Energy bill brings change, but passes on renewable electricity standard

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A federal energy bill signed into law Wednesday will give a boost to biofuel producers, increase car fuel-efficiency standards and phase out energy-wasting incandescent light bulbs.

Minnesota energy-efficiency and renewable-energy advocates are pleased with those and other measures in the legislation. However, there’s disappointment, too, that a renewable-electricity mandate similar to the one passed in Minnesota this year fell off the bill’s final draft in the Senate.

The bill mandates improved efficiency on several residential and commercial appliances. Kyle MacLaury, a research analyst with the Center for Energy and Environment in Minneapolis, said the center was preparing to lobby for similar standards next year at the state capital, but the federal bill addresses much of what it was hoping to accomplish, MacLaury said.

“I don’t know that we’ll end up pursuing anything at the state level at this point,” MacLaury said. “This new federal legislation covers at least the larger, more significant appliances that were in that package. At this point it may be irrelevant.”

Others cited the requirements for automakers as the highlight of the legislation.

“I think the thing we’re most pleased with in this bill is the fuel-economy standards,” said Steve Clemmer of Grand Rapids, Minn., who is research director for the Union of Concerned Scientists clean energy program.

The legislation requires automakers to increase the average fuel efficiency of new vehicles sold in the country from 25 to 35 miles per gallon by the year 2020. It’s the first time in three decades that lawmakers have increased the standard, which is among the world’s weakest. Today the standard is 46 mpg in Japan, 40 mpg in Europe and 37 mpg in China.

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates by 2020 the fuel-economy changes will conserve 1.1 million barrels of oil per day — about half of what the nation currently imports from the Persian Gulf. The savings will also keep millions of tons of greenhouse gases from being released into the atmosphere.

In addition to getting better mileage, drivers will be pumping different fuel into their vehicles. A mandate in the energy bill forces fuel producers to annually use 36 billion gallons of biofuels like ethanol by 2022. Just under half that supply is required to come from advanced cellulosic ethanol, fuel primarily made from grasses instead of corn.

Clemmer said the Union of Concerned Scientists hopes to sell officials on a system of prioritizing the most sustainable biofuels based on “lifecycle emissions” — a rating that would consider the amount of greenhouse gases created from growing the crop all the way to burning it as a transportation fuel, Clemmer said.

While the biofuels mandate made it into the bill’s final draft, a renewable electricity standard did not. The version approved in the House of Representatives would have required that utilities generate at least 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar or biomass. Minnesota lawmakers passed a 25 percent standard earlier this year.

Amanda Bilek, program manager for The Minnesota Project, a nonprofit advocacy group that works on energy and agricultural issues, said the national renewable energy standard would have helped spur wind, solar and biofuel industries by creating a national demand for projects and their electricity.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., voted to keep the renewable electricity standard in the bill, along with a provision that would have shifted some tax incentives away from oil and gas companies and into renewable energy. Klobuchar was a leader on the issue, Clemmer said, and Coleman’s support was notable because the vote to remove the measures was a mostly partisan vote. Southeast Republicans raised concerns that it would raise prices and that their states would be unable to meet the requirements.

Clemmer said several studies, even one from the administration’s own energy department, dispute both of those fears. Southern Company, a major utility in the southeast, spent billions lobbying against the standard, Clemmer said.

The U.S. Senate passed a renewable electricity standard three times in the last five years, but each time the House blocked it. This time around, the House passed the standard and it was denied in the Senate. President Bush had threatened to veto the bill if it contained the renewable standard and shifted tax incentives away from oil and gas companies.

Bilek said the bill is a good step in the right direction, and the vote totals make her optimistic something more can be accomplished under the next president.

“I think what this increase really does is gives hope to advocates who are working on renewable energy,” Bilek said.

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