WASHINGTON, May 26, 2015 -- Critics say that chances are slim to none that Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., will succeed in having his national Renewable Electricity Standard Act (S. 1264) become federal law, requiring electric utilities to increase their use of renewable sources from 7.5 percent in 2015 to 30 percent by 2030. But as the nation’s “laboratories of democracy,” 29 of the 50 states are experimenting with a variety of Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) programs designed to reduce coal power generation in favor of renewable sources like wind and solar energy.

Of course, not every state is pushing the renewable energy “bar” to a higher level. In 2014, Ohio froze the state’s RPS at 2014 levels for 2015 and 2016, and eliminated in-state renewable energy requirements. Confronting budget shortfalls, Oklahoma’s Republican Gov. Mary Fallin recently signed legislation that phases out her state’s property tax exemptions for wind power developers, while maintaining the state's so-called production tax credit - intact until its full phase-out at the end of 2020. In Kansas, lawmakers replaced the state’s 20 percent renewable energy mandate with a voluntary goal. 

Susan Williams Sloan, vice president for state policy at the American Wind Energy Association(AWEA), insists that renewable energy continues to gain ground despite “unique cases” in some states. She tells Agri-Pulse that other solidly Republican Midwestern states are working hard to advance renewable energy.

“States are competing for business,” she says, by offering new renewable-energy incentives, especially for wind development and the new investment and jobs it brings.

And while the Republican-controlled Congress appears unready to speed the transition by passing the Udall bill or other federal legislation supporting renewables, the Obama administration is very much on board. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is confident that wind power is on track to provide reliable supply of at least 20 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030.

“Wind generation has more than tripled in the United States in just six years, exceeding 4.5 percent of total generation, and we are focused on expanding its clean power potential to every state in the country,” Moniz told AWEA’s Windpower 2015 conference in Orlando last week. Promising to “fully unlock wind power as a critical national resource,” Moniz explained that “by producing the next generation of larger and more efficient wind turbines, we can create thousands of new jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

AWEA’s Sloan adds that along with wind’s rapid growth as an energy source, there has been an equally rapid decline in the cost of wind power. “The wind industry has proven that it can scale up while cutting costs,” she says. “We have seen the costs come down 58 percent over five years.”

In response to concerns about electricity grid reliability as more renewable sources are added, Sloan points to Colorado where the state at times has met as much as 50 percent of demand with wind and “the lights stayed on.” She says that as utilities gain experience and integrate new technology, “the grid operators are getting much more comfortable with higher penetrations of wind.” As a result, she says, more and more states now “understand the value of a larger slice of wind in their energy portfolio.”

A prime example of this new state-level understanding is Michigan. Currently, state legislators are debating energy policy to decide between Republicans’ proposals to cut back on support for renewables and Democrats’ plans to mandate more use of renewables. Meanwhile Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, has come out in support of renewables.

In a special message addressed “to Michiganders and the Michigan Legislature” in March, Snyder explains that as the state continues to phase out coal power for economic and environmental reasons, “our new source of baseload power will likely come from natural gas.” But he adds that natural gas “has a history of very volatile fuel pricing – lots of spikes as well as valleys.” Therefore, he warns, “to protect Michigan residents and business from big price swings, we will need to offset that risk of natural gas prices with power that doesn’t need us to pay for fuel – renewables.”

Rejecting arguments that switching from coal to wind drives up costs and drives down reliability, Snyder pointed out that:

·         “We’ve made real progress since 2012. We met the 11th most aggressive renewable portfolio standard in the nation, and we did so under budget – in some cases, at no additional cost compared to other energy sources.” 

·         “Our standard encouraged collaboration, so we had access to people familiar with the newest technologies.”

·         “We saw huge price reductions in even the last five years as we took advantage of those new technologies – better towers, better blades, and better electronics all meant better prices for Michiganders in the wind space, which has been our least expensive resource to date.”

Snyder’s message concludes that even without considering possible effects of EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan, “regulations that have already survived years of court challenges and are undoubtedly coming” will force Michigan to close at least 10 coal power plants “because they are too expensive to upgrade to meet the new standards.”

Snyder sees renewables as a vital part of Michigan’s energy mix: “We know that renewable energy has dropped significantly in cost, making it cost-competitive or close to cost-competitive. We are now hearing firm 20-year price quotes for wind that are less expensive than coal or natural gas.” And if renewables turn out to be cheaper over the next 10 years, Snyder’s message forecasts that renewables’ share of Michigan’s electricity mix could climb to 19 percent or more by 2025.


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