Facing a flurry of activity that began with President Obama's endorsement of the idea in last month's State of the Union address, the wind industry is scrambling to respond to proposals for a clean energy standard (CES).
There is no formal legislative proposal yet, and significant skepticism among conservatives, especially in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, means that enactment into law is no sure thing. Perhaps most important of all, there is no guarantee that a CES would help the slumping wind industry.
Nevertheless, the pressure is on: The CES has emerged as the only blip on the policy horizon in the aftermath of the wind industry's failure last year to secure the enactment of a renewable electricity standard (RES).
This week, the wind industry's major lobbying group, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), is bringing its members to Washington, D.C., to flood Capitol Hill for the annual lobby day exercise. But the group's message on a CES is heavily hedged.
The day after Obama endorsed a CES in the State of the Union, AWEA noted its delight and concerns.
‘We are pleased to see the possibility of the first predictable long-term federal policy toward renewable energy,’ Denise Bode, CEO of AWEA, stated in a press release. ‘But of course, we'll need to make sure the policy really deploys the renewable energy Americans want in the near term, as well as the long term.’
This week, AWEA updated its take on a CES, but has not lost its skepticism.
‘Policymakers recognize that we need a more diverse electricity portfolio,’ Britt Theismann, senior vice president and chief operating officer at AWEA, said in an e-mailed statement. ‘While natural gas provides many benefits, utilities are becoming overly reliant on that one source of new generation, so a clean and/or renewable electricity standard requiring other sources would provide valuable diversity. AWEA supports legislation that will deploy renewables and drive demand for clean, abundant and homegrown wind energy.’
It will be difficult for the industry to mope on the sidelines forever, hoping against hope that an RES will be resurrected in place of a CES. ‘If we were ever going to get an RES, it was last year,’ says one wind lobbyist who requested anonymity. ‘Now, the clean energy standard is the only viable long-term policy option in this Congress,’ he says, adding, ‘Who knows if it will work?’
The CES first emerged in 2010 as an alternative to the RES. By including natural gas and nuclear energy as ‘clean’ fuel sources for utilities, it was meant to be a more palatable path to dealing with climate change and overreliance on foreign energy. For the wind industry and most other proponents of renewables, it was a non-starter because it seemed unlikely to increase the U.S. market for renewables, which was the purpose of an RES.
But that political dynamic was upended when no RES passed in 2010 and when President Obama signaled his support for a CES in his 2011 State of the Union address.
‘I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: By 2035, 80 percent of America's electricity will come from clean energy sources,’ Obama stated during the speech. ‘Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all – and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen.’
Reaction was swift and largely positive from Democrats. Support came from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which in 2009 produced comprehensive energy legislation that included an RES. The senate has two other strong wind energy advocates: Sens. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Tom Udall, D-N.M.
Bingaman has stressed the importance of pushing renewable energy as a mechanism for creating manufacturing jobs and has said he will want to see a CES that truly creates demand for renewables.
‘Senator Bingaman will work with the administration, Democrats and Republicans to put together a bill that is workable and that makes sense,’ says Bingaman's spokesperson, Bill Wicker. ‘These are the jobs of the future.’
Also sounding a positive note was Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calf., ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which also produced an RES in 2009. Last week, he wrote to Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the new chairman, urging action on a bipartisan CES bill.
‘We simply cannot afford to let two more years go by without addressing our nation's pressing energy problems,’ Waxman wrote in the letter. ‘We urgently need legislation that will create jobs, enhance our energy security and address the threat of climate change.’
Upton has been anything but positive about a CES. In an interview with The Hill's energy and environment blog, E2, he said that more than two dozen states already had renewable requirements for their utilities and that putting a federal CES in place would cause problems. ‘For me, the bottom line is that states have done it and it seems to be working okay,’ Upton said. ‘If it ain't broke, don't fix it.’
Upton's Senate counterpart, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, ranking Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has not yet engaged in this issue this year. However, she worked with Bingaman to craft the 2009 RES and was one of four committee Republicans who voted for it.
‘A key person in the whole debate will be Senator Murkowski,’ says Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank. ‘Will she support a CES? If she is for it, it could pass the Committee and go to the Senate floor,’ he said, adding that Republicans in the House remain a formidable obstacle.
Notwithstanding this political reality, the Center for American Progress is participating in the legislative process, proposing a set of key principles that should guide Congress in crafting a CES. Chief among them is that the CES should include ‘a specific and separate target to ensure the growth of our cleanest electricity resources, including energy efficiency, and wind, solar, geothermal and other truly renewable electricity sources.’ The center proposed a 35% ‘carve out’ within the Obama administration's goal of 80% clean energy by 2035.
‘To be attractive to the renewable industry, any CES would have to avoid having renewables competing directly with natural gas. It also has to avoid federal preemption of state rules,’ Weiss says.
Earlier this month at the National Press Club, Bingaman delivered a speech in which he signed on to the rough concept of a CES.
‘For a number of years, I have advanced a renewable electricity standard to ensure long-term demand [for renewables]. The president proposed to expand it to a clean energy standard: 80 percent by 2035. The White House has asked us to work with them,’ he said. ‘Key design issues have to be answered: What qualifies as a clean energy standard; how does the proposal account for existing clean energy sources; does the credit trading system that we developed for renewables – how does that fit?’
During the speech, Bingaman also tied the CES directly to generating demand for renewables in order to create domestic jobs, saying, ‘We need to have a strong domestic market for clean energy technology. Without clean energy market pull in the United States, there will not be the incentive to manufacture or deploy these technologies here.’
Even with the obvious obstacles, Bill Wicker, Bingaman's spokesperson, expresses his boss's resolve to move forward.
‘There has been excitement and skepticism in reaction to the [president's] proposal. It has been about equally balanced,’ he says. ‘But just because something is difficult does not mean we should not try to do it.’
Chris Madison is a freelance writer living in Maryland.