Chu to governors: Capitol Hill renewable energy plans too weak

That increase would render the RES under consideration on Capitol Hill moot. An RES approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year sets a 15 percent renewable target by 2021, but roughly a fourth of that could be met through energy efficiency measures.

Energy and climate legislation the House approved last year similarly sets a 15 percent mandate by 2020, but, like the Senate plan, a portion of the target could be met with utility energy efficiency programs. Simply put, Chu is saying that existing policy will already spur equal or greater increases in renewable generation than the RES plans would require.

Renewables currently supply just a small fraction of U.S. power.

Chu said that a tougher RES – and long-term extension of renewable energy tax credits – would provide a greater draw for companies to build and keep renewable energy component manufacturing in the U.S., such as the Vestas plant in Colorado that he toured Friday.

“My fear is that unless Congress passes something that is a little bit more than that, there will not be that incentive,” he said at a forum on energy issues at the governors’ meeting. Chu said he would like to see a standard that is “a little bit more aggressive than what’s being considered.”

He noted that Vestas is “nervous” that unless there is a strong national standard, the market will not have sustained growth.

Chu, after speaking with the governors, told reporters that a 20 percent renewable standard by 2020 would be preferable. Some Democrats, such as Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), have also called for a higher renewables target. The renewable power industry is likewise lobbying for something more ambitious than the House and Senate bills.

But advocates of ramping up the percentage face big hurdles.

The more modest House and Senate plans were already the result of painstaking negotiations and compromises among lawmakers, including members from southeastern states who fear their region lacks enough renewable resources to meet higher targets.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and some other Republicans have floated the idea of a broader “clean energy” standard for utilities that could be met with renewable energy and new nuclear power plants, as well as coal plants that trap and sequester carbon dioxide (a technology that has not yet been commercialized). Graham is trying to craft a compromise climate and energy bill with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Chu told reporters Saturday that he’s open to a standard that allows sources beyond renewables. “Logically, I am very much in favor of an overall clean energy standard,” he said.

But he also said there are problems with the idea. Chu noted that if a proposed nuclear plant faced a licensing delay, that could prevent compliance with the standard because reactors provide large amounts of power.

“I think, overall, philosophically, we do not want to draw any distinction in terms of this technology or that technology as long as it is clean, it is really reducing the carbon dioxide and other pollutants as well,” he said.

“The big question mark is if you are going to include nuclear in that mix, given that it is this big lump and if there is a licensing delay, how to deal with that, and so I think that has to be talked through,” Chu added.