How Will Renewables Fare in a Clean Energy Standard?

We asked our e-newsletter subscribers what they think the ramifications will be if Congress passes a Clean Energy Standard (CES) rather than a Renewable Energy Standard (RES).

A CES includes all renewables, and also includes nuclear, natural gas and "clean" coal, whereas a RES only includes true renewables – solar, wind, geothermal, small hydro, ocean energy, etc.

Example: Let’s say Congress passes a Clean Energy Standard that requires the US to get 20% of its energy from clean energy sources by 2020. That means renewable energy would compete with nuclear, natural gas and "clean" coal as part of the mix.

Contrast that with a RES of 20% by 2020, which would require renewables to supply 20% of our energy sources by 2020.

The World Resource Institute says:

An ambitious national CES that has a substantial carve-out for renewable electricity (a feature of Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania’s standards), some analysts argue that RES-supporters would be conceding little since it will likely take over 10 years to build a new nuclear plant, and at least a decade before "clean coal" technology is ready for commercial use.

If a CES included Obama’s target of 80% clean energy by 2035, it would help focus the country’s power industry on the need to drastically reduce its dependence on dirty coal.  Given the rapid decline in the cost of solar and wind power now underway, renewables might well be the clean energy option that most utilities choose.

On the other hand, it’s not clear that a national CES would do much to accelerate an energy transformation.  South Carolina, for example, already generates 52% of its electricity from nuclear, making a clean energy target of 20% by 2020 fairly meaningless.

Adding natural gas to a CES would add a layer of complexity. While natural gas plants provide significant carbon savings over coal, and play an important role in a low-carbon economy, they produce more emissions than renewable sources such as wind and solar. Most importantly, natural gas already provides 24% of US electricity -second only to coal – a share that’s expected to increase rapidly without the help of a mandate. 

The real question is this: will we gain more than we lose with a national CES? Even in its absence, states with a RES in 2009 represented 57% of U.S. electricity generation.  An additional 13% was generated in states with a CES. Of the remaining 14 states, Florida, the largest generator, is currently developing a RES. Some of these states’ policies are more ambitious than others, but all give cause for optimism in the states’ abilities to demonstrate leadership on clean energy.

A national standard, whether an RES or CES, that incentivizes every state to invest seriously in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from its power sector and includes an ambitious target for truly renewable technologies would be a major step forward for US clean energy industries, which are quickly being left behind by their counterparts in Europe and Asia, where governments have sent clear, sustained signals supporting new energy technologies. Whether this Congress will prove capable of passing such a standard, however, remains very much in question.

Here are some responses from our e-newsletter subscribers:

I am generally not a fan of the "nuclear, natural gas and clean coal" suite. However, I am also a realist and recognize that both our infrastructure and our economy will require us to make a "transition" rather than a "switch" to a low-carbon economy.

That said, I found an interesting May 2010 paper, Evaluating Renewable Portfolio Standards and Carbon Cap Scenarios in the U.S. Electric Sector from the National Renewable Energy Lab. 

The paper reports on modeling studies that combine various cap and trade and national renewable enegy portfolio scenarios. One of its conclusions is that, under certain moderate to aggressive combinations of cap and trade with an RES, we actually "make room" in our carbon foot print and our markets for more "clean coal" generation while also increasing our renewables generation and reducing emissions.

For me, the implications are astounding. Assuming that similar arguments could be made for promotion of natural gas, we could change the way we think about these abundant domestic resources and their relationship to renewables.

Assuming, of course, we can adequately regulate extraction of these resources to protect the environment and communities. We could potentially create coalitions of extraction and renewables industries with the goal: increased generation from domestic fossil fuels and renewables while cutting carbon emissions and reducing dependence on foreign energy. Wow.

We’d still be emitting, but it would be where and what we need to transition the economy to a low-carbon model — rather than our current emissions because of inertia and the intense concentration of power, money and control in specific sectors.

To me, that’s a transitional model worth looking at, especially as it encourages collaboration between sectors that have thus far not be friendly to one another. It removes the "us vs. them" model and replaces it with the "we are all in this together" model, resulting in a diversified, highly domestic energy portfolio for the U.S.

Of course, none of that addresses nuclear, which is going to require some political heavy lifting on more geographically appropriate permanent storage, among other things. But, if we go the above route, maybe nuclear and all of its undesirable aspects will just look that much less economically attractive.

Leslie Martel Baer

I firmly believe that the only green, clean forms of energy are renewables like wind, solar and geothermal.

All other forms of energy require burning fuels which changes oxygen molecules into different poisonous molecules. No amount of filters or cleaning or pumping the deadly gas into the ground will change the fact that there is only so much oxygen in the atmosphere.

Biofuels are a dead-end rabbit hole resulting in the same outcomes as coal and oil. Hydroelectric dams are not green as they change the environment of the river and the terrain down stream from the dam. Dams also stop marine life migrations and force endangered animals into extinction. The salmon stocks in the Colombia River basin are under stress in the US Pacific North Western states and Western Canada. The Three Gorges Dam in China forced the pink river dolphins into extinction. Dams get a BIG FAT F, as in Failure for the extinction factor. Nuclear is disguised as green –  the mine tailings in Nevada have spread Radium dust across the continent. Nuclear waste storage is a major environmental problem with no solution in sight.

Greg Wilson 
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There is no such thing as clean coal. I’m against including "clean" coal in a Clean Energy Standard because the research funding needed to make it possible will bleed our government.  Let the coal companies pay for it if they want to survive. Natural gas is OK to include as a transition fuel.

David Fortson

I think nuclear power has NOTHING to do with a clean, renewable energy future. I live in NYC, downwind from Indian Point, which should have been de-commissioned years ago. It’ caused fish kills in the Hudson, and is a terrorist target that would decimate New York.

Hydrofracking for natural gas destroys ecosystems and contaminates groundwater. Although natural gas burns cleanly, its extraction is filthy, and Halliburton (the worst offender) is still getting a pass because of the so-called Bush rules for energy extraction.

Further, there’s no such thing as "clean" coal. I love hiking the Appalachians – many side hikes off the Appalachian Trail are GONE FOREVER. The mountains I climbed have been clearcut, had 500 feet of their tops blown off, and then been strip-mined. Montana may disagree with me (they’re huge advocates for gasified coal), but there’s simply no extant technology for slashing the CO2 that is a byproduct of the gasification protocol.

Merideth Merideth Genin

It is very clear that we need ONE energy policy, not twelve different organizations trying to run the show. A good example is the state of California – it’s cost of energy has flattened  because they have been using energy efficient solutions since the 1970’s. We need a clear cut plan to get us off Middle East oil similar to Germany and France.

Tim Malone

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