GUEST COLUMN: Last chance for America to be a clean energy leader

Saturday, August 21, 2010 | 7:18 p.m. CDT; updated 3:15 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 23, 2010

After nearly 2 years of work on a comprehensive climate change and clean energy bill, Senate Democrats recently abandoned efforts in exchange for a weakened "oil spill bill." Citing their inabilities to overcome a Republican filibuster, the oil spill bill includes only minor clean energy provisions and completely fails to address the underlying causes of the climate crisis.

Luckily, the weakened bill did not advance before the Senate's August recess. This provides one last chance for the bill to be amended with a national Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) when the Senate reconvenes in September.

Adding this critical clean energy provision to an otherwise disappointing bill will help America to catch up with the rest of the world in the transition to a clean energy economy. A RES will also reduce our dependence on imported fossil fuels, jumpstart Missouri's rural economies and manufacturing sector and lower the nation's runaway carbon footprint.

A national RES would require a portion of the country's electricity to come from renewable energy. A 20 percent renewable energy by the year 2020 is a good starting place for the federal RES, and several of the 28 states with a previously adopted RES have already set even higher renewable targets.

A national RES is necessary to bring long-term certainty to the U.S. renewable energy market and drive investment into American wind turbine manufacturers and component suppliers. Without an RES, America will fall even further behind China and European countries that have already made long-term commitments to renewable energy, and are thus already dominating the sector.

In fact, China recently became the world leader in wind installations and solar manufacturing, and Chinese clean energy companies are attracting nearly double the investment of U.S. companies. And the day our Senate dropped cap and trade, China announced it will institute its own cap and trade system next year that will attract even more clean energy investments. Beyond driving investment into the U.S. economy, a national RES is predicted to create 274,000 jobs. It will also help protect the 85,000 people currently employed in the U.S. wind industry.

Missouri voters passed a 15 percent by 2021 state RES on the statewide ballot in 2008. The Missouri RES passed with 66 percent of the vote, and Missouri utilities are on track to meet the first renewable energy targets in 2011.

By 2021, the Missouri RES is expected to create more than 22,000 jobs that will generate an additional $1.7 billion in worker income. The policy will have a minimal impact on electric rates and is expected to save Missourians a cumulative $331 million on their electric bills by 2021.

Beyond economic and job creation benefits, the transition to renewable energy fueled by a national RES will result in to cleaner air and water. Currently, more than 80 percent of Missouri's electricity and 50 percent of America's electricity comes from polluting coal-fired power plants.

Particulate matter from coal power plants is linked to asthma and lung disease. Coal plants also emit mercury, a toxic metal that causes developmental brain defects in children; and, in Missouri (and nearly every other state), women and children are warned to avoid eating fish from many of our waters because of mercury contamination. Developmental brain defects caused by mercury pollution from coal are estimated to cost the U.S. economy $1.3 billion annually in lost earning potential. And nearly 60,000 people die prematurely each year from particulate matter from coal plants.

In all, a national RES will provide the certainty needed to jumpstart our wind, solar, and clean biomass sectors, thereby attracting billions in investments and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. It does so while helping us move to renewable sources of electricity that do not pollute our air and water and do not require fuel extraction through dangerous and environmentally-detrimental mining or drilling.

The transition from fossil fuels to clean energy is happening, and America is at risk of falling further and further behind. The U.S. must pass a strong national RES to put us on the path of a clean, competitive, and healthy economy, and reassert us as a leader in the global economy of tomorrow.

Erin Noble is co-director of Renew Missouri, an organization dedicated to the advancement of clean energy in Missouri.

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