Not Just for the States Anymore: a Federal Renewable Electric Standard Would Benefit Us All

Renewable electricity standards in 28 states and the District of Columbia are driving the build-out of an impressive amount of renewable energy--more than 51 gigawatts of pollution-free power installations between 1998 and 2013 alone. (Just to give you a sense of what these standards have helped accomplish, it's worth noting that the total amount of grid-tied solar power installed in 1998, across the entire U.S., amounted to 34 homes-worth. In 2014, that number climbed to 6,201 megawatts--enough to power more than a million U.S. residences.)

With that kind of track record, you might wonder: Why not a federal standard that can match the states' standards' punch? Indeed, as my colleague Franz Matzner told the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee last month, "Implementing a federal renewable electricity standard would expand on the success of state-level policies across the country and ensure that our entire nation reaps the benefits of a clean energy economy."

Our allies in Congress couldn't agree more. That's why New Mexico Senator Tom Udall and six Senate co-sponsors recently introduced the federal Renewable Electricity Standard Act (S. 1264), about which Matzner spoke at that Senate hearing. When passed into law, the legislation will mean that, by 2030, covered utilities in the U.S. will provide 30 percent of our electricity from wind, solar and geothermal power, along with less well-known but similarly promising clean energy sources like ocean power. Several members of the House of Representatives are slated to introduce similar legislation very soon.

The most exciting thing about the proposed federal standard is that it will make happen at the national level what state standards have accomplished in a more patchwork fashion. Here, we're talking about significantly cutting carbon pollution from the country's largest greenhouse gas emitter--the power sector; creating tens of thousands--maybe even hundreds of thousands--of new jobs; helping our kids--and the rest of us--breathe cleaner air; saving a sizeable amount of the massive fresh water resources we use in power plants; spurring economic growth; and keeping our country competitive in the $1.6 trillion--and growing--global renewable energy market.

There's especially good news for our bank accounts, too, assuming states' track records work as a guide. (And there's no reason for them not to.) All these benefits and more will come with little or no increase in our electric prices. In fact, current modeling of the proposed law, conducted by our friends at the Union of Concerned Scientists, shows a multitude of advantages:

  • Between 2015 and 2030, a 30-percent-by-2030 RES will save Americans more than $25 billion on our combined electricity and natural gas bills. (Burning less natural gas in power plants will reduce demand for that fossil fuel, thereby lowering prices. And renewable energy sources like solar and offshore wind often produce the most electricity when demand is highest, helping keep the most expensive and polluting power plants offline.)
  • In 2030, a federal renewable electricity standard will mean a 10.8 percent reduction in power-sector carbon dioxide emissions below business-as-usual levels. And this 10.8 percent is on top of the savings coming from state renewable electricity and energy efficiency standards that are already on the books. Not only that, a federal RES will help states comply cost-effectively with the EPA's Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants.
  • The proposed law will result in $294 billion in new capital investment in renewable energy technologies over the next fifteen years. That's not chump change. In fact, it's $106 billion above a business-as-usual scenario. With it, we'll see thousands upon thousands of new, good-paying jobs.

There's more, too. New renewable energy facilities will, in 2030, generate $4.3 billion in operations payments--most of it paid out in the form of wages to the people who run these renewable electricity plants day-to-day.

A federal RES will help many local communities thrive, especially in the rural areas where a large percentage of wind and solar installations are built. Between 2015 and 2030, these installations will likely pay a total of $2.6 billion in property taxes to local governments, helping underwrite essential services such as education, police and fire protection. And a federal RES will help keep rural landowners--farmers and ranchers--on their land, by providing $830 million in cumulative wind power lease payments. This can happen all around the country, in the Southeast as well as in more traditional wind power strongholds like the Midwest. That's because innovations including taller wind turbine towers and more powerful rotors can make every region of the country a producer of cost-effective wind power right now. (The Southeast already has great solar resources it's beginning to take advantage of, too.)

It's not just us greens who are speaking out in favor of a federal RES, by the way. Energy experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last month proposed a federal RES in a policy blueprint designed to "build the foundation for a massive scale-up of solar generation." They believe a federal renewable electricity standard is one of the most cost-effective ways to spur clean energy development. And did I mention that the American people, across the political spectrum, love renewable electricity standards, according to this new poll by the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College?

Politicians and interest groups well-funded by the fossil fuel industry should take note. Americans want all the benefits clean energy has to offer. And Congress can give them to us, by passing a federal renewable electricity standard now.