Weak Renewable Energy Law Gets Big Push from Steelworkers, Green Groups

As China vaults ahead on clean energy, "need for a renewable energy standard has reached a critical stage," advocates say

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Congress must pass a national renewable electricity standard (RES) this fall to stop the dramatic downslide in the American clean energy sector, 21 companies, think tanks and trade and advocacy organizations said.

A federal edict would protect thousands of jobs threatened by a sector slowdown and stop capital from flowing out of the U.S. and into China, according to the RES Action Statement, whose signatories include Iberdrola Renewables, the United Steelworkers Union, the Union of Concerned Scientists and GE Energy.

"The jobs and the investment are going to China," said Don Furman, a senior vice president for wind company Iberdrola Renewables, in a conference call with reporters. "If we wait another year, we’re going to lose a lot."

It is the first time such a large cross-sector coalition has endorsed a specific national clean power standard.

The groups, sponsored by the RES Alliance for Jobs, are rallying behind the "Bingaman RES," a weaker option than proposals previously backed by many signatories to the action statement.

Described as "anemic" not long ago, the near-sudden enthusiasm for the policy reveals the dire state at which advocates have arrived, after Congress punted on cap and trade and other climate policies to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. 

"The RES … isn’t perfect," the coalition said, "but it is the right RES to pass as a starting point at this moment of acute urgency."

The measure was a key piece of the 2009 American Clean Energy Leadership Act (ACELA). The bipartisan energy bill passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last June by a vote of 15 to 8. It was sponsored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M).

The RES would require electricity companies to get 15 percent of their power from renewable resources by 2021, such as wind, solar and geothermal, with an exemption for small-scale utility companies.

At the time of passage, the UCS said it "would do nothing to spur clean energy development in the United States."

Marchant Wentworth, deputy legislative director, declared then: "This bill’s renewable standard is so pitiful that it wouldn’t require any new renewable energy development beyond business as usual."

Speaking on Wednesday, Wentworth said: "We would all wish for a stronger RES." He said he "believes the bill is written to be a floor, not a ceiling, so states are able to proceed with stronger standards." 

Furman suggested there is no choice but to back a policy that passed the powerful Senate energy committee and may have a shot.

"The need for a renewable energy standard has reached a critical stage for this industry," he said.

China Soars Ahead

Furman continued: "The issue is demand. Without policy support mandating a shift in our energy mix away from coal and away from fossil fuels, it’s not going to happen."

Iberdrola Renewables, the nation’s second-largest wind operator, is investing more than $2 billion a year in the U.S. economy, Furman said.

"We definitely allocate capital where the market is. Without strong U.S. policy support, we may not invest as much," he warned.

Nearly 30 states have RES policies in place, but supporters claim even the weaker federal directive is better than the current jumble of state-level rules.

It would "send a signal to the international community that the United States is prepared to compete in the international clean energy economy," Wentworth said. 

In the absence of one, China is vaulting past U.S. and European competitors, advocates say. In 2009, China become the world’s largest maker of wind turbines and is the no. 1 manufacturer of solar panels.

Beijing established a target in its 2006 renewable energy law to generate around 15 percent of its electricity from cleaner sources by 2020, up from around nine percent today. For the first time in the second quarter of 2010, China overtook the U.S. to become most attractive county for renewable energy projects, according to a new report by Ernst & Young.

"China is literally racing ahead of us," Furman said. "We invented the wind industry in the United States. And we are falling behind in terms of our manufacture of wind turbines and components."

Wind power installations in the U.S. have plummeted by almost 70 percent in 2010 from 2009 levels and 57 percent from 2008 levels, and manufacturing investment similarly lags, according to data released by the American Wind Energy Association.

After 2010, "there is no demand beyond the present ‘coasting momentum," the group said. Without stable policy, "the industry is sputtering out."

The Steelworkers Union is watching potential jobs slip away.

"There are 8,000 components in a wind turbine," said Tom Conway, the union’s international vice president. "Many of these parts … are already made by members of our union for other sectors, like defense, aerospace and automotive."

60 Votes in 2010?

The alliance said on Wednesday the Bingaman RES has 60 votes needed to pass as a stand-alone bill or as an amendment to a slimmed-down energy and oil-response package.

"It’s possible right now," Wentworh said.

In the 15-8 vote last June, the Republicans voting in favor of the legislation included Sam Brownback (Kan.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska). Two Democrats, Mary Landrieu (La.) and Robert Menendez (N.J.), voted against it.

Senate Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid supports an RES and said recently that it could make it into an energy measure this year. He said two unnamed Republicans could secure its passage. Reid’s office did not respond to request for comment.

A Pew/National Journal poll from August found that 78 percent of Americans support a federal RES, including 70 percent of Republicans and 84 percent of Democrats.

"We’re … looking at the broad and deep support for this provision and saying, ‘Why not?’" Furman said.  

See also:

Congress Punts on Clean Energy Standards, Again

Study: National Renewables Mandate Could Help Make U.S. Competitive with China

Democrats on the Waxman-Markey Fence Worried about RES, Allocations

White House, Job Creation Keys to a Stronger Renewable Energy Standard

Next-Gen Vestas Wind Turbine Made in China, for China

China’s Trina Solar Bets on America’s Thriving Photovoltaics Market

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