Revived Hope for Renewable Energy Legislation

To all the naysayers who questioned whether energy legislation could pass this year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has an answer for them: not so fast. Speaking at the third annual National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Reid revived hopes that a bill would get through after all, albeit a much smaller one than the House approved last summer, which may even include the resurrection of a national Renewable Electricity Standard (RES). He told reporters last week that an RES was “absolutely” still in play, and he would be working to secure further bi-partisan support for the measure for as long as it takes. While it is unlikely that anything will move prior to the midterm elections, Reid did express hope that an energy bill including an RES may happen in the lame-duck session.

Joining a chorus of supporters both in the administration and in the energy and environmental community, Reid made it clear that a disparate, state-by-state renewable energy policy is unsustainable. A national RES is not only the “right thing for the states, [but] the right thing for the country,” he said. The Majority Leader was joined by several prominent clean energy advocates from both the public and private sectors who called for more ways to incentivize big business to invest in the renewable energy sector. Austan Goolsbee, who serves as the chief economist on President Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, remarked that the private sector will be looking for two things before they decide to take the plunge en masse: a big domestic market for clean energy and a coherent national energy policy. While he did suggest that a price on carbon would do the trick, the more viable solution would be to focus increasingly on tax credits. As a starting point, Congress must pass the Domestic Manufacturing and Energy Jobs Act of 2010, a piece of renewable energy tax credit legislation that would provide a significant boost for solar and other renewable manufacturing by including an expansion of the 48C renewable manufacturing program. Additionally, Congress should continue its work to extend the Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit, which expired at the end of 2009. A substantial influx of R&D investment in the clean-tech sector is vital if the U.S. expects to go head-to-head with countries like China, which is spending roughly $12 million an hour on clean energy technology. President Obama’s proposal this week for a permanent and expanded R&D tax credit is a step in the right direction, and will give business the long-term confidence to invest with certainty. The administration’s leadership in this area should be commended, and will hopefully spur Congress to follow suit.

The Senate will no doubt have its hands full when it returns to work next week, but it must resist the temptation to put energy on the backburner. After all, Americans are looking to their lawmakers for a way out of the current economic morass, which can be mitigated by tapping into the potential of the renewable energy market. As Goolsbee noted, “[Clean tech] offers a wider distribution of opportunity than almost any advanced future-leaning industry that you can think of.” It is time for legislators to stop looking at renewable energy as a partisan issue that falls squarely along party lines, and start seeing it as something that has the potential to turn our economy around and pave the way for America’s next great industry. To paraphrase Sen. Reid: all we need is a little spark to create a wildfire.

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