Call it climate-lite.
The renewable electricity standard introduced in the Senate yesterday is a key element in most sprawling measures to address climate change. It's designed to rev up renewable electricity -- 15 percent by 2021, including efficiency -- resulting in less fossil fuel use and less emissions. That would help utilities cut their carbon output to comply with an emissions cap -- if Congress ever enacts one.
Yet the bill offered by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) is just one splinter of the comprehensive climate package, the one that included a carbon price, that President Obama promoted at the outset of his term.
The narrow measure would cut emissions, but not with the force of cap and trade, while establishing a national market for renewable energy credits and the nation's first long-term commitment to power made from sources like wind and solar facilities.
"I believe an RES will have a greater impact on economic growth than it will on carbon reductions in the short run," said Daniel Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. "This would provide a lot more certainty for investors."
That can be good for jobs -- and Democrats as they enter midterm elections tainted by recession economics and attacks on their "cap and tax" plan. The RES, even a weak one, as Bingaman's is widely described, can earn the trust of investors that the United States will be dedicated to clean energy for a long time, supporters say. Other efforts, like the production tax credit, have come and gone, and the notion that the Democratic Congress would deliver a climate bill promoting renewable energy has evaporated.
So a policy that ensures the purchase of clean power, even just 3 percent of utilities' portfolios in the first year, is "extraordinarily urgent," says Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association.
"Over the last two years, as Congress is gridlocked ... we've lost the confidence of people investing billions of dollars in the U.S.," she added. "It is really an erosion of confidence in America, and Americans and our word. It is critical that we regain that."
Where are other technologies?
Bingaman's bill requires utilities to purchase up to 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2021. About one-quarter of that can be achieved through energy efficiency programs.
Concerns linger, however, that the bill's low standard won't spark new energy production, because many states already have higher standards. Altogether, 29 states have renewable electricity requirements. Others worry that the bill offers a narrow set of clean energies, leaving other technologies out of luck.
"The good news is that there will be a national RES, which will assist those states that don't have an RES into the fold and create a REC market," said Mark Sinclair, vice president of the Clean Energy Group, which helps states develop financing methods for power projects. "The bad news is ... it's not going to do that much to promote renewables."
One area of the country, however, could be catapulted onto the clean energy stage. The Southeast has lagged behind on renewable power policies, and a national RES could spur biomass and hydropower projects in the region, supporters say.
One thing it won't do is deeply slash carbon. An RES requiring utilities to buy 25 percent of their power from clean sources would cut power plant emissions 2 percent by 2025, or by 277 million metric tons annually, according to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Compare that to the Senate's failed climate bill that called for a 17 percent cut in carbon by 2020.
Bingaman's bill would achieve "considerably less" emissions reductions, says Marchant Wentworth, deputy legislative director for the climate and energy program at UCS.
Selling point: 'It's not cap and trade'
But the less politicians talk about climate, it seems, the better. Senate efforts to match the House's passage of a major climate bill with cap and trade never gained momentum this year, in part because of Democratic opposition, but also because the GOP accused supporters of raising the price of electricity.
Now, as lawmakers race toward midterm elections colored by a conservative movement, various challengers are questioning the science behind climate change. Brownback, the Kansas conservative who co-sponsored the RES measure, cautioned against framing the debate as an environmental struggle.
"What I'm doing with this is I'm saying this is a responsible, balanced approach with moving forward. It's not cap and trade," Brownback said yesterday. "It's trying to stimulate renewable energy, which the vast majority of the public is for. And that's why we talk about this, rather than get into the debate on climate change. That's how you can move something forward. Stay out of that fight."
Brownback declined to say if he agreed with tea party candidates who resist the notion that humans are contributing to climate change.
Even those who believe atmospheric warming can enhance the risk of hurricanes, drought and flooding say the RES debate should focus on the immediate impact to jobs. Otherwise Republicans could flinch.
"An RES is an important but relatively small step," Joshua Freed, director of the Clean Energy Initiative at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, said of the larger effort to address climate. "But none of this should be looked at through the frame of the environment."
Play clock is ticking
The climate debate is over, for now. So focus, he suggests, on the economic benefits of building wind turbines in the United States, establishing a string of parts providers and service companies, and igniting a new manufacturing sector that can lift the nation into the trillion-dollar market already being tapped by China and the European Union.
All of that hinges on 60 senators. Bingaman already has the support of two Republicans, Brownback and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. He and his co-sponsors, including Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), will attempt to corral 60 votes between now and the lame-duck session after the elections.
If they do, Bingaman will ask Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for a vote on the stand-alone RES bill before year's end. That might need to happen earlier in the fall, or else the House could run out of time to pass its own version.
Several senators say there are enough votes, and Bingaman notes that the chamber has passed an RES three times in the past.
"It's not a question of not being able to pass a renewable electricity standard through the Senate," Bingaman said.
Correction: Offshore wind would be eligible under Bingaman and Brownback's proposed RES. An earlier version incorrectly reported that it would not. Other sources of power that utilities could use to meet the standard's 15 percent requirement include onshore wind, solar, geothermal, ocean, biomass, landfill gas, qualified hydro and waste to energy, marine, hydrokinetic, coal-mined methane, and others accepted by the Energy secretary.