Saturday, June 16, 2007

Renewable Energy: The Regional Debate

The U.S. Senate is currently debating a National Renewable Energy Standard. Under an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, electric utilities would be required to obtain a growing percentage of their electricity from renewable energy sources (biomass, geothermal, new hydro, solar, wind), with the percentage reaching 15% by 2020.

Notwithstanding the fact that the Bingaman amendment would be Congress's first major action to address the growing issue of global warming, Senate Republicans are blocking it by threatening a filibuster (meaning that 60 votes would be needed to pass it rather than a majority.) During the debate, much was made of the argument that some states are not windy, and would therefore be disadvantaged by the Bingaman amendment, and that it would "shift wealth" from one region to another. For example, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) said, "We cannot ignore the reality that some regions of the country cannot meet the [standard]. Since they cannot produce it, they’ll have to pay a fine, a pretty whopping penalty."

It's an interesting and compelling point, if true. Would a Renewable Energy Standard really introduce a sweeping change into the way that energy is currently produced and distributed in the U.S.? Consider:

  • Most if not all states import fuel--coal from other states; natural gas from other states, Canada and overseas; uranium, ditto; oil from overseas (yes, some imported oil is indeed used to generate electricity, mostly in New England and Hawaii).

  • "Importing" wind--a domestic "fuel"--from state to state (via transmission lines) will benefit the whole country (due to reduced imports of natural gas and oil from overseas), and is not a departure from current practice on behalf of other fuels.

  • A very preliminary (all we have had time for so far) look at state-by-state distribution of commercial energy production reveals the following:

    32 states have commercial wind installations (and at least one more will soon)
    32 states have natural gas production
    28 states have petroleum production
    25 states have coal
    3 states have uranium

    Thus, wind is actually one of the most widely distributed natural resources. Also, it appears that huge transfers of wealth are no problem for opponents of the Bingaman amendment, as long as they are already happening--only modest future transfers that might run in some different direction need to be stamped out.

    We’ve made investments to move natural gas, coal and uranium across state lines and, in some cases (e.g., building transmission lines to so-called "mine-mouth" electric power plants that are built next to coal mines), to use the fuel on location. Likewise, wind is a resource we should encourage all states to use.

    (In addition, all of the Southeastern states that have poor wind resources have excellent biomass energy potential, according to the U.S. Department of Energy--but that's another story.)

    The Bingaman amendment may come up soon for a vote in the Senate. If you support this first meaningful step to fight global warming, contact your Senator's office through the U.S. Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121 and let him/her know you support the Bingaman Renewable Energy Standard. Or go to

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