Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) on Thursday introduced the Clean Energy Standard Act (CES) of 2012, a bill that could require some utilities around the nation to ensure at least 24% of all power sold in 2015 could be defined as “clean energy.” Under the bill, by 2020, that percentage would grow to 39%; by 2025, 54%; and by 2035, 84%.

The bill’s admittedly “ambitious” goal is to double clean energy in the U.S. by 2035. It “employs a straightforward, market-based approach that encourages a wide variety of electricity-generating technologies,” Bingaman said in a statement. “It sets a national goal for clean energy and establishes a transparent framework that lets resources compete based on how clean they are, then gets out of the way and lets the market and American ingenuity determine the best paths forward.”

The bill, (S.2146), reportedly draws on an impact analysis performed by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) last year. The results of that analysis, Bingaman claimed, showed that a properly designed federal renewable standard would have “almost zero impact on [gross domestic product] growth, and little to no impact on national electricity rates for the first decade of the program.”

"Clean Energy" is Natural Gas and Nuclear
The bill defines "clean energy" as power that is generated at a facility placed into service after Dec. 31, 1991, and which uses renewable energy, qualified renewable biomass, natural gas (including coal mine methane), hydropower, nuclear power, or qualified waste-to-energy.

Coal plants would only qualify if they were a facility that "captures carbon dioxide and prevents the release of the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere."
The definition also encapsulates facilities that use qualified combined heat and power or "a source of energy, other than biomass, with lower annual carbon intensity than 0.82 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per megawatt-hour." 

The Clean Energy Standard would apply only to utilities that sell power to retail customers–exempting small utilities. In 2015, when the program would begin if the law is passed by both houses and signed by the president, only 8% of all utilities would need to meet the standard. In 2025, 13% of all utilities would need to meet it. "

 "The vast majority of municipal and cooperative utilities will never need to meet the minimum standard," as is noted in a two-page summary of the bill.

Under the plan, all generators of clean energy are given credits based upon their carbon emissions; greater numbers of credits are given to generators with lower emissions per unit of electricity.  “This flexible framework naturally allows a wide variety of sources (solar, wind, nuclear, natural gas, coal with carbon capture and storage, etc.) to be used to meet the standard, allows market forces to determine what the optimal mix of technologies and fuels should be, and makes it easy for new technologies to be incorporated,” Bingaman said.

“It’s important to point out what the CES does not do,” he stressed. “It does not put a limit on overall emissions. It does not limit the growth of electricity generation to meet the demands of a growing economy. All that the CES requires is that the generation we do use and add to our fleet gradually becomes cleaner over time.

Bill is Newest Congressional Attempt to Pass CES
Several Democrats are co-sponsoring the bill, including Sens. Wyden (D-Ore.), Sanders (I-Vt.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Franken (D-Minn.), Coons (D-Del.), Kerry (D-Mass.), Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.). 

Bingaman, who is planning to retire at the end of 2012, has acknowledged that the prospects for passage of the bill before the close of the current Congressional session are small, but he hopes the bill would get lawmakers discussing it.

The bill now becomes just one of several proposals to promote renewable electricity generation that has been debated by Congress over the past decade. More than half of all U.S. states have implemented some form of a Renewable Electricity Standard (RES), but no federal standard exists.

Bingaman said his bill differs from previous efforts because it focuses on “clean energy” as opposed to just renewables. “In the past, such an approach has had bipartisan support, with Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Lugar (R-IN) having each proposed their own versions of a CES in the previous Congress. In his State of the Union address in 2011, President Obama called for a CES that included renewables, nuclear power, coal with carbon capture and storage, and efficient natural gas, and set a goal to double the amount of electricity generated from clean energy by 2035,” he said.

Previous CES proposals had not been “seriously” considered, until a white paper posted by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that requested public input on the design of a CES received more than 250 detailed responses, the Senator said.

Sources: POWERnews, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee