This story was updated at 9:25 a.m.
The struggle to establish a national standard for renewable electricity generation is about to resume, with Senate and House leaders preparing to propose new, more stringent requirements in line with a target set by President Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) will introduce legislation today mandating that utilities obtain 25 percent of the electricity they supply from renewable resources such as wind and solar power by 2025, according to a source who has seen the bill. Aides to Markey, who chairs the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, would not comment yesterday on his plans for the bill.
A draft of a Senate bill being prepared by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, sets 20 percent requirement by 2021, said a source who has seen the draft. In that version, 5 percent of that target could be met by increases in energy efficiency and conservation. Whether the Markey bill would do the same was not known yesterday.
The proposals for a renewable portfolio standard (RPS), as the policy is known, have been a battleground climate issue dividing Congress' Democratic leaders and many environmental activists, on one hand, from the electric utility industry and their Congressional allies, on the other.
Legislation establishing a 15 percent RPS by 2020 passed in the House in the 110th Congress, but the measure was blocked in the Senate at the end of 2007 by a filibuster, supported by leading power companies, including Atlanta-based Southern Co.
Southern, which says its service area in the Southeast doesn't have enough solar and wind potential to meet a high renewable standard without incurring unacceptable costs, remains opposed. It recently added to its considerable lobbying forces by hiring a prominent Democrat, Heather Podesta, sister-in-law of John Podesta, chief of staff in the Clinton White House and the head of Obama's transition team.
Should nuclear power be excluded?
Last year, Southern and its affiliates spent $14.1 million on lobbying, according to federal government records and the Center for Responsive Politics -- the second highest total in the utility industry and 9 percent of all lobbying expenditures by that industry.
But Southern last week appeared to accept that following the 2008 election, its odds of blocking the standard have slipped. "I think it's obvious that with a new Congress there is a strong desire to move forward," Southern chairman and CEO David Ratcliffe said on a conference call last week. "We are under the impression we will likely have a renewable portfolio standard."
The delay on the Senate side reflects attempts to draft a bipartisan climate and energy bill by Bingaman and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the new ranking Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Asked last week whether the bill would include a renewable standard, Bingaman said he hoped so, but wasn't certain. "In some form, I don't know." Republican votes would be needed to break a Senate filibuster.
"I share the chairman's goal" of a bipartisan bill, Murkowski said in an interview last week. She added, "There are things he and I are just not going to agree on." A standard as high as 25 percent would be on that list. "I don't think that's something that's salable on my side."
Another critical issue to Republicans, she said, is how renewable energy is defined in the bill. Democratic sponsors have insisted that nuclear power be excluded. Industry proponents of nuclear generation say it provides a carbon dioxide emissions-free source of electricity for meeting everyday demands and can be counted on when solar and wind power are not available.
An Energy Department report last year said that raising the share of renewable electricity generation to 20 percent of all electric power output by 2030 from 1 percent in 2007 was achievable but would require massive changes in the way power is transmitted across the nation's grid.
Entergy, a major utility company based in Louisiana, hopes to head off passage of the renewables standard by urging Congress to focus instead on legislation capping industrial carbon emissions and requiring companies to purchase credits if they exceed their limits. Entergy, echoing Southern's argument about poor renewable energy potential in the Southeast, says that the cap-and-trade strategy, by effectively raising the price of coal-fired electricity, would make renewables competitive in the marketplace.
Brent Dorsey, Entergy's director of corporate environment programs, said he believes that approach has received "some traction," but not enough to halt the renewables legislation. "The congressional leadership has the RPS first and greenhouse gases later. What I'm hearing, it's not whether there'll be a RPS, it's when."