Where is the Clean Energy in the House and Senate Energy Bills?

July 23, 2015 | 3:15 pm
Rob Cowin
Former Contributor

When it comes to passing legislation, I’ve learned through the years that it’s best to be pragmatic. But much depends on the leverage you have, or as Roger Fisher would say, BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement). When it comes to issues of climate and energy we need to be aggressive, but our BATNA has been weak, despite the fact that poll after poll shows overwhelming public support for clean energy policy as well as more comprehensive climate action. So what’s hurting our leverage? (…other than the fact that any special interest or individual can dump unlimited money into the democratic process to influence public policy, or the civic apathy of a voting public that doesn’t even reach 50% in off-year elections, or the vast gerrymandering that’s carved up the country and make congressional district maps look like Picasso paintings.)

U.S. Capitol

Photo: Flickr

We’re running out of time to reduce our emissions; we’re running out of time to avert the worst impacts of climate change. The energy landscape is shifting beneath our feet and we don’t have a strong plan to modernize, innovate and reap the economic and social benefits of becoming a 21st century energy leader. Alternatives to a negotiated agreement are quite limited.

The bar is low

Late Monday the House Committee on Energy and Commerce released its “committee print” energy package, and yesterday the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources dropped its bill, The Energy Modernization Act of 2015. While I applaud both chambers for working in a bipartisan manner to create public policy on energy, one has to weigh the value of their work by whether or not it’s better than doing nothing, amidst the ticking clock on climate impacts. The House bill doesn’t even make it over the low bar, and is potentially worse than doing nothing. Why?

The House bill locks us into more fossil dependence, it’s heavily focused on fossil infrastructure, and it does very little for clean energy at a time when we need to be taking steps to de-carbonize the economy and grow our presence in the rapidly expanding global clean energy market. Energy and climate change are linked, and our energy security and reliability are increasingly being put at risk by climate change and extreme weather events, and yet the House legislation does nothing to help our nation reduce the heat trapping emissions that are causing the problem. Even modest incentives for renewables deployment would be meaningful, but it’s missing from this bill, and in some cases the legislation even defines renewables in ways that disadvantage it relative to fossil energy.

The Senate bill, on the other hand, does contain some meaningful clean energy policy. To be clear, it doesn’t go near far enough, but unlike the House bill, it’s fair to say that it’s a step in the right direction (albeit a modest one). The Senate bill has some good provisions for improving energy storage, which is important for wider deployment of renewables. There are also provisions that will help facilitate grid modernization and increased efficiency, net metering and distributed generation (for rooftop solar customers), as well as promote development of micro-grid systems (for rural communities that are not connected to the grid); all policies that can help deploy more renewables and reduce emissions from fossil fuels. But the big ticket items are missing. The workforce development section needs to be strengthened, especially with regard to displaced workers and families in coal communities, low-income communities, and communities of color. And there are some concerning provisions that undermine current and future administrations’ ability to regulate carbon emissions.

We need clean energy in the energy bill

It’s hard to imagine that just six years ago we had the votes to pass a broad-based energy bill that would have included a federal renewable electricity standard (RES). We can crow over missed opportunities, but the bottom line is the country needs this policy, the country wants this policy, and the policy is good for consumers and the economy. Over half the states have adopted renewable electricity standards, and UCS did an analysis of a 30% by 2030 RES scenario earlier this year which showed that natural gas prices are 7.8% lower in 2030 than in a business as usual scenario. Lower gas prices help keep electricity prices stable, and our modeling shows that electricity prices are virtually unchanged between 2015 and 2030 under a 30% RES, and cumulative consumer and electricity gas bills would be half a percent lower ($25 billion in consumer savings) over that time period. Our modeling also shows $209 billion in new capital investment over that time period ($106 billion more than business as usual). The Renewable Electricity Standard Act (S.1264) needs to be included in this energy legislation.

We’d like to see the energy bill include The Free Market Energy Act of 2015 (S.1213), which addresses the true value of solar, and would help break down barriers to distributed energy resources (DER) by requiring states to consider alternatives to transmission during project proposal development. The bill also seeks to provide a check against excessive fees utilities have tried to charge customers for DER like rooftop solar.

The Energy Storage Promotion and Deployment Act of 2015 (S.1434) should be in the energy package as well. Batteries and other advanced energy storage technologies have begun to be deployed on a small scale throughout the nation; however, more must be done to increase existing capacity so that future needs are met. This policy makes progress toward expanding the deployment of energy storage by creating a clear policy framework (including national targets) which would provide the certainty that utilities require to invest in large scale energy storage capacity. Incorporating energy storage at the utility scale promises to further promote the deployment of clean renewable energy, while increasing the resilience and reliability of the electricity grid.

At the end of the day, we don’t have time for half-measures. We need to start aggressively reducing emissions from the energy sector right now if we want to avert the worst impacts of climate change; federal policy is one of the only tools that is powerful enough to help facilitate a rapid transformation to a clean energy economy. The Energy Modernization Act is a step in the right direction, and if it can be strengthened, it has a chance to make a meaningful difference and help deploy more clean energy—but what the House did yesterday was waste precious time… time we don’t have.