Southern Lawmakers Holding Up Progress on Renewable Energy
Opposition to national mandates requiring energy utilities to move towards using cleaner renewable energy have typically come from two quarters: said energy utilities and a predictable group of Southern legislators. When you consider that 6 of the country's 10 largest emitters of carbon dioxide are coal-fired power plants in southern states, this all begins to make a bit more sense.
A coalition of southern Republican senators contributed about half the votes necessary to kill a bill that would've required utilities to obtain 15% of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020. They've tried to defend their position by claiming that the South, unlike the West and Southwest, is not amenable to solar or wind power. Because these senators have continued to drag their feet and, in so doing, brought the Congress to a virtual standstill on national clean energy legislation, many states have taken the lead in adopting their own mandates (almost half to date). One notable exception: Texas. "If you look at other regions of the country where renewables have taken off, it's been because of mandates, and that's why you haven't seen it take off in the South," said Nicholas Rigas, director of the South Carolina Institute for Energy Studies at Clemson University and a firm believer in the South's renewable energy potential. "Once the development starts it will be just as successful as it is in other states." As much as environmentalists and scientists choose to speak out about the issue, however, they will have a hard time matching the influence (and money) of Southern Co. and Duke Energy Corp., the South's two largest utilities.
Both companies produce close to two-thirds of their power from coal and are some of this country's top emitters of GHG. Indeed, Duke Energy ranks as the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide while Southern Co. weighs in at number one. In addition, their plants spew some of the largest amounts of mercury into the air, as well as several pollutants that cause acid rain, smog and respiratory problems.
Chris Hobson, who serves as the senior vice president for research and environmental affairs at Southern Co., apparently didn't do the math when he claimed that such an "irrational" bill could "cripple our economy or cripple our industry." According to the Energy Department, the legislation would have barely affected their costs (and huge profits): only increasing them by about 1% through 2030.
Fortunately, all is not lost: the South could still emerge as a national leader in renewable energy if it takes the lead in producing biomass-based fuels from grasses, timber residue and agricultural waste. Steven Taylor, who is chairman of the bioenergy program at Auburn University, said southern states regularly produce record amounts of biomass from their expansive farmlands and forests and could use it to fuel an upsurge in the state's biofuel industry. "We've got the ability to generate a pretty good proportion of our power or liquid fuel from biomass," he said.
That sure doesn't sound "irrational" to us.