A national mandate that would force utilities to use increasing amounts of renewable power seems likely to emerge from Congress this year, and a legion of lobbyists is battling to shape it.
Advocates for everyone from electric utilities to renewable power producers to trash companies are pleading their cases to lawmakers, vying to shrink the mandate, or build it up, or make sure it isn't weakened. It is a high-stakes debate involving business competition, regional politics and ideology about energy.
It is also about the cost of turning on the lights.
A national renewable electricity standard is intended to create jobs, drive down green energy costs and increase clean power's market share. While there is debate about how fast that can happen and how big the impact will be, the mandate appears inevitable.
"People think that the solution ultimately to the climate change problem is renewables, that they're going to play an important role," said Karen Palmer, the Darius Gaskins senior fellow at Resources for the Future, a nonprofit that researches environmental and economic issues. "They want to jump-start that process."
A renewable electricity standard is expected in the coming months because Democratic leaders want it, President Obama supports it and there probably are enough votes to pass it in both the House and Senate. There also have been several recent efforts to make it law.
The House in 2007 passed an energy bill that included a renewable electricity standard requiring utilities to use green sources for 15 percent of their power generation by 2020. The Senate dropped the provision from its version of the bill after it failed to pass on a test vote. The final compromise energy measure lacked the mandate. The House in 2008 passed an energy bill with a mandate of 20 percent by 2020. The Senate did not act on that bill.
The Senate now has seven more Democrats, several of whom replaced Republicans who did not support a national electricity standard.
"We're confident that this is the year for a [renewables] standard," said Bill Wicker, spokesman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
That does not mean there won't be a fight, especially in the Senate. Lawmakers from Southeastern states are concerned that a renewable electricity standard would lead to higher costs for regional utility companies, which would pass those prices on to consumers. There are both Democrats and Republicans expected to try to minimize the size of the mandate or make the requirement easier to meet.
Renewable electricity standards, also called renewable portfolio standards (RPS), already exist in 29 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Those standards vary greatly from state to state, however.
Illinois law, for example, requires utilities to generate 25 percent of their power from green sources by 2025. And Texas mandates the building of new renewable generation, but it does not put a green-power requirement on utilities.
Green power companies credit those state mandates with driving growth in their businesses. But even with that growth, renewable power is a sliver of the country's energy picture.
Power from renewable sources made up 9.2 percent of the total electricity generated nationwide in the first 11 months of 2008, according to the most recent data available from the Energy Information Administration.
Many variables on Hill
The timing of federal legislation is unclear. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy committee, has drafted legislation with a requirement. Bingaman hopes to pass his energy bill out of committee by the end of the month.
In the House, there is a bill from Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who chairs both the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming and the Energy and Commerce Committee's Energy and Environment Subcommittee. Democratic Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Mark Udall of Colorado, who are cousins, have legislation similar to Markey's.
But those bills might not see immediate action.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) "is looking very seriously at the possibility of doing energy and climate change in one combined bill to be certain Congress can achieve the goals set out by the president this year," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.
Mandates in the bills proposing a renewable energy standard vary slightly. Markey's mandate starts at 6 percent in 2012 and grows to 25 percent by 2025. Those are the same numbers in the Udalls' bill.
The draft legislation from Bingaman begins with a 4 percent mandate in 2011 and tops off with a 20 percent requirement in 2020. It allows for utilities to meet one-quarter of the requirement through energy efficiency.
Bingaman's formula came as the result of talks with Republicans that were aimed at getting the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster, committee spokesman Wicker said.
"That's not to say it won't be amended in [committee] or won't be amended on the floor," Wicker said.
Shaping the bill's variables
Lobbyists working on the issue are hoping to influence variables in the bills including the size of the mandates, how fast the mandates ramp up, what power sources will be considered renewable, and how much credit utilities will get for increasing their energy efficiency.
"The more aggressive, the better, as far as we're concerned," said Shannon Ames, government relations manager for Brookfield Power, a hydropower company with 100 facilities in nine states.
When he meets with senators on behalf of four renewable energy companies, lobbyist Thomas Jensen said he tells lawmakers that the 20 percent mandate in Bingaman's draft is not high enough.
"Please raise it, you should be more ambitious and more aggressive," said Jensen, a partner at Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal, describing his message. "But by no means go below where you are today."
The response from some senators and their aides is agreement, Jensen said, while others express concern that 20 percent already is too high.
