The current federal initiative to push our nation toward energy independence is President Obama’s “Clean Energy Standard” or “CES.” Congress has previously debated, formally and informally, multiple variations of renewable portfolio standards, renewable electricity standards, and cap and trade. Now it’s the Clean Energy Standard’s turn. Is CES different in some way that will allow it to find traction where other policies have failed? Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much cause for optimism.
It’s been a few months now since President Obama announced his Clean Energy Standard at this year’s State of the Union address. Under CES, 80 percent of electricity in the U.S. would be generated from clean energy technology by 2035. After President Obama’s announcement of CES and his subsequent promotion of the policy, the Senate Committee on Energy and National Resources released a white paper at the end of March which consisted of a series of 36 questions. The Committee solicited input from industry leaders through mid-April. While I have no doubt that the Committee received many good comments, I suspect that even more questions were raised than answered.
So what is “clean energy?” The Senate Committee didn’t know, so included that question in its white paper. I think most of us would agree that nuclear, coal with carbon capture and storage and efficient natural gas are not “renewable” energy sources. Excluding these types of energy sources from previous initiatives resulted in lost support among certain members of Congress. Thus the need for a “clean” energy standard, which generated broader support and co-opted legislators who declined to support a “renewable” energy standard.
The problem is that for all the supporters the “clean” energy standard cultivated, it stands to lose support due to the costs of clean coal technology, environmental uncertainty of shale gas collection and general fear of nuclear power. Although carbon capture and storage has been demonstrated in multiple large-scale projects to significantly reduce the CO2 emissions released by coal-fired plants, these sequestration measures are very costly to develop, install and maintain, making them feasible only for large-scale plants. The President’s proposal also included partial credit for efficient natural gas, despite the growing negative publicity shale gas has received regarding potential groundwater contamination and methane release. There has also been growing support for new nuclear sites in the U.S. over the past few years, as demonstrated by the six proposed nuclear reactors chosen to receive Department of Energy loan guarantees; that is, until Japan’s earthquake.
Currently the U.S. obtains 30 percent of its electricity from renewable and nuclear sources. Add in efficient natural gas and give it “half credit,” we ratchet up to 40 percent, still a far cry from the 80 percent goal by 2035. We need Congress to rethink its reactionary approach to a federal energy policy and get serious about a long-term strategic approach to energy independence. The first version of a federal energy policy will likely not be perfect, but that doesn’t mean we can afford to wait.