Senate hearing addresses RES legislation, biomass thermal

By Erin Voegele | May 21, 2015

On May 19, the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing to receive testimony on 26 pieces of legislation related to energy supply, including the recently introduced S. 1264 bill, which aims to establish a national renewable energy standard (RES). Bioenergy was among the topics discussed during the more than two hour event. 

S. 1264 was introduced by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M, on May 11. The bill aims to create the first national threshold for utilities to provide a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable resources, including wind, solar, biomass, landfill gas, ocean, tidal, geothermal, incremental hydropower or hydrokinetic. The RES requirement would phase in, starting at 7.5 percent in 2015 and gradually increase to 30 percent in 2030 and thereafter, through 2039.

During the hearing, Franz Matzner, director of the Beyond Oil Initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council, submitted testimony in favor of the RES legislation. “The 30x30 RES will promote clean energy source that cut carbon pollution, further expand our powerful clean energy economy which currently employs hundreds of thousands of American workers, drive innovation, and provide a strong market signal that the future lies in renewable energy developed here in America,” he said in written testimony.

Matzner added that 29 states and Washington, D.C., have mandatory renewable energy targets, while seven more have set nonbinding goals. “Between 1998 and 2013, approximately 68 percent (51 GW) of non-hydrorenewable capacity additions have occurred in states with binding renewable portfolio standards. A recent analysis by the Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) found that many states are on track to successfully meet their 2035 requirements within the next few years,” Matzner continued.

“Implementing a federal renewable electricity standard would expand on the success of state-level policies across the country and ensure that our entire nation reaps the benefits of a clean energy economy. A strong federal RES would also secure America’s place as a global leader in clean energy, providing policy certainty and a transparent market signal to drive investment in American companies and manufacturers,” he said.

Matzner also cited recent analysis completed by the Union of Concerned Scientists that found a federal RES would increase renewable energy by more than 265 percent over current levels, driving $294 billion in cumulative new capital investments and decreasing electricity sector carbon dioxide emissions by 10.8 percent below business-as-usual levels in 2030. He stressed these achievements could be accomplished with little impact on electricity prices when compared to business-as-usual, with the maximum average incremental increase in electricity prices in any given year being only 0.2 percent.

In her written testimony, Susan Kelly, president and CEO of the American Public Power Association, objected to the creation of a national RES, noting that 28 states already have RES programs and eight have voluntary RES targets. She also cited the impact of cumulative U.S. EPA proposed regulations. “State and local policies promoting the greater use of renewables, along with EPA regulations to reduce CO2 emissions are sufficient drivers for the increased use of renewable resources. A federal RES is unnecessary,” Kelly said.

“Furthermore, the creation of a federal RES could create a host of issues for utilities that are already subject to state RESs and are also trying to comply with state plans issued under EPA’s final Section 111(d) rule that will be released in the summer of 2015,” she added, noting Udall’s legislation could have the unintended consequence of forcing public power, rural electric cooperative, and investor-owned utilities located in the same state to compete against one another for in-state renewable energy resources to meet state goals set by EPA in its final Section 111(d) rule.

Brent Sheets, deputy director of the Alaska Center for Energy and Power at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, addressed biomass energy during his testimony. “The heat requirement for Alaska far surpasses the electricity requirement, and while a majority of the state’s communities use diesel fuel to meet their heat demand, woody biomass is often a more economical solution, especially in communities separated from the road/rail connected system,” he said.

During the hearing, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., highlighted District Energy St. Paul’s biomass district heating operation, noting the organization was recently recognized for its leadership in using wood waste to generate heat and electricity for downtown St. Paul while providing customers with stable and competitive energy prices and reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Responding to a question posed by Franken regarding Alaska’s use of biomass, Sheets noted more than 29 Alaskan communities have invested in biomass projects. Some have been successful and some have not, he said. “The successful ones demonstrate a commitment to the increased manpower that is associated with that, and then within the local communities it provides jobs, cutting down the trees, delivering them, stacking them,” Sheets continued. “In many of the rural communities, unemployment is huge, so any cash you can keep in the local economy is good. So, we have found that augmenting our other sources of power with heat from wood keeps cash in the community a little bit longer and circulating.”

Additional information on the hearing is available on the committee website