Did Obama just propose a nationwide Renewable Portfolio Standard?

President Obama released his 2013 budget proposal last week, and it is an exceptional piece of election-year politicking. Praised by the left and panned by the right for its idealistic tone, it is widely expected not to get very far toward actual policy, given the current makeup of Congress. Even so, Mr. Obama’s new budget contains a number of interesting items relating to renewable energy.

The full extent of the renewable energy provisos in the budget has been examined elsewhere, but it is worth listing a few of the more notable:

  • The reintroduction of the recently-expired Clean Energy Cash Grant program, which provides grants to clean energy startups and was seen as a major driver of the solar energy boom in the Southwest.
  • A substantial increase in funding to the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, which funds R&D to make solar energy more cost-competitive.
  • Eliminating $40 billion in tax breaks and incentives for oil and gas companies.

There is a buried lead in the budget, though — one which reveals the idealism (and political impracticality) of the budget proposal as well as Obama’s penchant for speaking from both sides of his mouth.  This is the proposed Clean Energy Standard, which the White House describes as “the centerpiece of the Administration’s clean energy strategy.”  The Clean Energy Standard would require utilities to obtain 80 percent of their energy from “low-carbon” sources by 2035. 

While this is a seemingly admirable goal, it has been criticized as a form of so-called “green-washing” due to the details of what qualifies as a “low-carbon” source of energy.  Among the qualifiers are nuclear power, which has rather obvious environmental issues; natural gas, which is largely obtained through the potentially environmentally harmful (according to the EPA) practice of fracking; and upgraded coal-burning power plants, which would simply do better at capturing the pollutants they emit.

Mr. Obama’s Clean Energy Standard is reminiscent of Renewable Portfolio Standards, or RPS, which are state-level initiatives that mandate specified levels of renewable energy production within a state’s overall energy portfolio, to be achieved by a certain date.  California probably has the most visible RPS program, mandating 33% of total energy procurement by 2020.  While 39 states have some form of RPS in place (you can see a map comparing them here), they vary considerably, from the watered-down and non-binding “Alternative Energy Goal” of states like Oklahoma and Indiana, to the robust standards of states like California and Colorado.

Key to the effectiveness of an RPS is the definition of included technologies, which is where Mr. Obama’s plan falls woefully short.  California’s RPS does not include nuclear, natural gas, or “clean coal” in their standard, and go so far as to exclude all but small hydropower projects.  Mr. Obama’s plan would likely do nothing to specifically encourage renewable energy, instead giving a boost to one form of fossil fuel (natural gas) over another (coal). 

It may give the impression of being an RPS, but in reality the Administration’s Clean Energy Standard appears to be a deft example of green-washing.  Because it is packaged within the Administration’s controversial budget, the Clean Energy Standard has what’s been called “Zero percent” chance of becoming law.  However, it is illustrative that the question of renewable energy, and its role in the energy future of America, will be a dominant issue in the upcoming elections.       

Stay tuned for more on Renewable Portfolio Standards, as they’ll be examined here next week.  In the meantime, check out this 2008 report from the Berkeley Lab on the implementation and effects of RPS.