Is Biden’s Clean Electricity Standard…Clean?

Nukes, pollution trading and greenwashed gas could all play a role in defeating the very purpose of this measure.

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Climate and Energy

by Peter Hart

The centerpiece of the White House climate plan is something called a Clean Electricity Standard (CES), which the Biden administration wants to use to reach the goal of 80 percent carbon-free power by the year 2030.

For many Democrats and policy analysts, the CES is not only attractive as a way to reduce emissions — they also believe they have a political path to make it reality. Thanks to Senate budget reconciliation rules, CES proponents argue they can steer around the filibuster and pass a national clean power benchmark with 50 votes in the Senate.

But how clean would a clean electricity standard really be? Most people might assume that  “clean energy” means renewables like wind and solar. Not necessarily. In fact, some of the leading CES proposals rely on nuclear power, fracked gas and complicated pollution trading schemes to reach their goals — calling into question whether these plans are really what they claim to be. 

Fracked Gas and Nukes: Dirty Energy Has No Place In A Clean Energy Standard

For decades, many states already have what are known as renewable portfolio standards (RPS), which set benchmarks for sourcing clean energy. Like the proposals for a national standard, though, these programs can vary widely; some count wood burning or trash incineration as “renewable” power.

A truly clean program for the whole country would, ideally, avoid these dirty loopholes. But some of the leading proposals fail that simple test. The CLEAN Future Act — a bill championed by moderate Democrats as a supposed alternative to the Green New Deal — actually finds a complicated way to give fracked gas power plants “partial credit” as a clean energy source. This nonsensical scheme could form the basis for a national CES. The same goes for factory farm “biogas,” mentioned as a possible renewable source in some CES models — which is a grotesque and absurd reach. 

Some CES plans rely on the idea that gas-fired power plants will eventually be equipped with “carbon capture” technologies that might trap climate pollution before it enters the atmosphere. There are no workable models for this yet; most of the current capture systems used the limited carbon they captured to extract additional oil from wells. 

Also, most CES plans grant nuclear power as a clean power source as well. Given the range of concerns about nuclear power, it is hard to justify its role in any clean energy system. 

Polluter ‘Penalties’ And Credits Schemes: Dirty Dealing Is Part Of A Clean Energy Standard?

A clean standard should encourage clean, renewable energy. That much seems obvious. But some proposals set up complex pollution credit trading systems that will give dirty utilities a way to simply buy credits from utilities that have stockpiled “extra” credits. This is a system that invites abuse of the rules. 

There’s also the matter of what to do with the power companies that choose not to meet the goals. Some CES models allow for “alternative compliance payments,” which are fines paid in lieu of meaningful action. Like permit trading, pollution fines will be attractive to utilities that want to maintain the status quo — especially if it is economically attractive to pursue that course of action. After all, they can just jack up prices for the consumers and create a new line item in their budgets. For those who are determined, it’s simply the “cost of doing business.”

Let’s Set Some Real Standards — A Renewable Portfolio Standard

Instead of passing a CES that allows and rewards the continued use of fracked gas, nuclear energy, and factory farm “biogas,” Congress should pass a real Renewable Portfolio Standard. This RPS must have as its target 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. It must strictly define the acceptable forms of truly renewable energy and must not include any fossil fuels or other props and giveaways to dirty energy. These include:

  • Factory farm “biogas” and other bioenergy including biomass, biofuels, and wood pellets;
  • Nuclear; waste incineration and other combustion-based technologies;
  • New, large-scale and ecosystem-altering hydropower.

Any RPS must also reject all market-based accounting systems like offsets. 

Congress has the opportunity to take the bold action we need to stave off the ever worsening effects of our climate crisis. But in doing so, it must resist the temptation to settle for half measures and new systems that prolong the life of the fossil fuel system. 

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