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U.S. Congress Begins Talks On Energy Bill
Ben Block, 25 Feb 09


Just days after U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a gift to the renewable energy industry - a multi-billion-dollar stimulus package - leaders in both Congress and the Administration discussed plans Monday for an energy bill that would greatly expand clean energy capacity.

Renewable energy projects spread quickly across the United States last year before economic recession brought many plans to a halt. But the country needs much more than an economic stimulus to fulfill Obama's goal of providing 25 percent of U.S. energy needs with clean energy by 2025, according to a panel of political experts.

The newly announced measures include a national "smart grid" electricity transmission system and a national renewable energy portfolio standard, Congressional leaders said at the National Clean Energy Project event in Washington, D.C., organized by the Center for American Progress.

"The one single most efficient, job-creating, economy-stimulating measure," former Vice President Al Gore said, "is this national unified smart grid."

A national grid would be the most dramatic overhaul of U.S. energy infrastructure in decades. Political and industry leaders agree that the move is necessary to connect coastal cities with the abundant solar, wind, and geothermal energy sources that are currently located too far from electricity lines to be economical.

"We have the greatest wind capability of anywhere in our country, but we're stranded," said North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan. "The wind is over here and the need is over there."

"Smart grid" technology provides utilities with greater control over power source selection. Automakers and utility companies say that the technology is also crucial for transmission lines to handle the extra demands of a national fleet of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

Obama plans to focus immediately on health care reform and halving the national budget deficit. But a new energy bill is quickly becoming a legislative priority among Congressional leaders.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he will introduce legislation on Friday that would establish "renewable energy zones," areas where more than one gigawatt of electricity could be generated from renewable sources for 30 percent of the year but that currently have insufficient transmission capacity. Those regions would become priority areas to receive national funding for new transmission lines, bypassing the local regulators.

"We cannot let 231 state regulators hold up progress," Reid said. "We are going to move beyond one state being able to hold up projects forever."

Former New York Governor George Pataki said that any attempt to place large transmission lines in states that do not receive the benefits of the new high-speed electricity would face severe resistance. Such a scenario is likely if the lines are placed throughout the Midwest to connect with coastal urban centers.

"You try to run a wire through somebody's community and that becomes as contentious as you can possibly have," Pataki said. "You don't have to run a poll. They'll be against it."

Steven Chu, the newly appointed head of the U.S. Department of Energy, said that critics could be appeased if the transmission lines are built with "off ramps." Similar to the way the interstate highway system stimulated growth at every highway exit, the transmission lines could encourage alternative energy projects along the grid, Chu and Pataki said.

The Energy Department is studying ways to manipulate the high-speed, direct current lines to enable residents who reside near the "off ramps" to tap the electricity.

To estimate the project's cost, a group of eastern U.S. transmission owners and operators project that more than $80 billion in new transmission infrastructure would be needed for wind energy to supply 20 percent of the region's electricity by 2024, according to a report released earlier this month.

Another likely component of the new energy bill, a national renewable energy portfolio standard, would require that every state generate a certain percentage of its electricity from renewable resources, such as 25 percent by 2025. About half the states have already passed such requirements.

For the United States to increase its renewable energy capacity to the scale of 25 percent, Chu said that electricity storage would need to improve to offset the variability of wind and solar resources. "We should start to invest heavily in pump hydro storage and in compressed wind storage," he said.

Some states, especially in the U.S. southeast, complain that a national standard would place them at an unfair disadvantage due to their comparatively small wind power resources.

Former President Bill Clinton also called for the energy bill to include national "decoupling" regulations, which would require electric utilities to separate their profits from electricity sales. In California, the only U.S. state that has done this, state regulators determine electricity rates based on the amount that utilities need to recover their costs.

Both Clinton and Chu attribute much of California's improved energy efficiency over the past two decades to the decoupling policy. California currently produces 10 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions per person than in 1990, according to the public policy group Next 10.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

Photo credit: flickr/Nicholas T, Creative Commons license.

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