President Obama sets a new goal: generate 80% of U.S. electricity by clean energy sources by 2035. Source: WhiteHouse.gov

Last Tuesday, in his second official State of the Union address, President Obama signaled a new approach on energy – one clearly calculated to attract the widest possible support in the 112th Congress.

It sounds like this:

[C]lean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling.  So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal:  By 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources.

The President’s remarks echo recent Washington chatter about a federal “clean energy standard” – a target for how much electricity must be generated from renewable sources and other fuels supposed to be clean, at least relative to the traditional coal plants that currently produce 45 percent of the nation’s power. A clean energy standard, many analysts argue, would appease Republicans who favor coal with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and nuclear power. And although natural gas has yet to find the champions in Congress that coal and nuclear have, the natural gas industry believes that their fuel should not be left out of a renewable or clean energy standard either.

For his part, the President seems willing to consider almost anything, as long as it can deliver the critical votes that eluded efforts in the last Congress to pass a climate and energy bill—or at least a national renewable energy standard.

Some folks want wind and solar.  Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas.  To meet this goal, we will need them all — and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen.

President Obama’s “we will need them all” energy strategy has an obvious logic in a politically divided Washington. But is political feasibility a good enough reason to pass a national clean energy standard?

It was just last September that Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) introduced legislation creating a national renewable energy standard (RES), a measure which garnered support from 34 senators from both sides of the aisle. This RES would have created a goal of generating 15 percent of the nation’s electricity from renewable energy by 2021, Renewable energy was defined to include solar, wind, biomass, landfill gas, ocean, geothermal, municipal solid waste, and new hydroelectric generation, and up to 4 of the 15 percent could come from energy efficiency savings. In 2009, non-hydro renewables provided just 3.6 percent of U.S. electricity.

A properly designed national RES would build on the renewable portfolio standards and goals now in place in 32 states and the District of Columbia, creating a national minimum that would bring in the states, many in the staunchly nuclear- and coal-oriented Southeast, that have not so far been inclined to develop renewable portfolio standards on their own.

Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from one such state, South Carolina, countered Bingaman’s bill with a proposal for a national “clean energy standard” (CES), which sounded like an RES (20 percent by 2020, 50 percent by 2050), but would allow two additional power generation technologies to qualify: nuclear power and coal plants with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).

Clean energy standards are not without precedent – Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and West Virginia already have what are essentially clean energy standards, allowing utilities to meet their obligations with the likes of so-called “clean” coal technologies (OH, PA, MI, and WV), advanced nuclear power (OH), and even natural gas (WV). Ohio’s portfolio standard, the only one to be more than a couple years old, may have played a role in encouraging new plans to build 483 MW of additional wind turbines—a figure that would increase Ohio’s wind capacity by over 4000 percent.

If an ambitious national CES could be crafted with a substantial carve-out for truly clean and renewable electricity (a feature of Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania’s standards), some analysts argue that RES-supporters would be conceding little. It would likely take more than a decade to build a new nuclear plant, and experts believe that it will be at least a decade before “clean coal” technology is ready for commercial use. If a clean energy standard included Obama’s target of 80 percent 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 is not clear that a national clean energy standard along the lines that Senator Graham originally proposed would do much to accelerate the energy transformation that is so desperately needed in the United States. For example, the senator’s home state of South Carolina already generates 52 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy, making a clean energy target of 20 percent by 2020 fairly meaningless. While the uneven geographic distribution of renewable resources around the country may preclude one-size-fits-all RES, it would be a mistake to compromise on a CES that allowed states too much flexibility.

Adding natural gas to a CES would add an additional layer of complexity. While natural gas plants do provide significant carbon dioxide savings over coal, and we believe they have an important role to play in a low-carbon energy economy, they produce more emissions than do renewable sources such as wind and solar. Moreover, natural gas already provides 24 percent of the country’s electricity—second only to coal—a share that is expected to increase rapidly without the help of a mandate.  The U.S. already has dozens of relatively efficient, under-utilized natural gas-fired power plants and an abundant supply of domestic natural gas. If the point of a CES is, as Obama says, so “businesses will know there’s a market for what they’re selling,” it’s difficult to make the case that natural gas needs the support of a CES—other policies could encourage coal-to-natural gas switching without intruding on a market share that would otherwise be set aside for renewable energy.

The real question is this: will we gain more than we lose with a national CES? Even in its absence, states with a renewable portfolio standard or goal in 2009 represented 57 percent of U.S. electricity generation.  An additional 13 percent was generated in states with an “alternative” or clean energy standard. Of the remaining 14 states, Florida, the largest generator, is currently developing a renewable portfolio standard. 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 each 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 the United States’ clean energy industries—industries that 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.

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