Renewables pushed as partial solution to global warming

While a cap on carbon dioxide emissions remains a Holy Grail for environmental groups, rather than pursuing one Congress may take interim, and less politically painful, steps to curb global warming.

One of the likeliest options would require electric utilities, which account for about 40 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted in the U.S., to produce a percentage of their electricity with “climate-friendly” renewable sources such as solar, wind, geothermal, biomass or even tidal power.

The so-called Renewable Portfolio Standard, or RPS, has been a particular point of emphasis for Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the new chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. A committee spokesman, Bill Wicker, said Bingaman has directed staff to review the progression of renewable fuel technologies to see how aggressive a new mandate should be. Earlier efforts would require that utilities get 10 percent of their power from renewables by 2020.

While the proposal has a few powerful backers, an RPS still would engender the opposition of certain utilities with lobbying power derived from the enormous sums they spend on campaigns and on political advocacy, as well as the number of people who are affected by their business. Supporters of an RPS contend the standard won’t appreciably raise consumer electricity bills, but the industry contends certain areas would pay more for power under a portfolio standard.

In addition to the RPS, Congress is also likely to consider proposals to further increase ethanol production and to raise the fuel-mileage standards for automobiles, both of which could have a residual benefit of reducing greenhouse gases.

To accomplish any of the above, Democratic leaders may have to overcome opposition within their own caucus, in addition to peeling off Republican votes. An RPS has passed the Senate but not the House, where Republican leaders blocked it from moving to the floor. Democrats who have opposed an RPS include new Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D) of Virginia, a state heavily reliant on coal to produce electricity. Democratic leadership, however, is likely to support an RPS.

Marchant Wentworth, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, describes himself as “very optimistic” that the change in control of Congress will mean the RPS bill gets through, although the bill remains the “No. 1 bad guy” for utilities.

“An RPS is an example of a climate piece that actually yields a benefit, as opposed to a climate bill that is just painting,” the clean-energy expert said.

If it passes an RPS, Congress would be following state governments. More than 20 have implemented an RPS. That fact may have softened utility opposition to the federal proposal, according to one Democratic aide. Businesses dislike mandates, but often prefer one national standard to a patchwork of state regulations.

Jim Owen, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a utility group, said the industry is committed to developing environmentally friendly renewable fuels. But Owen added EEI remains opposed to a “one-size-fits-all” federal mandate.

An RPS is likely to raise costs in areas of the country, such as the Southeast, with less access to renewable sources of power, Owen said. Even in areas like the wind-swept Midwestern plains or the sun-drenched Southwest, the renewable power source isn’t a constant. Stores of coal can be burned as needed.

“Wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine,” Owen said.

But opposition isn’t universal within the utility industry. Jonathan Weisgall, a lobbyist for MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., which has supported an RPS, believes one way to further reduce opposition to a renewable mandate is to couple it with a broader production tax credit that makes renewable energy more price-competitive.

The 109th Congress extended a production tax credit as one of its last acts, but Weisgall said a further extension could provide additional financial stability that utilities need to build expensive geothermal plants, for example.

The tax credit would carry a big price tag, however, at a time when Democrats are operating under pay-go rules that require a tax cut be offset with a reduction in spending.

Nevertheless, Owen of EEI acknowledged that the Democratic control of Congress gives an RPS “more traction.”

Currently, only about 2 percent of the electricity produced in the country comes from renewable energy, a figure that’s remained constant over the years.

More than 50 percent of the power produced comes from coal, a major emitter of carbon dioxide. Nuclear plants produce about 20 percent of the electricity consumed in this country, with natural gas and hydropower accounting for most of the remainder.

Studies by the federal Energy Information Administration found that utilities would produce less carbon dioxide under an RPS than they would otherwise. But because of the projected increase in energy use, carbon dioxide emissions  would still rise well above current levels.

For Jeremy Symons of the National Wildlife Federation, that means Congress can’t be satisfied with anything but an outright cap on greenhouse-gas emissions.