Bills Offer First Energy Policy Advance in 10 Years; Boost to Farm Energy Programs

Legislation currently pending in Congress offers a path to the nation’s first major energy policy breakthrough in 10 years, while another measure would strengthen renewable energy and energy efficiency programs important to rural America.

On the broader scale, S. 1460, the Energy and Natural Resources Act of 2017 (ENRA) currently pending in the Senate, does not singularly promote renewable energy. But it contains provisions that could boost infrastructure, including transmission lines, that could better accommodate distributed energy resources like wind and solar power. The measure would also boost research into energy storage that can be used by grids to improve the dependability of power coming from intermittent sources like wind and solar.

And while the energy efficiency provisions offered by the bill fall short of what advocates have called for in recent years, they do boost energy savings performance contracts, weatherization assistance and state energy programs.

Authored by Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the committee’s ranking member, the bill is the successor to broad, bipartisan legislation that passed the Senate in 2016, but ran into conference committee resistance from the House and could not be revived before the clock ran out on the 114th Congress.

The senators say the latest bill reflects some changes brought about through discussions with House members who had reservations about some provisions in the bill last year. But they also say it builds on recent technological breakthroughs to bring substantial benefits, including energy savings and expanded energy supplies, while giving priority to innovation, modernization and the security of the electric grid.

Of greater significance to clean energy advocates, however, is that it marks an effort to move for the first time in a decade bipartisan legislation that can modernize and build on the nation’s energy and resource policies. While it’s not the path to the comprehensive energy policy long sought by 25x’25, it could be a solid start to wider energy policy discussions in the near future.

For example, those discussions could lead to the restoration of language from last year’s version of the bill that identifies forestry biomass as carbon neutral feedstock, a designation that could expand the use of woody biomass as a source of electrical and thermal energy.

In June, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) enhanced the prospects for passage of the latest Murkowski-Cantwell bill by giving it the procedural okay to bypass the Energy Committee and be brought directly to the Senate floor. Still, the sponsors are having to rely on a gap in a busy Senate calendar that is expected to be consumed by tax reform, relief aid for Florida and other southeastern states slammed by Hurricane Irma, fiscal 2018 spending bills, a needed extension of the National Flood Insurance Program set to expire Sept. 30, and a renewal of funding for the National Children’s Health Fund set to run out at the end of this month, among other items on a crowded legislative agenda.

Of particular interest to the 25x’25 Alliance is another measure that would reauthorize and assure funding for the energy programs under Title IX of the current farm bill. The legislation from three Midwest senators would bolster the farm energy programs through 2023, and would be seen by advocates as a needed response in the face of severe, deep funding cuts to the programs as proposed in fiscal 2018 spending bills pending in Congress.

By restoring to the fiscal strength intended by lawmakers when they were created as far back as 2002, initiatives like the Rural Energy for America Program, the Biorefinery, Renewable Chemical, and Biobased Product Manufacturing Assistance Program, the Bioenergy Program for Advanced Biofuels and the Biomass Crop Assistance Program can help agricultural producers and rural businesses deploy more renewable energy projects and cut energy costs. Among other provisions, the reauthorized energy section would also support advanced biofuel production, improve the market for sustainable agriculture feedstocks and help keep sugar prices stable.

We encourage our 25x’25 partners and other clean energy advocates to engage lawmakers in Washington and urge them to actively support and pass the modest legislation proposed by Murkowski and Cantwell, as well as the bill that would fully restore farm energy programs. The former has the potential to set the stage for broader, more inclusive energy policy discussions. The latter offers a needed boost to a rural American economy hammered by low commodity prices and reduced farm incomes for more than three years.

 

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