DENVER — Renewable energy is gathering steam in several states as voters and governors push electric utilities to generate a set percentage of electricity from clean sources such as wind and solar power.
In Washington state, voters approved a measure Nov. 7 mandating that 15% of electrical power come from renewable sources by 2020.
That makes 20 states and the District of Columbia with such requirements, according to the Department of Energy. Two others states — Illinois and Vermont — have non-binding goals on using renewable energy sources.
More states are forcing utilities toward wind, solar and other renewable energy sources, such as geothermal and biomass, to cut the use of coal and natural gas and spur greater U.S. energy independence. Burning coal produces greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide that contribute to climate change. Power plants fueled by natural gas pollute the air with sulfur dioxide.
Opponents, including some utilities and industries, say the switch will be costly for consumers and businesses. In Senate testimony last year, the National Association of Manufacturers opposed a proposed federal requirement to use renewable energy because it would reduce the flexibility of utilities in choosing fuels and harm businesses trying to remain competitive by containing costs.
Other states taking action:
- California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law in September that accelerates the timetable for 20% of electricity to come from solar, wind and other clean power sources. The compliance date is now 2010, seven years earlier than previously required by state law.
- New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson proposed last month that the state increase its current requirement that 10% of electricity come from renewable sources by 2011. He wants utilities to produce 15% of their power from renewable sources by 2015 and 25% by 2020.
- Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski is developing a legislative package calling for 25% of electrical power from renewable energy by 2025.
"We're going to move aggressively" on increasing the use of solar and wind power, says state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. "Colorado ought to be a leader in this field, and it's been lapped by more aggressive states."
Colorado voters in 2004 approved a referendum requiring that the state draw 10% of its electricity from renewable sources. In October, the state's largest utility, Xcel Energy, announced it will meet the 10% target by next year. Xcel's quick success reflects, in part, the abundance of solar power and wind in Colorado, which is not the case everywhere.
Xcel, which serves 1.3 million customers in Colorado, is studying how it could attain a higher percentage, spokesman Tom Henley says. That's "something we're looking at. ... The only question is whether it would be prudent." He points to the intermittent reliability of wind and solar power.
Xcel was moving toward large-scale purchases of renewable electricity before the 2004 vote, Henley says. It has contracts with four large wind-electricity producers, is awaiting regulatory approval to build a large solar plant in southern Colorado and pays credits and rebates to homeowners and businesses that install solar panels.
Progress in the states could spur Congress to enact a federal standard, predicts Anna Aurelio, director of the Washington office of U.S. PIRG, a national environmental group. The Senate in 2005 approved a 10% mandate that failed in the House, and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., incoming chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has said he will try again.
"This is a huge opportunity right now," Aurelio says.