A powerful lobbying coalition is campaigning to require more electricity to come from renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal. But the effort hasn't gotten any traction in the Senate this year, despite the push by environmental groups, renewable energy providers, more than half the nation's governors and even some utilities.
When he unveiled a scaled-down energy bill this summer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid left out the renewable electricity mandate, which would require utilities to produce a certain percentage of their energy from renewable sources. Reid, D-Nev., said that although he supports the idea, he didn't have the votes needed for passage.
The lack of progress shows the limits of even a well-funded, sophisticated, all-out lobbying campaign, especially in the Senate, which requires a supermajority of 60 votes out of 100 for most legislation. In this case, election-year politics and opposition from some utilities, particularly in the Southeast, have helped stall the renewable energy initiative. And a soon-to-expire legislative calendar makes the picture even bleaker.
Behind-the-scenes influence on Capitol Hill
It hasn't been for lack of trying. In March, the bipartisan Governors' Wind Energy Coalition, which includes GOP heavyweights such as Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, urged passage of such a mandate to help the wind industry. The group, which has 26 governors, sent a letter to Senate leaders this week reiterating the call.
The American Wind Energy Association, one of the groups leading the effort, has enlisted a consummate Washington power broker, former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, as a strategic adviser. Daschle, an expert vote-counter in his day and one-time mentor to Reid, has put pressure on his successor by publicly stating that the 60 votes are there for passage.
With Congress back at the Capitol this week, the group is ramping up the effort with several days of television advertising in the Washington market.
The BlueGreen Alliance, which includes environmental groups like the Sierra Club and labor unions like United Steelworkers, held round-table discussions and news conferences in 17 states last month to promote renewable energy and other clean-energy efforts.
Others pushing for a renewable mandate include farm interests like the National Farmers Union and the National Association of Wheat Growers, renewable groups such as the Biomass Power Association and the National Hydropower Association and utilities like Xcel Energy and AES Corp.
Meanwhile, the Glover Park Group, a Washington public affairs-lobbying firm, has blitzed reporters with minute-by-minute updates and news conferences on the latest efforts by the coalition, hoping to drum up coverage to keep the issue alive in the Senate. The breathless e-mails also highlight any glimmers of success, such as Reid's comment last month that he was open to the idea of adding the mandate to the energy bill — although he didn't commit to it.
Even if the Senate does adopt a mandate, it is sure to fall far short of President Barack Obama's goal of producing one-quarter of the nation's electricity from renewable sources by 2025.
A broader House climate change bill, which won a bare majority in that chamber last year, set the mandate at 20 percent by 2020. The Senate was forced to scuttle its own climate bill this summer because of lack of GOP support. With hopes dead for passing climate legislation this year, environmentalists are looking at a renewable mandate as a way to curb emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas blamed for contributing to global warming. Proponents also argue that a mandate would generate manufacturing and construction jobs for renewable energy projects.
"Our challenges are partisanship and the Senate schedule, which leaves very little room for much to be debated and resolved," said Rob Gramlich, a lobbyist for the wind association. He said the lack of a renewable mandate was a big factor in the wind industry having its worst six-month period since 2007 earlier this year.
"Utilities are not signing the long-term (wind) power contracts that they were before," Gramlich said. Without a mandate, he said, the industry is reliant on short-term tax credits, which lead to a continuing boom-and-bust cycle.
A big opponent is Atlanta-based Southern Co., one of the largest electricity providers in the U.S. Federal reports show the company spent around $6 million in the first half of the year lobbying on issues, including the renewable electricity standard. The American Wind Energy Association spent about $1.3 million in the same period.
Valerie Hendrickson, a Southern spokeswoman, said the company believes the nation should be focused on promoting all forms of clean energy, including nuclear and clean coal. Opponents of a mandate in the Southeast argue that the region lacks renewable sources like abundant levels of wind.
The Senate GOP leadership is also opposed. Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said a renewable energy mandate would lead to utility rate increases and said McConnell "does not support an electricity rate hike, particularly in the middle of a recession."
Twenty-eight states currently have their own renewable mandates, including Colorado, which passed one over the objection of the state's largest utility, Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy — which has since become a supporter.