Illuminating the Renewable Electricity Standard

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Following news coverage can be easy. Understanding some of the terms it uses, less so. In our Flashcard series, The Atlantic explains ideas you may read about but never see spelled out. In this installment, we dig into what a renewable electricity standard would look like.

The News

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced his intention to introduce an energy bill before the August recess. Cap-and-trade is bound to a bruising fight, but most senators seem to agree that the bill should include a renewable electricity standard. Just what this standard should look like, however, is another matter.

The Gist

A renewable electricity standard (RES), also known as a renewable portfolio standard (RPS), is a rule that says electricity providers must obtain a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources. Authorized renewable energy producers -- solar plants, wind farms, etc. -- would earn a credit for each unit of energy they produce. They could then sell these credits to traditional utilities, who count them toward their renewable electricity requirements. Utilities would also be allowed to use their own renewable technologies or, in some cases, to substitute improved efficiency for a portion of their renewable requirements.   

Twenty four states and the District of Columbia have already implemented a RES. California passed one of the most ambitious ones in 2002, requiring its utilities to obtain 20 percent renewable energy by 2010 and 33 percent by 2030. In contrast, Sen. Jeff Bingaman passed a RES through the Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year that would require utilities to obtain 15 percent renewable energy by 2021. Environmentalists have attacked this standard for aiming too low, arguing that it would undo substantive work in states with more ambitious standards. Sen. Amy Klobuchar recently proposed a more stringent standard of 25 percent by 2025.

Debate rages over which energy sources to include in the standard. Supporters of a straight RES want to stick to the traditional renewables of solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, and, in some cases, hydropower. Supporters of a "clean" rather than "renewable" energy standard want to include nuclear power, carbon capture-equipped coal plants, and natural gas. In order to obtain a satisfactorily strict standard, Democrats may have to compromise on this point. 

The Clean Energy Portfolio Standard, known as CEPS-All, is one potential compromise. This plan would include nuclear power, natural gas, and coal plants equipped with carbon capture technology as viable sources of "clean" energy. It would, however, adhere to Klobuchar's goal of a 25 percent shift by 2025.

The Debate

The conservative line is that a RES would sacrifice a reliable grid, kill jobs, and raise energy bills. The right-wing Heritage Foundation argues that renewable energy technologies are underdeveloped and unreliable and cites its own study that found that a national RES would raise the average household's electricity bill by 36 percent and eliminate one million jobs.

The liberal Center for American Progress counters that the Heritage Foundation does not account for the innovation and improved efficiency that a national RES would spark within the energy industry. CAP cites an analysis from the nonpartisan Energy Information Administration, a branch of the Department of Energy, that estimates a 25 percent renewable electricity standard would raise electricity prices by up to 3 percent in the next decade, but have a negligible impact by 2030. The analysis also found that such an RES would cut electricity sector carbon dioxide emissions by 7 to 12 percent by 2030.

If Congress does not pass cap-and-trade, a renewable electricity standard is the best option for cutting carbon emissions. By switching to a "clean" rather than "renewable" electricity standard and opening the door to nuclear energy, carbon capture-equipped coal plants, and natural gas, Democrats could achieve a 25 percent standard by 2025. That would shift the economy toward more sustainable power sources without causing undue disruption. Electricity prices might rise a bit, but it is unreasonable to expect a transition away from dirty energy sources to completely bypass consumers.

On its own, a national RES would not sufficiently reduce our carbon emissions, but it will be an important start.

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For more Flashcard posts:

The Value-Added Tax

The Contagion Effect

Deficit Spending (Stimulus)

The Oil Spill Liability Cap

Carbon Pricing

Cap-and-Trade

Presented by

Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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