RENEWABLE ENERGY:

Marine energy bill inches closer to Senate floor

A Senate bill to support the development of the burgeoning marine energy field has passed through committee, a step closer to more funding and legitimacy for the relative newcomer to clean technology.

S. 630 passed unopposed through the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Originally introduced in the Senate by committee ranking member Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the bill authorizes up to $75 million for tidal, wave, ocean thermal and river-based technologies.

"This really does puts marine energy on a level playing field as other renewables such as wind and solar and geothermal," she said at the hearing. "I think it allows us to an area that is underlooked and underutilized and clearly has great potential."

Introduced in March, the bill seeks to promote the emerging technology in marine and hydrokinetic energy. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) estimates marine energy's resources in the United States to be about 2,214 terawatt-hours of power per year. If production potential could reach 400 terawatt-hours per year, it could comfortably provide about 10 percent of the country's electricity needs.

Murkowski proposed an amendment to add $20 million to the bill's authorized appropriations for fiscal 2012, to reach $70 million in fiscal 2012 and $75 million in 2013. For fiscal 2012, $50 million had already been authorized by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. The additional $20 million would be offset from rural electrification grants from Section 209 of the 2005 Energy Policy Act. The $75 million for 2013 would come from an unused Department of Energy direct loan program.

The amendment came after members called the choice of offset programs into question. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) called the switching of program funds a "really inappropriate standard."

"You can't start any new program unless you eliminate an authorization in another program," she said. "I strongly disagree with that philosophy." The philosophy, she added, makes lawmakers relatively powerless unless members of the Appropriations Committee and subcommittees agree with the offsets.

"You can create all of the programs you want, but unless the appropriators ... appropriate the money, you won't see one dime of funding," said Landrieu.

The committee staff also added "riverine" -- or river-based -- to the definition of marine hydrokinetic, a move that would greatly increase the number of projects eligible for funding, said Sean O'Neill, president of the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition (OREC), the industry body for marine hydrokinetic energy. On the Mississippi River alone, there are about 148 preliminary permits under review, according to a map issued by OREC last month.

"The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee understand the importance of diverse generation capacity," said O'Neill. "We need a continued commitment and investment to make certain that our investments to date are realized."