"We are in a battle to move the needle as far as we can as rapidly as we can," Jensen said. "It seems to us that is the only way to reach the carbon reduction targets while building green jobs."
Utilities, in turn, want lawmakers to lower the mandate numbers.
"They need to have reasonable timetables and targets," said Scott Segal, a partner at Bracewell & Giuliani who is lobbying for the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a group of power companies. "A 25 percent standard seems to be quite unreasonable."
The amount of the mandate is only one part of the equation. Also at stake is which power sources will be considered "renewable." The Bingaman draft limits those to wind, solar, ocean, geothermal, biomass, landfill gas and hydropower created after passage of the bill. Nuclear power and clean coal technologies are not included.
"In our definition, it doesn't meet the definition of a renewable," committee spokesman Wicker said.
Segal argues that a national mandate penalizes states that do not have the ability to generate much wind, solar or geothermal power. Their only option is to pay into a fund.
"It just basically becomes a tax on your state," Segal said. "It strikes us as unfair, since it's a question of geography."
Utility companies are making a states' rights argument as they approach lawmakers on the issue, said Sean Cunningham, a partner at lobbying firm Hunton & Williams and an adviser to utility companies.
"It's important to modify the renewable portfolio standard to ensure that it does not penalize regions of the country that have relatively few renewable resources," Cunningham said.
To do that, he said, lawmakers could allow utilities to meet the mandate with nuclear power, "clean coal," and biomass that includes municipal waste and wood from the forest.
Green companies frown on the inclusion of nuclear and clean coal unless the amount of the mandate is increased. Otherwise, the benefit to green companies is diluted, said Ames with Brookfield Power, the hydropower company.
As a financing mechanism to spur development of new solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and hydropower facilities, the renewable energy credits are "better if they have a higher value," Ames said, referring to the credits that utility companies can buy to comply with the mandate. Renewable power typically is more expensive to generate than that derived from coal or natural gas.
Pushes for waste to energy, hydropower
Bingaman's draft bill also does not include as renewable electricity generated from the high-temperature combustion of nonrecyclable garbage. There is a push to add that type of power.
A bipartisan group of 15 senators last week sent a letter to Bingaman and the committee's ranking Republican, Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, asking that "waste to energy" be included.
"Waste to energy can provide double benefits: it diminishes waste reserves and produces clean energy while offsetting greenhouse gas emissions," the letter says. "As our nation's energy needs grow and we continue to discern how best to meet them, we think it's important to take an inclusive view of the ways in which already-existing technologies can be used to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels."
Covanta Energy Corp., a New Jersey-based company with waste-to-energy plants in 16 states, also is lobbying on the issue. Covanta set up an office in Washington, D.C., about 18 months ago.
The strategy, said Chief Sustainability Officer Paul Gilman, "is simply to educate, that we can produce electricity, among the cleanest sources of electricity."
"We think the story sells itself," Gilman said.
While the Senate draft legislation allows utilities to use both new and existing sources of solar, wind and geothermal, it limits sources of hydropower to those built after the bill's passage.
Hydropower companies are lobbying for the bill to include existing hydropower that has been certified as environmentally sensitive by an independent group, said Ames with Brookfield Power.
"If you're going to do that for wind and solar, you should at least do that for the best of the hydropower," Ames said.
The hydropower certified by the Low Impact Hydropower Institute represents about 2 percent of the hydropower total, Ames said. Hydropower is the largest source of renewable power right now.
Something for coal?
Coal companies also have lobbyists pushing for them as the renewable electricity standard is discussed.
Coal generation is overwhelmingly the biggest source of U.S. electricity, at 48.4 percent of the total, according to EIA figures for the first 11 months of 2008. Natural gas ranked second, at 21.4 percent, and nuclear power third, at 19.4 percent.
Those numbers are part of the reason some believe it will be very difficult for power companies to meet the national mandate if nuclear and clean coal are excluded from the allowable sources of renewable power, said a lobbyist working for a company with a carbon-capture technology for coal. The lobbyist asked not to be identified because of his lobbying firm's policy.
"Coal still needs to be used, or else the lights are going to go out in large swaths of the country," the lobbyist said.
But, the lobbyist conceded, adding clean coal to the renewable electricity standard will be very difficult.
"It's very important for the renewable movement to drive industry away from coal, tightening if not turning off the federal government spigot," the lobbyist said. "We know we are pushing a boulder up a steep hill."