.


Wind turbines, like these at the Buffalo Ridge wind farm in southwest Minnesota, provide a decentralized power source that would be a difficult target for terrorists, supporters say. (Photos by Warren Gretz courtesy National Renewable Energy Lab)
"We need a cleaner, safer, and more secure energy plan that keeps our air and environment clean and healthy and improves America's national security," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "We are disappointed that our Senators did not show far reaching vision, but instead voted to keep America dependent on dirty coal fired power plants and risky nuclear reactors. Relying on fossil fuels, dirty power plants and risky reactors sticks families with pollution, health problems and security concerns."

Last week, Pope noted, the Senate also rejected mandating higher fuel economy standards for cars, sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and other light trucks, which could have saved millions of barrels of oil.

"It's time for Congress to scrap this do nothing energy plan and go back to the drawing board," Pope added.

Critics also warn that the Senate energy bill now includes too broad a definition of renewable power sources. Under the Bingaman amendment passed Thursday, trees less than 12 inches in diameter would qualify as biomass fuel for power plants, a provision that could provide incentives for logging up to 15 percent of national forests.

Bingaman's language would also allow incineration of municipal solid waste, a leading source of toxic dioxin, mercury and lead emissions, to qualify as renewable.

"This dangerous and expensive source of energy should not count towards a renewable energy standard and certainly should not be encouraged through taxpayer funded subsidies," said U.S. PIRG's Morrison. "Only truly clean renewable sources, such as solar and wind, should qualify as renewable energy."


Senator Jon Kyl introduced an amendment that would have thrown decisions about renewable energy standards to the states. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
In a small victory for cleaner power on Thursday, the Senate voted 58 to 40 to reject an amendment by Republican Senator Jon Kyl that would have deleted all language pertaining to a national renewable standard.

Kyl's alternative would have allowed states to decide whether to require additional renewable energy production, "to the extent it is available." Kyl had argued that his measure was aimed at "keeping the federal government out of the business of telling Americans what they have to do" regarding electricity sources.


In April 2000, Arizona became the first state to require all utilities to produce a percent of their electricity using solar power. The Arizona Public Service Company is testing this high concentration solar system at its Solar Test and Research (STAR) Center in Tempe. (Photo by Bill Timmerman, courtesy National Renewable Energy Lab)
Fourteen states, including Kyl's home state of Arizona, already have laws requiring utilities to produce some of their energy from renewable sources, Kyl pointed out.

"The Kyl amendment was a do nothing, status quo approach," said Jaime Steve, legislative director for the American Wind Energy Association. "The vote opposing the amendment demonstrated bipartisan support for slowly but surely increasing the role that renewable energy will play in meeting America's electricity needs."