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Renewable Power Caught in Washington’s Energy Gridlock

By Rebecca Dolan

Even though the U.S. Senate seems unable to commit to a plan to reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, advocates for action on climate change have hope for a fallback plan to increase wind, solar, and other alternative energy.

They began the drive soon after it became clear that a comprehensive economy-wide bill to cap carbon emissions was going nowhere. The new push is for the Senate to take up the idea of a federal renewable energy standard (RES)–a pledge that a certain percentage of the nation’s electricity (usually anywhere from 10 to 30 percent) will come from alternative sources by a certain date. The same sort of requirement is the law in 29 states (see related: “Colorado Seeks a Renewable Energy Peak“), and Congress has shown some bipartisan support for the idea in the past, including in the Republican-controlled Senate of 2005.

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NGS Stock Photo by John L. Amos

But the RES drive shows how deadlocked U.S. energy policy really is in 2010.

As part of the reporting we’ve been doing for National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative, we tried to gauge support for this scaled-back ambition for cleaning up the nation’s energy mix. With advocates pushing for a vote soon after summer recess, our calls to key Senate offices revealed that far fewer than the 60 members needed to overcome a filibuster would go on record, at least for now, as in the “yes” column for an RES.

Of course, advocates may be hearing positive words in private from members who are not prepared to go public. Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, a leading renewable energy state, has said he believes there are 60 votes; he did not respond to our requests for comment. And Denise Bode, chief executive officer of the American Wind Energy Association, also declined to elaborate on her count of 62 votes for an RES. “There is tremendous bipartisan support for the Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) and we’re encouraged that Senate leadership is open to revisiting the bill in September,” she said in a prepared statement. “In recent days, several Senators, including Republicans, made strong arguments for new policy to bring stability and continued growth to the American wind energy industry.”

It is true that on August 4, 32 Democratic senators declared their support for a national RES in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. One Republican, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, has spoken out strongly this summer in favor of an RES.  And Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine was a past co-author of an RES proposal that would have set a relatively high goal–25 percent renewables by 2025. But, after many, many phone calls–most of which were not returned–the only other solid “yes” to be found was from New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and longtime RES advocate.

Republicans who voted for an RES in the past, like Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Charles Grassley of Iowa, did not return our calls. Most of the responses we did get–and we reached out to all of the Democrats who didn’t sign the Reid letter–fell into the definite “maybe” column. Most said that though they are supportive of an RES, they would need to see the final language of the bill before they could commit to an answer.

The level of commitment to renewables seemed to be a contentious item. Bingaman, for example, would support the highest possible renewable standard that could pass the Senate, according to his spokesperson. But a high goal might alienate members like Michigan Democrat Carl Levin; he supported a 10 percent requirement the last time this issue came to a vote, but remains undecided at this point.

Typically, the kind of effort needed to sway as many as 25 “maybe” votes in the Senate is a combination of compromise and horse-trading–especially over regional energy issues. Would adding oil-spill relief to the measure help win over of Gulf Coast senators? Would regulation of the natural gas industry win votes in states that are seeing new shale development? And yet with every such amendment, RES supporters risk losing votes from “maybe” senators representing other regions and opposing interests.

All the while, none of the Senate offices we surveyed flat-out said they disagreed with the idea of a national RES. They are just on the fence.

And without some definitive move in U.S. energy policy (whether that be an RES or other clean energy measure), renewables appear to be on track to continue their painfully slow growth in the competition against cheaper fossil fuels. Excluding big hydroelectric dams built decades ago, renewable energy now provides just 3 percent of U.S. electricity.

becca headshot.jpgRebecca Dolan covers energy and the environment for the Medill News
Service
in Washington. She will graduate from Northwestern University’s
Medill School of Journalism this month. Dolan previously wrote on the
TEDx oil spill forum for National Geographic’s energy news series.