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United States

House votes yes for first time ever

The congressional roller-coaster ride to enact a federal renewable energy standard (RES) continued last month with a first ever approval by the US House of Representatives of a minimum percentage for the renewable energy content of America's electricity supply. If the vote should successfully wend its way into law, it would require that 15% of electricity supplied to customers by investor owned utilities come from renewable energy by 2020.

The US wind lobby describes the vote as a "landmark referendum," but is only cautiously optimistic it will stay put. To become law, the vote also requires Senate backing -- and the Senate side-stepped making that decision before their August holiday. This does not suggest they do not support it, says the American Wind Energy Association's Jaime Steve. The Senate has historically been the branch of Congress to vote in favour of RES laws -- having done so three times -- while the House has always opposed it. There's more than majority support for it in the Senate, says Steve.

But Senate Republicans insisted upon a 60-vote "supermajority" to approve most measures related to energy, which was a way of "gumming up the works" on passing legislation they did not like, says Steve. There is no doubt the RES measure would have passed if the Senate held an up or down majority vote, he adds.

Although there is no Senate version of the bill, the House approval keeps the RES in play and requires the two branches to debate the measure. While uncertainty reigns, the overall situation is positive for wind power. That the measure even passed in the House was a welcome surprise and reflects partly the power shift in Congress to a slim Democratic majority after over a decade of Republican rule.

In the House version, a concession was made to the Southeast US states when the RES was dropped from 20% to 15% and it was agreed that 4% of compliance may be be achieved through energy efficiency. The Southeast is generally opposed to renewables mandates because its wind resources are generally poor -- and wind power typically provides the bulk of RES compliance.

As passed, the House bill contains a clause that allows higher state mandates to supersede the federal RES. Effectively that makes the 15% a "floor-level" RES for all states. Citing California and Texas as examples, Steve says they are already meeting more than 15% of their generation from renewables and have higher standards that will continue to drive in-state markets. Other states in coming years are likely to surpass a federal RES as well, he says.

The 15% requirement would apply to investor owned utilities, with public power entities (such as municipal utilities and rural co-operatives) exempt. Hawaii also would be exempt, given that it is a chain of islands unconnected to the continental US grid. Specifics of the law, however, have limited importance since reconciliation with the Senate may lead to changes -- even an outright defeat or presidential veto is always a possibility.

In a separate tax bill last month, the House also gave its approval to a four-year extension of wind's federal production tax credit, but it too will need Senate approval before proceeding. Congress returns to session this month but further action on these and other renewable energy items is not expected until October.

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