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Clean electricity standard, key to climate fight, awaits definition

The Biden administration offers few details of its plan, leaving it to lawmakers to fill in the blanks

Wind turbines stand near Fort Stockton, Texas on April 10, 2021. Clean electricity standards require utilities to ratchet up the percentage of electricity they generate and sell from zero-emissions sources.
Wind turbines stand near Fort Stockton, Texas on April 10, 2021. Clean electricity standards require utilities to ratchet up the percentage of electricity they generate and sell from zero-emissions sources. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Tucked in the Biden administration’s public works proposal is a requirement that could remold the country’s electricity network, decarbonize the grid and wind up as one of the most dramatic steps to address climate change the U.S. has taken.

But the administration has offered scant information on how its proposal for a so-called clean electricity standard would work, leaving it to Congress to fill in the details.

President Joe Biden campaigned on the goal of reaching 100 percent zero-emission electricity by 2035, and the White House’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure offer says he would establish an “Energy Efficiency and Clean Electricity Standard” to cut heat-trapping emissions, lower power bills for the public and hit the 2035 target.

Clean electricity standards require utilities to ratchet up the percentage of electricity they generate and sell from zero-emissions sources. 

Few details have emerged about the administration’s standard, and a White House spokesman declined to comment beyond the infrastructure summary.

Meanwhile, there are at least four clean electricity standard proposals floating around Capitol Hill.

“It’s very much an ongoing conversation,” Emma Searson, director of Environment America’s national campaign for 100 percent renewable energy, said in an interview. 

Searson said the details of the administration’s proposal remain hazy but added they may align with a bill offered in March by Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., and Reps. Bobby L. Rush, D-Ill., and Paul Tonko, D-N.Y.

“The conversation is often whether the infrastructure proposal” would match the Democrats’ bill or differ from it, and whether the House bill could be folded into the broader infrastructure package, Searson said. “It’s hard to know if these are two things that will emerge separately.”

Electricity standards are common in the U.S., found in conservative- and liberal-leaning states alike. A tally from Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan research organization, shows roughly three-quarters of states adopted voluntary or compulsory electricity standards by early 2019.

“States have historically been where it’s happening in terms of ambitious goals and just driving a lot of progress,” Searson said. Still, it’s hard to imagine a federal standard taking hold in the current political atmosphere, she said. “The politics are just tough.”

House and Senate legislation

Reps. David B. McKinley, R-W.Va., and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., introduced a bipartisan bill in December to create a clean electricity standard that would cut 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by 2050.

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., introduced legislation, also in the 116th Congress, to create a national clean electricity standard. A spokesman for DeGette, Ryan Brown, said she plans to refile it this Congress as a bipartisan bill.

“Our understanding is that, in releasing his proposal, the president has laid out a broad vision for a clean energy standard and is counting on Congress to fill in the details,” Brown said. DeGette is “working to reintroduce that legislation again soon.”

Separately, Sens. Tina Smith, D-Minn., and Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., are expected to introduce their own clean electricity standard bill this Congress. The pair introduced a set of bills in May 2019, when he was in the House, to slash emissions from the power sector roughly 80 percent by 2035, versus 2005 levels, a less aggressive trajectory than what Biden called for.

Smith has backed the idea of passing legislation through the Senate by using budget reconciliation, which allows the chamber to pass bills without overcoming a filibuster as long as it meets certain fiscal criteria.

Advocates following the electricity standard policies percolating in Congress and within the administration said a standard-setting bill would likely have to pass through reconciliation but were skeptical the House Democrats’ bill, as written, would meet the fiscal criteria.

Speaking at a Columbia University virtual climate summit on May 18, Biden’s climate adviser Gina McCarthy said a standard could be designed to pass through reconciliation.

“It’s proven to be a terrific strategy for states, and many of them have adopted different types of clean energy standards, and none of them has struggled to meet them,” McCarthy said.

“I think it’s one of the best strategies that we can use when moving forward. I also feel very confident that if we get it in a bipartisan bill and we move it forward, it’s great. If we don’t, and if the president determines that reconciliation is necessary, I think we can get it there too, because there’s ways in which it can be designed to actually pass [fiscal] muster in a reconciliation.”

Nuclear power and natural gas

Given the dearth of information from the White House, it remains unclear which fuels would qualify under a national standard and which federal agencies would administer the program, although experts say it would likely be the EPA, the Energy Department, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or a combination of those.

At a House subcommittee hearing on May 19, Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm said nuclear power is critical to reaching the administration’s goals.

The department supports technologies “including nuclear” to get to a “100 percent clean energy standard by 2035,” Granholm said. Responding to questions from Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who asked about nuclear plant closures in his state, Granholm said she supported steps to keep the plants running.

“We should do what we can to keep these plants open,” she said. “They take us so far along in our goal to get 100 percent clean electricity by 2035.”

Nuclear power provides about one-fifth of the country’s electricity but more than half of its carbon-free electricity.

“I am not speaking for the administration on that but I do know that there is a commitment and a desire to see these plants remain open,” Granholm said to Kinzinger.

Looming large is how natural gas would be considered under a national law, with centrists saying it would be useful to bump coal-powered generation offline and more hawkish climate advocates arguing the U.S. coal industry is already in steep decline and the methane leakage linked to natural gas undercuts environmental benefits of the fuel.

Part of the intrigue around the White House proposal also stems from the fact its summary mentions energy efficiency, though energy efficiency standards, which often apply to consumer goods and household wares, are generally thought of as distinct from electricity standards.

“The administration gets to say what it wants, and sometimes it’s specific about what it wants,” Vincent Barnes, senior vice president of policy and research at the Alliance to Save Energy, a bipartisan, nonprofit group that advocates for energy efficiency, said in an interview. “And in other places it will be less specific.”

Barnes said energy efficiency steps, the broad family of technology options like upgrading heating and cooling standards, installing new insulation in a home or using less consumptive light bulbs, should not be left out of the broader push to decarbonize the power grids. 

“If we don’t include robust, targeted energy efficiency, particularly that includes all income levels, we can’t get to the deep carbon reductions we need,” he said. “It is the one fuel choice that we can make today that is the least expensive method to carbon reduction and yet the most effective.”

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