Renewable Energy Standard 2.0

The American Renewable Energy and Efficiency Act introduced by Senator Markey of Massachusetts is truly a landmark bill that will create jobs and cut carbon  pollution by requiring electric utilities to obtain a minimum of 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, biomass, and other renewable energy sources by 2025.  The bill will also help customers get more energy for their dollars of spending by requiring that electric utilities achieve a 15% reduction in energy use and natural gas suppliers achieve a 10% reduction in use. 

Already, the clean energy revolution is employing thousands of workers across the country, while reducing carbon pollution.  According to the BLS, 3.4 million people are already employed across the country in clean jobs, many of them weatherizing homes, producing high-efficiency air-conditioning systems, installing solar panels and wind turbines, and developing advanced new renewable technology. Energy efficiency remains the cheapest, cleanest, fastest way to cut pollution and save dollars while creating jobs.

The evidence is clear.  We know how to cut pollution and grow the economy.  But we can—and must—do far more in order to meet our obligation to future generations to cut carbon pollution and combat climate change.  The American Renewable Energy and Efficiency Act will help achieve that goal by accelerating the transition of our energy sector away from polluting fossil fuels to clean energy sources like wind, solar, and energy efficiency.

The American Renewable Energy and Efficiency act represents the next step in renewable energy standards in another critical way. It helps make a clear distinction between “clean” forms of biomass energy and “dirty” biomass.  Without this distinction, we simply do not know if we are making climate change worse, or helping solve the problem.

Over the past two years emerging scientific evidence has discredited certain types of bioenergy from forests as a clean, renewable fuel. Specifically, landmark studies of biopower generation across the country have found that burning whole trees to produce electricity actually increases carbon pollution for decades compared with coal and other fossil fuels. Yes, that’s right, far from being "carbon neutral," whole trees are a bigger carbon polluter than coal.

At the same time, when we log our forests for biomass, we destroy one of our best weapons in the fight against climate change.  Cutting down trees for energy production impedes ongoing forest carbon sequestration and disrupts soils, which serve as a vital “carbon sink.”

So there is no place for burning whole trees in a renewable electricity portfolio. Instead, electricity from biomass should be fueled predominantly by short-rotation crops, perennial grasses, wood waste and reclaimed wood, and thinning “residues” (tops and branches) – all of which do not significantly increase carbon emissions.  

That’s why Senator Markey’s bill is so critical.  The bill ensures that only truly clean forms of biomass are used. The bill requires that eligible biomass produce 50 percent lower carbon emissions compared with fossil fuels over a 20-year period - thus ensuring that electricity is produced from only clean forms of biomass.

In another important step, the bill instructs the Environmental Protection Agency to make sure that the accounting of these emissions reductions is done in a scientifically rigorous fashion. The agency is tasked with developing a carbon accounting framework that validates emissions reductions from biomass by consulting and coordinating with its own Scientific Advisory Board on biomass carbon accounting.  This board has established the gold standard for calculating carbon emissions from biomass sources and its recommendations should be strictly followed by the EPA.

Finally the bill establishes standards for biomass sourcing that protect our land and wildlife.  In particular it mandates that harvesting biomass be off limits in ecologically unique and sensitive areas, including old growth and other habitats for rare and imperiled species.  These protections are critically important because as demand for biomass fuel grows, we need to make sure that our landscapes and ecosystems do not suffer as a result. 

Senator Markey should be applauded for proposing a forward-looking renewable energy standard that would help combat climate change, protect wildlife habitat, and follows the best science.

About the Authors

Franz Matzner

Director, Beyond Oil Initiative

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