WASHINGTON, June 23, 2015 - The source of your electricity for decades to come – how much from coal, from wind, solar and other renewables – is being decided by Congress. The House and Senate energy committees hope to complete draft comprehensive energy legislation before members head home for their month long August recess, limiting the time left for further public input. The goal is to have separate bills marked up by then to be ready for House and Senate floor amendments and debates this fall.

In Senate hearings, Greg Dotson, VP for energy policy at the Center for American Progress, stressed the importance of the legislation. “Given the high capital cost and long useful life of energy infrastructure, the energy policies Congress establishes today will help shape our children and grandchildren’s economic and environmental futures,” he said 

Dotson says the key to a sensible energy policy is to cut carbon emissions far faster than is being done currently.In turn,reducing those emissionsmay depend on passing an energy bill that includes electricity grid modernization measures such as those now being considered in Congress. Among them:

S.1201, the Clean Distributed Energy Grid Integration Act, introduced by Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., to advance the integration of clean distributed energy into electric grids through Department of Energy (DOE)studies and grants.

S. 1207, the Next Generation Electric Systems Act, introduced by Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, to provide DOE grants to eligible partnerships to upgrade the electric grid by 2030.

S. 1227,The Hybrid Micro-Grid Systems Act, introduced by Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to require developing hybrid micro-grid systems for isolated communities.

S. 1232, the Smart Grid Act, introduced by Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to amend the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 to modify provisions relating to smart grid modernization.

S. 1243, the Grid Modernization Act, introduced by Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., to modernize the electric grid.

The electricity grid itself includes the power transmission lines at both wholesale and retail levels along with all the equipment needed to manage delivering electricity over these power lines. Murkowski, the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, accepts that grid modernization to accommodate the nation’s changing energy mix will require “a cumulative investment of between $300 and $500 billion over the next 20 years.” Other estimates put a 20-year $1.8 trillion price tag on grid modernization.

Cantwell, the panel’s ranking member, promises that investing in grid modernization “will enable the integration of new technologies that benefit our competitiveness and consumers.” In response to warnings that any further shift from fossil fuels to renewables will drive up energy costs and damage the U.S. economy, Cantwell points out from 2007 to 2014, with the shift toward renewables and energy efficiency, national energy use fell by 2.4 percent while GDP grew by 8 percent.

“In other words, we experienced an energy productivity increase of 11 percent in eight years,” Cantwell says. “That means that, for every electron or molecule of energy consumed in the U.S., we are getting more and more economic production.”

Representative of proposals under discussion in both the House and Senate, Cantwell’s Grid Modernization Act would provide $200 million per year for fiscal 2017 through 2021 to update the country’s energy infrastructure,”including bolstering the reliability, affordability, diversity, efficiency, security, and resilience of domestic energy supplies, through advanced grid technologies.”

Cantwell’s bill calls for developing new technologies to include “energy storage; predictive tools and requisite real-time data to enable the dynamic optimization of grid operations;electronics that ease the challenge of intermittent and distributed generation; real-time data and situational awareness tools and systems; and tools to increase data security, physical security, and cybersecurity awareness and protection.”

One reason why grid modernization has become so essential is the increased risks posed by the greater frequency of extreme weather events and by cyber-terrorism. A more resilient national grid – supplemented by a new network of “micro-grids” and with reserve supplies of transformers – is needed to keep the power flowing despite challenges such as flooding, wild fires, terrorism, and cyber-attacks.

Another driver of grid modernization is the change in the traditional model of the electricity business from a one-way delivery system. Typically, large utility companies have generated electricity in predominantly coal-powered plants and sent the power over the grid to homes and businesses.

The new model includes “distributed generation” such as rooftop solar on homes and businesses, along with wind and solar farmsoften located in remote areas far from urban centers of electricity demand. There are even plans to have your plug-in electric car sitting in your garage at home be not just a power user but a power supplier to the grid.

As more and more distributed wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, biomass and even car battery resources are linked into the national grid, often at great distances from the end-user, new demands are placed on the system. The grid must now operate in two directions – both delivering power to end users and accepting power fed into the grid from renewable sources such as wind and solar farms and even from individual homes and business which intermittently generate excess electricity.

In the Senate’s Energy Committee’s ongoing negotiations over what will be included in a comprehensive energy bill, Murkowski has stressed the need for “protecting electric grid reliability.” In contrast, Cantwell has called for “bending the curve even more sharply downward on carbon, given the tremendous costs our changing climate is already imposing on businesses and communities across our country.”

Murkowski has responded to Cantwell’s calls for change by stressing the need to “avoid the unintended consequences of reliability losses, unwarranted or undisclosed price increases, inhibiting technological innovation, or stifling customer preferences” – all points which the coal industry continues to make in defense of maintaining coal-power electricity generation.

As Cantwell and other legislators point to the “free fuel” and other benefits provided by renewables, Murkowski warns about challenges “such as smoothing out the intermittency of variable, weather-dependent generation” from wind and solar. In one hearing, she warned that “As eager as we all are to contribute to the arrival of a smarter, more futuristic energy infrastructure, I think that we policymakers must first do no harm.”

Attorney Mark Menezes, aformer House chief counsel and chief negotiator for the 2005 Energy Policy Act, is confident Congress will agree on sensible energy legislation this year. He tells Agri-Pulse that the House and Senate energy committees are pursuing a collaborative process to “work out a bill that gets some bipartisan support in the House and is able to attract 60 votes in the Senate” by providing Democrats ample opportunities “to have a discussion and offer amendments on things that are important to them.”

Menezes, now the co-head of the Hunton & Williams regulated markets and energy infrastructure team, points to grid modernization as “an issue that brings a lot of parties together” and is likely to have bipartisan support for inclusion in a comprehensive energy bill. He notes that grid modernization was part of the 2007 energy bill and has been “viewed fairly positively throughout the industry,” providing good reason for bipartisan support.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee spokesman Michael Tadeo tells Agri-Pulse that “we are optimistic that the bipartisan collaboration we have seen so far will continue.” He says the committee’s listening sessions in Alaska, Washington state and Washington, D.C.,followed by four legislative hearings on 114 energy bills “ranging from ending the current ban on U.S. crude oil exports to modernizing the electric grid” have shown “how much common ground exists on energy policy.”

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