News broke a few days ago that a bi-partisan group of Senators has introduced a bill to create a country-wide RPS (renewable portfolio standard):

Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) introduced the Renewable Electricity Promotion Act.

The proposed legislation would install a renewable portfolio standard (or renewable electricity standard, in D.C. parlance) requiring states to generate at least 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2021.

Electricity retailers that sell fewer than 4 million MWh are exempted from the bill’s standard. Qualifying generation technologies under the bill are wind, solar, ocean, geothermal, biomass, landfill gas, waste-to-energy, hydrokinetic and new hydropower at existing dams.

There are currently 36 states in the Union that already have some form of renewable portfolio standard, alternative energy portfolio standard or renewable energy goal, according to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

Early critics of the Senate legislation point out that the targets set by the act are actually lower than the amount of non-hydro renewable electricity already being generated today.

To be clear, the criticism mentioned in the last sentence I quoted above doesn’t make sense. According to the Dept. of Energy’s Annual Energy Review, Table 8.2a, in 2009 non-hydro renewable generation in the US was 141.1 billion kWh, and total electricity generation was 3,953.1 billion kWh, making non-hydro renewables just over 3.5%. The proposed law itself (PDF here) lays out the following schedule on page 12:

  • 2012 through 2013: 3.0[%]
  • 2014 through 2016: 6.0
  • 2017 through 2018: 9.0
  • 2019 through 2020: 12.0
  • 2021 through 2039: 15.0

Given that the schedule begins in about 15 months, and the long time lags involved with making this level of infrastructure change, I have zero problem with making the first period start lower than the current level. Also, note that this law is applied on a per-utility basis, meaning that many utilities will have to scramble to buy renewable electricity credits from other producers so they can then sell it to their customers.

Wait — renewable electricity credits? Yes, this bill sets up a market in those, as well as one for efficiency credits. From page 13 of the bill:

Not later than January 1, 2012, the Secretary shall establish a Federal renewable energy credit trading program, and a Federal energy efficiency credit trading program, under which electric utilities shall submit to the Secretary Federal renewable energy credits and Federal energy efficiency credits to certify the compliance of the electric utilities with subsection (b)(1).

So, instead of a carbon cap-and-trade system, we would get a carbon-free-generation-floor-and-trade system? Sounds good to me. As I’ve long said, one of the keys to avoiding immense pain thanks to peak oil and climate change, to name the just the Big Two of our looming sustainability horrors, will be leveraging the power of the market. We have to realize that the market is not a be-all, end-all deity to be worshiped, nor is it the a world manifestation of pure evil. It’s a very powerful but completely mindless tool that we can use to serve our own best interests. (I know that when I say that I piss off everyone more than about half a standard deviation from the political center in the US, but you’ll just have to live with it.)

The bill would also set a price for non-compliance of 2.1 cents/kWh, presumably applying to just the percentage of the utility’s generation that failed to meet the standard. (The bill doesn’t include that last qualification explicitly. See page 12.)

And let us not forget that it would also impose an RPS on the states (Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and Alaska, according to the article) that still don’t have one.

So, what to think of this? The low starting requirement is fine, as I said above. Creating a trading market for renewable credits is an excellent step, assuming they don’t screw up the implementation. The 2.1 cents/kWh non-compliance penalty feels low to me, even though it’s a hefty portion of the cost of generating electricity with an old, long ago paid for, dirty coal plant.

My big objection is to the 15% RPS for years 2021 through 2039. That’s too low for 2021, considering the urgency of decarbonizing our electricity infrastructure, and absurdly low for 2039. If the US’ electricity generation is still 85% non-renewable, and therefore carbon emitting at the same percentage or very nearly so, then we are in immense trouble. If we have any shot whatsoever of hitting an 80% reduction from 1990 levels by 2050, then we need much quicker change than this bill would trigger. And keep in mind that our transportation energy consumption will begin to shift from oil to the electricity sector literally in a matter of months as the first EVs and PHEVs hit the mass market. By the years 2021 to 2039 we’ll see a very sizable portion of our transportation fueled by electrons, which will make cleaning up the electricity sector even more critical.[2]

My guess is that this bill has almost no chance of passing, despite having a couple of Republicans on board. The Party of No will rise up and kill it, simply to keep the Democrats from doing anything. Remember what the Republican playbook says: If it’s good for the Democrats, it’s bad for us, no matter what it means to the country. Think I’m exaggerating? Try asking Senator Jim “Dr. Strangelove” DeMint.

[1] My general feeling on EV and PHEV acceptance in the US is that it will be very strong. Yes, there will be some glitches and unpleasant surprises in the first few years, and quite a few American consumers are, to be kind, utter blockheads when it comes to figuring out what’s in their own best interest, even ignoring climate change and oil use issues. But time, the satisfaction of early adopters, the lower maintenance and per-mile fuel costs, and the continued decline in battery (and therefore car) prices will all guarantee that EVs and PHEVs won’t have an acceptance problem, even in a country full of people who think watching American Idol is a good use of their gray cells and time.

A tip of my blogosphere hat (complete with PRESS card stuck in the band) to Rebecca Jacobsen for prodding me to look into this and say something about it.


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