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So-called 'Clean Energy Standard' Protects Polluters

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Alarmed by current U.S. energy policy, 60 Americans from all over the country came together in 2012 and earlier this year in Cambridge, Mass., to explore alternatives to the dangerous and misleading course taken by industry and the nation’s political leaders. Over several days of intense discussion, they came up with the “American Clean Energy Agenda,” nine principles to put the nation on a course toward truly renewable, non-polluting energy. This, the fourth of a series, focuses on Principle 4: “The renewable energy standard is a proven model for a sustainable future, and our goal is to see it implemented on a national basis – as it already is in many states and other nations. We oppose the so-called ‘clean energy standard’ as a dishonest political ploy designed to protect polluting energy industries – coal, nuclear, shale gas and unsustainable biomass – that have brought us to the crisis we are in today.”


Coal has long been the “go-to” fuel for America’s energy needs and electricity production. More recently, natural gas has been creeping up and currently is almost neck-and-neck with coal. Nuclear power staggers in at third place in this dirty race. 


Despite industry’s misleading rhetoric, coal, nuclear and natural gas are all inherently dirty energy sources, carry significant health and environmental risks and cause actual harm. The toll: devastation of mountain top removal, 623 mining accidents that took five or more lives each, coal ash spills that wipe out complete marine ecosystems – and so much more.


Coal is also a major source of the relentless rise in global greenhouse gas emissions. Proponents of natural gas tout it as the climate-friendly alternative – a relatively clean-burning fuel found in abundance beneath our feet. But they don’t mention the methane leaks, the unknown chemicals being pumped perilously close to groundwater sources… or the folks living near gas wells who can set their tap water on fire.


As for nuclear… Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island. Nuclear is a wonderful, zero emissions alternative, right up until entire regions of the globe become uninhabitable.


With all this talk of dirty energy, it’s a good thing that folks in Washington are bandying about a proposed Clean Energy Standard (CES), right? There’s a catch. That proposal says, “By 2035, we will generate 80 percent of our electricity from a diverse set of clean energy sources – including renewable energy sources like wind, solar, biomass, and hydropower; nuclear power; efficient natural gas; and clean coal.”


Putting “clean coal,” gas, nuclear, even unsustainable biomass, under the “clean” umbrella is a triumph of rhetoric over reality. Nowhere does the proposed standard set goals for reducing dependence on coal, natural gas or nuclear and increasing reliance on truly clean, renewable energy sources. In fact, the all-of-the-above approach creates competition between private and public investment dollars and favors the established industries, due to their influence peddling in Congress and their enormous on-going subsidies.


Luckily, Congress hasn’t yet passed this so-called “clean energy standard.” There is still time to reclaim the true meaning of “clean.”


In 2011, Synapse Energy Economics, a leading research and consulting firm, demonstrated what a true “clean energy standard” would look like, concluding that it is entirely feasible to completely retire coal as a fuel source for U.S. electricity generation by 2050. Its study, “Toward a Sustainable Future for the U.S. Power Sector: Beyond Business as Usual 2011,” showed that focusing on efficiency and renewables, along with a modest increase in gas use, would make it possible to eliminate coal and reduce reliance on nuclear power by 23 percent, putting the nation on the right track and saving $83 billion over 40 years.


The “Clean Energy Standard” is, in truth, a cynical, dishonest, political ploy. Its parameters are so elastic as to be meaningless. That’s probably why it hasn’t stirred much debate. There’s no there, there. Indeed, the Synapse report and the recent “Renewable Energy Futures” study by the National Renewable Energy Lab have punctured the myths that it is too expensive to build out renewable capacity and that some regions are too poor in renewable-energy sources to allow for a national renewables policy. All regions have significant renewable energy resources, according to these reports, and transitioning to a truly clean electric grid will probably be less expensive, and definitely less financially risky, than relying on pies in the sky like carbon capture and storage or new nuclear designs.


The Synapse report is by no means the end-all-be-all, but it clearly shows that the naysayers who say it will take “all of the above” to meet America’s energy needs are wrong. We welcome President Obama’s leadership on climate change, but the “all of the above” approach isn’t going to get us the reductions we need fast enough. There is a path to a sustainable, renewable, clean energy future that doesn’t require coal, cuts back on nuclear and creates incentives for truly renewable energies like solar and wind.


We’re setting our feet on that path. We hope you’ll come along.


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