A national renewable energy standard is a mistake

Charles Steele Contributor
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It seems like every week there is a new story out there that touches on the challenges of adopting, on a national level, energy policy that has historically dealt with on a regional and state level.

On Monday, 11 East Coast state governors sent a letter to Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) opposing the plan in the Senate’s American Clean Energy Leadership Act to build a wind power transmission line in the Midwest. The governors argue that the $160 billion transmission line would be paid for primarily by East Coast states that would not benefit from it. Furthermore, they note, the expensive plan would:

harm regional efforts to promote local renewable energy generation, require our ratepayers to bear an unfair economic burden, unnecessarily usurp states’ current authority on resource planning and transmission line certification and siting, and hamper efforts create clean energy jobs in our states.

And, when you add to their argument the steep cost of transmission infrastructure in general, the governors make a strong case against adoption of one of these “one size fits all policies”– in this case – a federal renewable energy standard.

The climate bill currently being debated in the US Senate is far from finalized, but it is likely to contain a federal renewable energy standard that will require utility companies nationwide to obtain a certain percentage of their energy from government-mandated renewable resources, like solar and wind. The American Clean Energy Leadership Act proposed by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), for example, includes a 15 percent renewable energy standard by 2020, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) introduced legislation earlier this week with a 25 percent renewable energy standard by 2025. Sen. Reid has said time and again that a final bill will likely include a renewable energy standard of some sort.

The primary problem with a renewable energy standard—besides the general high cost of intermittent renewable energy—is transmitting the energy to population centers. Quite simply, the majority of states do not have access to renewable energy sources like wind and solar. As the Washington Post’s energy blog recently noted, states west of Chicago, for example, have abundant wind power, yet need transmission infrastructure to get that power to the people in the Midwest who aren’t able to produce it on their own.

Yet, transmission is unwieldy and expensive, making renewable energy even more expensive, particularly for the states that don’t produce it. The Heritage Foundation recently studied the costs of a renewable energy standard and found that onshore wind costs 126 percent more per megawatt hour than traditional sources like coal. In addition, transmission costs alone add as much as $15 per megawatt hour to the price. If Congress approves the transmission infrastructure in the Senate bill, not only will every state be required to use set amounts of renewable energy, but taxpayers will also be paying for expensive transmission of energy they don’t even use.  Yet, if we don’t have reliable transmission lines in place, the majority of states will have difficulty just complying with the standard.

Further, as the governors noted, many states, particularly on the East Coast, are already adopting renewable energy standards and renewable energy programs. But even these states are having difficulty achieving success and getting their transmission infrastructure approved, as is the case with the Potomac-Appalachian Transmission Highline in Virginia and West Virginia. If transmission of renewable energy is difficult to achieve at the state level, it will be near impossible to achieve at the national level—making it all the more expensive.

In short, not only will a federal renewable energy standard cause already high-energy costs to rise even more, but taxpayers will pay the added price of transmission infrastructure so that states can comply with the expensive standard. Yet no one knows exactly how much it will cost to comply with this proposed program due to the lack of impartial RES specific cost impact studies.  It just doesn’t make sense and consumers across the country will be the ones ultimately left to foot the bill.

It’s well and good to increase our usage of renewable energy sources where it is economical to do so. Yet it’s clear that a national standard and national transmission infrastructure will be too costly and too unwieldy. Hopefully, as the Senate debates the energy bill, they will realize that any national renewable energy standard will be a big mistake.

Dr. Charles Steele Jr. founded Working People for Fair Energy, a non-profit organization devoted to fighting for energy laws that are fair and affordable to working people and low-income families. He has served in the Alabama state Senate, and re-elected three times before resigning to become president of the SCLC in November 2004. He has been inducted into the Martin Luther King, Jr. Board of Preachers of Morehouse College and the Tuscaloosa Civic Hall of Fame.