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States push renewable energy, federal government lags

WASHINGTON—Lacking strong federal support for renewable energy, state and local governments increasingly are mandating the use of alternative power sources, a step the Bush administration and Republican-led Congress have been unwilling to take.

So far, 22 states and a sprinkling of cities and counties have adopted standards that require or encourage utility companies to gradually increase their share of electricity produced by wind, solar, biomass or other renewable power sources.

The latest is Washington state, where voters on Nov. 7 approved a ballot initiative requiring that 15 percent of their electricity come from non-fossil fuels by 2020. Colorado voters adopted a similar program in 2004.

Legislatures in other states, such as California, Texas, New York and Pennsylvania, have set similar or even higher goals. California is struggling to double its reliance on renewable energy sources—to 20 percent—by 2010. Its goal for 2020 is 33 percent.

The purpose of these standards is to reduce electric power generators' use of fossil fuels such as coal and gas, which scientists believe contribute to global warming.

"States are taking action because they see the benefit of clean energy even in the absence of federal leadership," said Jeff Deyette, an energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental advocacy group in Cambridge, Mass. "We hope enough states take action that it will lead to federal action."

Last year, Congress passed a massive Energy Policy Act that provided tax credits for renewable energy but didn't set a mandatory standard for private or public utilities. The Senate approved a 10 percent goal, but the House of Representatives refused to accept it and the proposal died.

The Bush administration didn't support the standard because it generally opposes federal mandates. Officials agree, however, that state standards can stimulate new markets for renewable energy.

"State-level mandates increase industry size and lower costs, which result in wind-capacity increases in states without mandates," Nate Blair, a senior energy analyst at the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, told a wind power conference in Pittsburgh in June.

"A federal energy standard may be a good thing because it would encourage all states to make a commitment to renewable energy," Claudia Chandler, the assistant executive director of the California Energy Commission, said in an e-mail. "But it would be important that a national standard not slow or pre-empt state standards if the state chooses to be more aggressive."

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, increases in renewable energy that result from existing state laws and regulations will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 75 million tons over the next 10 years. Carbon dioxide is a leading "greenhouse gas" that scientists think traps the heat of the sun and warms the Earth.

"That is equivalent to taking 11.1 million cars off the road or planting more than 17.9 million acres of trees, an area larger that the state of West Virginia," the Union of Concerned Scientists said in a fact sheet. "Existing state commitments are an excellent start, but a national (renewable energy standard) is necessary to satisfy these goals for the entire country."

The prospects for a federal standard may be brighter in the new Democratic-controlled Congress, which takes office in January. A number of newly elected senators and representatives supported renewable energy in their campaigns.

"It's very possible this will get a full hearing in the next Congress, given the strong public support for clean energy," Deyette said. "We're hopeful."

It's not clear whether President Bush would sign such a measure if it passed Congress. In 1999, as the governor of Texas, he signed a law requiring that about 3 percent of the state's energy come from renewable sources. In August 2005, Texas raised its minimum requirement to about 5.5 percent.

Even though a state sets a standard, it's not necessarily going to reach it. California, for example, has made virtually no progress since 2002, when its ambitious target of 20 percent by 2010 was established.

"At 10.2 percent electricity from renewables, the state is no farther along than it was four years ago," the California Energy Commission's Chandler said. "We are concerned."

In addition, some state standards look stronger than they really are. New York, for example, promises to get 24 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2013. About 19 percent of that, however, is already available from the state's abundant hydroelectric resources. The real increase, therefore, is only about 5 percentage points.


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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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