How the Senate Tide Turned Against Wind and Solar

The loss of key GOP votes was a critical factor.

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When the Democrats first took over the Senate early this year, the one energy bill the leadership was confident it could pass was a renewable portfolio standard, or RPS—a requirement that at some time in the future, utilities will generate a higher percentage of their electricity from wind, solar, or other renewable energy sources. After all, 29 states have already adopted such requirements, and the Republican-controlled Senate passed such a bill in 2005; it was thrown out only because the House wouldn't agree.

Fast-forward to the present, and the Senate's defeat of a broad energy bill that handily passed the House. Now, conventional wisdom is that the RPS is the one energy measure the Senate can't possibly pass. Indeed, the vote counters believe the only way to revive the bill is to remove the ambition for 15 percent renewable energy nationwide by 2020.

Did support for wind and solar actually erode between the 2005 and 2007 votes on renewable energy? Well, just enough to make a difference. And it was the loss of Republican votes that probably hurt the most.

First of all, the 2005 bill's renewable energy amendment, sponsored by Sens. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, and Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, never had, nor did it need to gain, the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. It just won straight up, 52 to 48. The League of Conservation Voters' 2005 score card has the details.

That baseline of support should have given RPS a fighting chance after the results of the 2006 election. And indeed, RPS gained the vote of five key Democrats who defeated a Republican in the 2006 election: Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, and Jim Webb of Virginia. (The vote of the sixth Democrat who gained a GOP seat in 2006, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, doesn't count as a gain because his predecessor, Lincoln Chafee, had been a Republican supporter of RPS in 2005.) Add to those numbers two positive vote switches for RPS, both from states that rank near the top in wind energy potential: Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Republican John Thune of South Dakota voted to advance this year's energy bill even though they had voted against RPS in 2005.

But this year's energy bill fizzled, 53 to 42, losing six crucial votes of senators who had supported RPS in 2005: Democrats Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Evan Bayh of Indiana, and Republicans Charles Grassley of Iowa, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and John Ensign of Nevada (Ensign was recorded as not voting on the energy bill last week).

For some of them, like Landrieu from a big oil state, the bill's taxes on the energy industry may have been a bigger deciding factor than renewable energy. But before abandoning RPS, the Senate should look closely at these six votes. If the goal was scaled back from 15 percent to 10 percent—as it was in the 2005 bill—would that make a difference? It still would be a huge gain, especially over 13 years, when wind, solar, and geothermal now total less than 3 percent of generation. And since utilities could meet a portion of their "renewable" percentage with badly needed energy efficiency improvements, would that really be an unachievable goal—even for the coal-dependent South (which has argued that it lacks resources for wind power)?

energy policy and climate change
Republican Party
Democratic Party
renewable energy

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