New numbers in Senate still may not add up for renewables

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There’s an early energy test coming for the new Congress. The question: Will lawmakers follow the lead of 29 states and the District of Columbia and commit the nation to drawing a certain percentage of electricity from renewable sources like solar, wind, and geothermal energy?

The renewable energy goals vary by state, from Maine’s pledge of 10 percent by 2017 to Minnesota’s aim for 25 percent by 2025. But nearly anything Congress does would be an improvement, say advocates, with alternative energy currently providing less than 3 percent of U.S. electricity.

At a conference last week in Washington, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, mentioned this idea of a “Renewable Portfolio Standard” (RPS) — one he has long championed — as a concept that has already been thoroughly debated on the Hill and “that I hope now we will have the necessary votes to pass.”

The election did give RPS at least four likely additional votes in the Senate, since Democratic victors Mark Udall in Colorado, Tom Udall in New Mexico, Kay Hagan in North Carolina, and Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire all have records of supporting such a measure, unlike their predecessors.

Incoming Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia has also been supportive of renewable energy, but it’s not clear he would support the RPS approach. (Democrat Jeff Merkley’s win in Oregon is a wash in the vote-counting, since the Republican he defeated, incumbent Gordon Smith, also supported renewable standards.) The results of two of the three undecided Senate races could also add votes, since Republicans Ted Stevens of Alaska and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia have been RPS opponents. Embattled Minnesota incumbent Norm Coleman has been a supporter, and even co-sponsored an RPS bill with Bingaman.

But four or five new “yes” votes won’t be enough; the Senate likely needs at least seven to reach the filibuster-proof 60. Bingaman hinted at a possible sweetener in his talk this week: “I’m sure there’s going to be demand to do more with domestic production of traditional energy, as well as renewable energy,” he said. “That will be part of the debate as well.”

In other words, even after the election, one thing hasn’t changed: New energy commitments will have a hard time gaining support without a pledge to old energy. And politics will continue to link the windmill to the oil drill.

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