Can Congress Pass a Renewable Energy Standard?

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A carbon cap now seems to be beyond the greenest dreams of environmentalists, but is it possible that Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid’s energy bill will be more than just oil spill measures? It could happen. Though Reid had said last week that he wouldn’t be able to include a renewable energy standard (RES) in his bill—mandating that a certain percentage of the nation’s electricity come from green sources—but today a few moderate Democrats and even a Republican senator indicated that they might be open to including RES. Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas said that while he was still against a carbon cap in an energy bill, he’d like to see a national RES:

I would argue that most Americans believe that in addressing any challenge, it’s necessary to adopt a balanced, pragmatic strategy.  In this case, a moderate RES would be an important step towards a cleaner energy future, but without the job-killing provisions that come with cap and tax.

Kansas is a wind-rich state, one that already gets 2.9% of its electricity from renewable sources, so Brownback has practical reasons to back an RES. But environmental advocates are renewing their push for an aggressive RES in any energy bill—even if it is seen as something of a consolation prize. Too often U.S. policy on renewable power has been like a truck stuck in rush-hour traffic: stop-and-start. Generous tax subsidies help the wind or solar grow—but when they’re allowed the expire, the industry suddenly collapses.  By requiring America’s utilities to shift some of their production to clean energy, an RES could finally provide the renewable power industry the long-term certainty it needs to grow—creating new jobs along the way. “If you want to lead and you’re serious about green-collar job creation, then you need to set a goal,” said Iowa Governor Chet Culver, whose state gets around 20% of its electricity from wind. “I could not be more direct in my pleas to Congress to pass this renewable electricity standard. Our energy future depends on it.”

Whether that happens though will depend on the votes in the Senate. And as of the weekend, Reid still maintained that there wasn’t a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate for an RES. (A Senate Democratic aide told Mother Jones‘s Kate Sheppard that Reid feared an RES “would replace the cap in terms of scare tactics from the right.”) But Reid’s predecessor, former Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle, disagrees—he told reporters today that “I know we have bipartisan support [for RES] and the 60 votes for getting it done.”

Unfortunately for environmentalists, Reid is the one who is still in the Senate—Daschle was denied re-election in 2004—so his opinion matters a bit more. But a national RES shouldn’t even be that controversial. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, led by New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman, passed with bipartisan support last June a bill that includes a 15% by 2021 national RES. And as part of the Waxman-Markey bill, the House passed a more aggressive 20% by 2020 RES last June.

Even without a RES, the renewable energy industry is growing rapidly around the world as governments look to decarbonize and diversify their electricity supply. But passing a national standard would, at the very least, send a signal to the public and investors that the Senate isn’t completely ignoring the energy and climate crisis.