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Will Congress's Renewable Standards Do Any Good?

Let's go back a bit: The original draft of the Waxman-Markey climate bill had a provision that required electric utilities to get 25 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2025. During negotiations in the House energy committee, that was whittled down to 15 percent from renewables by 2020 plus 5 percent from energy-efficiency savings—and some utilities can even do 12 + 8, if they get a waiver. On top of that, the standard was watered down further by increasing the number of (smaller) utilities exempt from the requirements altogether.

So how does the final sausage taste? Jesse Jenkins has a terrific analysis over at the Breakthrough Institute today showing that the weakened renewable-electricity standard disgorged from committee could prove to be less stringent than a reasonable projection of renewable power growth by 2020 under a business-as-usual scenario. In other words, the House standard could have zero impact on U.S. renewable-electricity generation, which is already growing at a decent clip. (Even the Energy Information Administration, which has always been dour on renewable power, projects that wind alone will provide 5 percent of the country's electricity by 2012, largely as a result of the big stimulus package passed earlier this year.)

Meanwhile, Jeff Bingaman's energy committee in the Senate is working on a fairly flimsy RES standard that would likewise achieve little. That's a bit crazy. It's worth taking a fresh look at cranking these standards up considerably. An analysis by Lawrence Berkeley Labs of state standards, some of which are quite strict, found that these laws are an effective way to boost renewable-energy generation with little impact on ratepayers—the LBL report estimated the rate increase at "1% or less in 2007." And Dave Roberts explains why a renewable standard is still necessary even if you pass a carbon cap.

Personally, I'd say that feed-in tariffs might even be a more promising way to ramp up clean-energy generation quickly—and hey, Vermont just passed the first such law in the United States—but just about any approach seems preferable to what Congress is contemplating, which would appear to barely impact the renewable-energy market at all.

--Bradford Plumer