For RES Passage, Time Is Growing Short

Wind industry proponents of a renewable electricity standard (RES) are making one more furious push to get legislation passed this year. But with time running out, the odds are not in their favor.

Earlier this week, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, along with Sen. Tom Udall, D-Colo., introduced legislation that would require utilities to obtain 15% of their energy from renewables by 2021. Similar legislation was adopted by the committee in 2009 as part of a larger bill, but the full Senate never acted on it. (The House of Representatives did pass an RES in 2009.)

This time, RES proponents claim the legislation has the 60 votes – including from several Republicans needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.

But even if that is true, that may not be enough reason to bring the measure to a vote. There is barely a week left before the Senate adjourns for the elections, and Bingaman's spokesman said this week that it was ‘very unlikely’ it would be brought to a vote during the pre-election rush.

There is some expectation that Congress will come back briefly after the election to take up leftover legislation before adjourning for the year. But there is no way to predict whether senators will pass anything other than spending bills needed to keep the government operating until next year.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, has not yet committed to bringing the bill to the floor this year, and while Bingaman said he believes the bill can pass, he wants to see firm evidence of that before asking Reid for floor time for the bill. Even then, time may run out.

If the RES doesn't pass, it may well be because sponsors of the RES have still not generated the political momentum to pass it, despite several years of trying. Energy politics in Washington are notably tricky.

So far, the unusually strong Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate were not enough to pass it, mostly because not all Democrats support an RES, either because they believe it is not needed or that it will hurt electric utilities and traditional fuel sources. (Several Republicans announced support for the bill this week, including Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Susan Collins of Maine.)

Throughout this year, industry leaders have been warning Congress and the Obama administration that without a strong signal of support from the U.S. government, such as an RES, the industry's momentum, which has been strong in the last three years, could be lost. That has happened before, in the 1980s, when the nascent wind industry suffered due to a lack of government support.

The current warnings of a weaker wind sector without an RES seemed to have originated from disappointing numbers for new wind installations for the first half of 2010, and predictions that the rest of the year would be only slightly better.

But another argument heard in favor of an RES this week ran somewhat counter to the idea that the RES is needed to create demand for new wind installations. That argument is that the RES in the Bingaman bill will have no adverse impact on utilities or the fossil-fuel industry because the standard proposed in the bill is already being met as the use of renewable energy continues to grow.

‘The RES shouldn't be controversial,’ said Ken Bossong, executive director of the pro-renewable SUN DAY Campaign. The group issued a statement pointing out that ‘it's obvious that the 2013 target has already been surpassed by 30% or more, and the 2016 target of 6% is within easy reach.’

Nevertheless, Bossing said, ‘Creating an RES framework and starting foundation is a worthy goal, and the Senate bill should be supported for that reason.


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