The “Clean Energy Standard” – Whatever it Takes

"Clean Coal" Included in a CES?

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama outlined an energy plan that included a clean energy standard (CES).  His target – 80% of the nation’s electricity coming from clean energy sources by 2035.

The CES he envisioned includes the renewable generation types you would expect including solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, biomass and marine generation. But the CES also includes “clean coal” and nuclear.  This odd mixture of generation type under the banner of clean energy was developed and promoted by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in 2010, after it became clear that a highly partisan congress was not going pass climate change legislation with a CO2 cap and clean energy support.

The new CES includes coal and nuclear so that the states that have coal (16) and nuclear interests will vote for new legislation that includes actual clean energy like solar and wind.  Compromise is how it gets done on

Capitol Compromise

Capitol Hill and this type of CES is truly legislative sausage making.

Transitioning to generation types of any flavor in this CES will initially result in temporary rate increases from the electric utilities to their customers.  Based on the cost numbers presented by the coal industry, rate increases from “clean coal” will be exorbitant if that technology ever achieves reality. And coal generation needs ongoing fuel extraction meaning more mountain top removal, supply chain pollution and other environmental and health externalities.

Pouring money into “clean coal” would seem dubious as a long-term strategy compared to mature solar energy which has no ongoing fuel costs, rapid energy return on energy investment metrics, rapidly declining kWh cost and minuscule supply chain pollution. Nuclear energy’s exceptionally high kWh costs (even with exorbitant government subsidies), waste disposal and decommissioning costs as well as catastrophic risk potential is also difficult to view as a step in the right direction.

But energy demand is forecast to grow at 2% – 6% annually for the next 20 years and the cost of traditional

Will the U.S. Plan for this Demand Trend?

fossil fuel generation is escalating at well over 4% per year in various regions as the global economy recovers. The U.S. needs a long term, well thought out clean energy transition plan that addresses current demand with existing brown fuel generation while preparing for future growth and cost escalation.  A legislation that utilizes coal, nuclear and natural gas as a near term bridge while we transition to a true, low cost clean energy economy would be one way to achieve this goal.

A great piece yesterday by chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Senator Bingaman (D-NM), offers hope that Capitol Hill finally understands the need for comprehensive, long-term clean energy legislation.  Driven by two of my favorite subjects, economic competition and energy security, the senator’s plan is a step in the right direction.

In the end, this type of CES legislation that includes a “clean coal” bridge may be what it takes to start a rapid transition to renewable energy.

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