Will Congress try to pass a renewable energy standard during the lame-duck session?

Charles Steele Contributor
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If you thought Congress had finally come to its senses and dropped its misguided plans for a federal renewable energy standard, think again.

Yesterday we learned that, as Congress is planning the upcoming “lame-duck” session, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is considering taking up Senator Jeff Bingaman’s (D-NM) and Sam Brownback’s (R-KS) renewable energy standard bill, which would require 15 percent of the nation’s electricity to come from renewable energy sources by 2020. Some analysts believe that, if Congress convenes for a month-long, lame-duck session, the bill could very easily come to the floor and has serious potential to pass.

You’d think that after a year of debate and no movement on contentious renewable energy standard legislation, along with last week’s historic shake-up of Congress, most of our elected officials would be scared to support any legislation that might raise costs for the American people while we remain in the middle of the worst recession in recent history.

In May, the Heritage Foundation found that a 15 percent federal renewable energy standard by 2020 — the same standard that Senators Bingaman and Brownback have proposed — would raise energy prices by as much as 36 percent for households and 60 percent for American industry. These cost increases would result from the high cost of the sources deemed “renewable” in comparison to traditional, fossil-based sources, in addition to the high cost of unwieldy transmission of the renewable sources and the implementation of new technologies necessary to utilize these sources. Even if we could find ways to affordably transmit and use renewable energy to America’s homes and businesses, there would be no guarantee that the energy would be reliable — after all, if the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, there is no energy to transmit.

The news that renewable energy advocates like Senators Bingaman and Brownback are yet again pushing for a federal renewable energy standard is even more shocking in light of a New York Times report this week that state governments are delaying or stopping entirely renewable energy projects because they will raise energy costs on electricity consumers.

According to the report, renewable energy projects nationwide — from Virginia to Florida, Idaho to Kentucky — are being “scuttled” because state governments believe the cost increases will be too much for consumers to bear as the recession continues.

In Virginia, for example, state regulators rejected a wind energy contract because it “would have increased the monthly bill of a typical residential customer by 0.2 percent.”

In Rhode Island, the state public utilities commission rejected an offshore wind power-purchase deal that would have raised costs from 9.5 cents to 24.4 cents per kilowatt hour. The commission approved a deal with a smaller wind farm, but that deal is now being challenged in the courts.

In Kentucky, the public service commission rejected a similar wind-power contract because it “would have increased a typical residential customer’s rates by about 0.7 percent.”

These are just a few examples of how forcing the usage of renewable energy sources could raise costs for consumers. There are more examples, especially if you consider states that are wholly reliant on fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. These states would not only have difficulty in transitioning to expensive and largely unavailable renewable power, but would also lose even more jobs in the fossil fuels industries.

It’s clear that a nationwide renewable energy standard simply won’t work. The majority of states will suffer, as consumers will be forced to eat the added cost of obtaining 20 percent of their energy from expensive renewable sources, especially if a particular state doesn’t have access to those resources. Furthermore, some state governments have already tried to implement their own renewable energy standards or other energy plans that allow them to utilize their state’s resources in the best way possible. The federal government certainly should not interfere, especially not with an arbitrary standard that applies equally to every state. It simply won’t work, and the effects on energy cost and reliability will be disastrous.

Hopefully, with just a few weeks (or less) remaining in this Congress, our elected officials will realize that the American people don’t want and simply can’t afford increased energy costs and continued job losses. And, hopefully, if Congress does anything in the remaining weeks, it will do something to help people get through the recession, rather than debilitate the economy even more.

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.