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Should states keep their renewable energy standards?

By   /   April 20, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

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QUESTIONING RENEWABLES’ RETURN ON INVESTMENT: Some 30 states have renewable portfolio standards but James M. Taylor of the Heartland Institute says they should be repealed.

By Rob Nikolewski │ Watchdog.org

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Some 30 states have instituted renewable portfolio standards that require them to make sure a minimum percentage of their electricity comes from clean energy sources.

But James M. Taylor believes states should ditch them, contending that consumers end up paying higher utility bills while receiving no net environmental benefits at the end of the day.

“I never use the term ‘renewable portfolio standards,’ ” Taylor said at a recent speech sponsored by the New Mexico-based free-market organization, the Rio Grande Foundation. “Standards are something you aspire to reach, you’re not forced to obey. The correct term is ‘renewable portfolio mandates.’ ”

Taylor is the senior fellow for Environment and Energy Policy at the Heartland Institute, a think tank whose website says is “devoted to discovering, developing, and promoting free-market solutions to social and economic problems.”

Taylor also writes a regular column at Forbes.com, where he takes on carbon taxes, chides climate activists and cites studies that lead him to say a warming planet is actually a good thing.

“We had more plagues, we had more famines, more crop failures, we had more human misery during the Little Ice Age when temperatures were colder,” Taylor told Watchdog.org after his speech.

“People fear change. People also fear humans having some impact on the environment and while we should certainly be cognizant of that and scrutinize it, we shouldn’t just leap to the conclusion without looking at the evidence that it therefore must be bad. Sometimes we have benefits.”

Comments like that make Taylor persona non grata among environmental organizations, who accuse Taylor and the Heartland Institute of being mouthpieces for the fossil fuel industry.

“Contrary to claims made by Taylor and others at Heartland … the overwhelming majority of experts agree that climate is changing rapidly, that humans are the dominant drivers of the changes, and that model projections indicate that the changes will be highly disruptive if they’re not planned for,” said a 2013 column in Climate Progress.

“If you think that the Heartland Institute would be chasing dollars, then we’d be on the other side of the debate,” Taylor said. “When you look at the budgets for the (major national environmental groups), you’re talking about budgets that are 10 times what we have. If we’re out there chasing dollars, we’d be chasing their dollars where the big money is.”

Among Taylor’s favorite topics is challenging the renewable standards adopted by states ranging on the political spectrum from deep blue California (which calls for 33 percent of its electric power to come from renewable sources by 2020) to deep red Utah (20 percent by 2025).

Photo from the Heartland Institute website

James M. Taylor, Heartland Institute

“Renewable power mandates are a bad idea because they impose upon consumers far more expensive energy, electricity in particular, than would otherwise be the case,” Taylor said.

But Sanders Moore, executive director of Environment New Mexico, says renewable requirements are effective.

“I do think it’s a win-win situation for states,” Moore told Watchdog.org. “When you talk to a financial adviser, they talk to you about diversifying your economic portfolio. It’s a good thing with energy as well.”

Established in 2006, New Mexico’s renewable standards require 20 percent of the state’s electricity be generated by renewable sources by 2020.

“Having more renewable sources I think can help buffer against downswings in conventional energy and it’s also better for our public health,” Moore said.

At his Albuquerque presentation, Taylor cited data asserting that since New Mexico established renewable standards, electricity prices in the state have gone up 32 percent — more than twice the national average.

But Moore says the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission put in a price threshold to ensure that no more than 3 percent of a price increase can be related to the state’s renewable energy requirements.

In a 2014 post on Forbes.com, Taylor said Colorado electricity prices rose 20 percent faster than the national average and went up twice the rate of the national average since the state toughened its renewable standards in 2007.

“The problem is exacerbated by the fact that there aren’t any of the environmental benefits in net that (state renewable standards) promise,” Taylor said.

“There might be some reductions in certain emissions, but when you look at all the environmental factors, like land usage, and when you look at species that are being forced off of lands or killed by wind turbines, etc., there are many people, myself included, who think that the environment is better off with conventional power than wind and solar.”

But what about the externalities — the costs that may be unseen but should be factored — that come from using fossil fuels?

“Let’s assume for the sake of argument that carbon dioxide emission, sulfur dioxide, etc., have these negative externalities,” Taylor said.

“Then, you put a price on that and hopefully you do it honestly. But you also have to put a price on the 1.4 million birds and bats that are killed every year, including many protected and endangered species. You have to put a price on developing mountain top ridges and coastal shorelines. You have to put a price on the tremendous amount of water that’s required for solar-thermal production.”

Photo from Environment New Mexico website

Sanders Moore, executive director of Environment New Mexico

But Moore points to a study done by PNM, New Mexico’s largest utility, that says renewable energy provided by the utility will save 382 million gallons of water by 2016.

“Once a solar panel and a wind turbine is made and installed, neither one requires any water consumption,” Moore said in a telephone interview. “So based on that, we’re seeing a huge net benefit in water savings.”

At his presentation, Taylor pointed to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration that over the next 30 years new solar power will cost about five times more than conventional energy sources.

However, the solar industry disputed the data collection that produced the number and points to reports showing the price of solar and wind energy has come down sharply in recent years.

“Well, certainly five times more expensive is not as horrible as 10 times more expensive, but it’s still pretty horrible,” Taylor said.

Moore said renewable requirements can help protect energy states like New Mexico from the recent steep fall in global oil prices.

“If the solar industry is growing and is able to provide a more stable source of jobs, then I think that will help,” Moore said.

“If the day comes when (renewable energy is) cost competitive, I’ll cheer it on and I think I won’t even need to cheer it on because people will choose to buy them,” Taylor said. “If they really have any heft to their economic arguments then they don’t need any government intervention and people like me will be more than happy to buy their products.”

“Renewable energy is good not just for New Mexico, but for the United States because renewable energy is a pollution-free energy source that helps to clean up our air,” Moore said.

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Rob formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.