There’s something about Curt Bramble’s renewable energy bill. Something good, something bad, and then just something. Bramble, the Senate majority leader, seems to agree. “There are those who say it doesn’t go far enough,” he says. “I’ve got my own constituents saying it goes way too far.” Far, as in far to the left of center or far-sighted, depending on how you view the quest for future energy solutions. But with nuclear power and coal both part of the alternatives equation, it’s hard to see Bramble’s Senate Bill 202 as a huge environmental coup. Bramble’s bill, co-sponsored with Sen. Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, has cleared the full Senate and is waiting to be heard in the House. The 2008 legislative session ends Wednesday night. “Except for the fact that it enshrines nuclear, the bill has some benefit,” says Kathy Van Dame, a clean-air activist who gives the bill faint praise. Enshrines is maybe a little bold, although the bill certainly acknowledges nuclear as a player. This “Energy Resource and Carbon Emission Reduction Initiative” makes clear that nuclear qualifies for “zero carbon emissions generation.” In other words, it may produce those persistent radioactive waste products, but it’s clean in the carbon emissions arena. The fact that there is a bill at all, and that it appears to have legs, is a testament as much to environmental realities as it is to political gamesmanship. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. announced
a Renewable Energy Initiative last year and charged a panel to report and move legislation forward. The idea was to create a Renewable Energy Portfolio, as 22 other states have done, to ensure that renewable energy sources—solar, wind, and water—are part of the state’s energy mix, which now is largely in the hands of Rocky Mountain Power (RMP). RMP representatives, however, huffed out of the meeting and then presented Bramble with their own wish list. RMP’s fear was that any compromise legislation would include mandates, which did in fact end up in bill by Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake. And when Bramble offered “his” bill to a legislative interim committee, the reception was pretty dazed and confused. After all, it was a 23-page bill with cryptic verbiage and technical terminology. Not that that has ever stopped the legislature before. But Bramble seemed to get a wake-up call, and began hosting “stakeholder” meetings, leaving environmental groups cautiously conflicted. Their perfect bill would be McCoy’s, but realistically Bramble’s was the one most likely to succeed. “The compromise that resulted in this legislation may very likely have left all sides wishing they could have gotten ‘more,’” says Bramble. “This is not close to the original bill that RMP drafted.” Ultimately, groups like HEAL Utah and Utah Clean Energy kind of sucked it up and began coming on board, “We were appreciative of being part of the process, and it was a unique opportunity to work with Senator Bramble,” said Chris Thomas of HEAL. For sure, working with a powerful Republican in the legislature has to be a new and different experience for many environmental groups.
Sarah Wright, of Utah Clean Energy, looks on the bright side. RMP now has to include renewable energy in its resource planning—a complex computer model by which it pretty much predicts our energy future. They’ll have to suppose Utah will get 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. The thing is that they can also get discounts, like they’re WalMart or something. RMP can deduct credits for renewables they already have before beginning to calculate the 20 percent. Here’s where nuclear comes in. “The bill does not classify nuclear or clean-coal as renewable,” Bramble explains. “It does recognize reduced carbon emission technology, and does address carbon sequestration. The bill does more than address renewable energy. Carbon emission reduction based on current sources of and technology used in electrical generation, addressed the current energy landscape, while still moving in an appropriate direction.” That’s really the big deal. By putting “carbon emission reduction” in the title of his bill, Bramble in effect is acknowledging climate change. The bill has also streamlined the permit process for the renewables industry, and allows the Public Service Commission to look at risk and other factors—health, for instance—before issuing permits. Of course, the loophole everyone sees is the compliance factor. There are no penalties for missing the 20 percent mark, which is a sweet target with no teeth. Public pressure, ahem, is supposed to be to big motivator.
HEAL’s Thomas doesn’t think so. “We don’t believe it demonstrates a serious enough commitment to jumpstart a renewable industry in Utah.” But it is a toe in the door through which a little light may shine.