It is summertime in Washington and the leaders of the Senate are engaging in a seemingly annual exercise of creating a new energy bill.
Yesterday, there was apparently an interesting skirmish between the two senators from New Mexico, who are both members of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Until control of the Senate passed from the Republican to the Democratic Party in 2006, Senator Domenici was the committee chairman, but after the fall elections, he passed the gavel to Senator Bingaman. Both of these gentlemen (in every sense of the word) are strong supporters of new energy sources including nuclear power. (I watched a joint interview with both Senators over a video teleconference connection while I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico in November 2006 for the annual winter meeting of the American Nuclear Society.)
The skirmish occurred when Senator Bingaman introduced an amendment to the current committee produced bill to establish a national “renewable portfolio standard” of 15% by 2020. According to an article in the Albuquerque Tribune titled New Mexico senators’ energy bills duel, that amendment defined renewable energy to be “wind, solar and geo-thermal”. Other sources indicate that “biomass” was also part of the definition.
Senator Domenici introduced a competing amendment with a higher standard – 20% instead of 15% – but changed the definition to include nuclear power, hydroelectricity and energy efficiency. (Note: some of the sources that I found indicated that the Domenici amendment also included “clean” fossil fuel generation that included carbon capture. Can anyone point me to a good source of the actual proposals?)
There were some interesting debate topics during the discussion that some people might not have considered as a part of this kind of legislation. Several Senators from southeastern states (like Lamar Alexander from Tennessee) stood up and stated that the Bingaman definition was not fair to their region since the main source of energy that meets the standard is wind and the southeast has very poor wind resources. (There is a reason why FP&L, one of the largest wind developers in the US, builds its wind farms thousands of miles from its Florida home.) As Senator Alexander colorfully stated
“The one wind farm we have in the whole southeastern United States, the Buffalo Mountain Project in Tennessee, operated 7 percent of the time in August when we are all sitting on our porches, sweating and fanning ourselves and wanting our air-conditioners on, so wind energy doesn’t help us in our part of the country.”
The Senate, voting almost on party lines, defeated the Domenici amendment after Bingaman brought it up for a vote.
One of the objections that Senator Bingaman had to the modified proposal was that he claimed that it would lead to business as usual for most utilities since nuclear power already represents 20% of the US electrical power supply. Many large utilities would not have to do anything to meet the goal and the rest could meet the goal by purchasing credits (or merging with nuclear focused utilities).
I agree with both senators – the idea of including nuclear power was right but the standard is too low. My suggestion would be to include nuclear power (it is not fossil fuel and it does not produce any greenhouse emissions) and any fossil fuel plant powered by domestically produced fuel that actually succeeds in capturing all of the harmful emissions, but set the standard at something achievable and meaningful – I think that 50% by 2025 would be a great goal.
We really can build nuclear plants much faster than some people imagine – we built essentially all of the 104 plants that are now operating and supplying 20% of our electricity during the period from 1963-1987. That did not require a large portion of the national attention – during the same period we fought a war in Vietnam, sent men to the moon, developed personal computers, developed video games, introduced VCRs, shifted television from black and white to color and shifted our fleet of automobiles from muscle cars to mini vans and SUVs.
I made a similar comment on the Albuquerque Tribune article. What do you think – can it be done and would it be a good thing for the country and the world for us to take a round turn and get to work on building plants that displace the need to burn coal, oil and natural gas?