Bringing Life to Renewable Energy

Renewable energy has struggled to take off in the country. Fed up of federal inaction, 30 states and the District of Columbia have instituted a renewable portfolio standard (RPS). That, of course, leaves 20 states that have not done so.

An RPS makes it incumbent upon a state, or even a country, to procure a certain amount of power from renewable sources, typically within a defined time frame. One of the most stringent standards can be found in California, where one-third of all electricity needs must be met by renewables by 2020. Arizona, on the other hand, has a much more relaxed regime. It aims for just 15 percent of generation through renewables, and that too only by 2025.

The other states implementing an RPS fall in between these two extremes, each not only defining its own specific standard, but often enough, what sources of energy are to be considered as renewables. The flexibility has been conducive; were it not for it, so many states would not have bought into the RPS.

But the same free for all has also allowed 20 states, including Wyoming and a clutch of southern states, to steer clear of it. Many of them are rich in coal, and see no reason to spurn what remains the least expensive generation fuel, even if it continues to spout the most pollution.

I believe that a federal standard of a 10 percent adoption of renewables by 2020 is sufficiently relaxed to coax reluctant states to come under its ambit. It will also not hamper any current state initiative simply because both in scope and timeline, it lies at the bottom of the prevailing state RPS totem pole.

Principally due to the state RPS standards in place, renewable sources contribute about 12 percent of the country's power generation. The 20 states not covered by the RPS generate well over a third of the country's power. A 10 percent federal RPS would increase the production of renewable energy by nearly 4 percent. While the growth may not appear dramatic, it would be enough to power an additional five million American homes every year through clean energy.

Statewide mandates have proven instrumental in fostering clean energy production and consumption. California and New Jersey lead the nation in rooftop solar installations. Texas has become the country's biggest wind power generator. Even a coal-rich state like West Virginia feels the need for an RPS to promote renewables.

But a federal initiative has had its detractors. Critics argue that renewable energy will increase electricity bills. Americans already benefit from some of the least expensive electricity in the world. Rate increases from the RPS would be marginal, both because the cost of renewables has dropped sharply due to technology improvements, and because their share of the energy supply mix will continue to remain small. Of course any adverse impact on low-income consumers needs to be mitigated.

Another bone of contention has been how to define renewables. Is nuclear energy part of the picture? No, it is not, but wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, hydro, and ocean-based power are. Any generation that utilizes fossil fuels like coal, oil or natural gas is out. The aim is to have a comprehensive list of truly clean sources so that states can benefit from disparity of supply in our vast and varied land. At the same time, fuels that are recognized as significantly polluting should not be allowed to creep into the standard, as is being attempted by some states.

Three different types of utilities, investor-owned, municipal, and electric cooperatives supply power in the main across the country. In previous efforts for a federal RPS, one or the other utility has been kept out of its purview. Since clean energy still remains more expensive than fossil-fuel energy, mandating its procurement necessarily entails a small monthly surcharge upon utility customers. But why should some customers pay while others do not? The RPS should cover all of the three power entities to prevent inequities among utility customers. A broader base will also make it easier for states to meet the target.

Clean energy measures have typically met with robust pushback from conservatives. The RPS is unique among federal initiatives because six solidly conservative states: Arizona, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Texas, and West Virginia are participants. A federal RPS therefore has a better chance of passing muster with Congress than other policies such as a tax on carbon.

For far too long, the nation's debate around renewables has been mired in effectively all or nothing approaches. The federal RPS, as proposed, pushes the conversation towards an agreeable, actionable middle of the road. If Kansas and West Virginia can do it with apparent ease, what's stopping Wyoming and Louisiana?