Summary:

Given that a U.S. carbon cap-and-trade system appears increasingly unlikely in the near term, what’s the next best way to boost the domestic renewable energy industry and deliver green jobs? According to a study done by Navigant Consulting on behalf of the renewable energy industry group, […]

Given that a U.S. carbon cap-and-trade system appears increasingly unlikely in the near term, what’s the next best way to boost the domestic renewable energy industry and deliver green jobs? According to a study done by Navigant Consulting on behalf of the renewable energy industry group, Renewable Electricity Standard Alliance for Jobs, the answer is: a national renewable energy standard. Specifically one requiring every state to get 25 percent of its power from renewable resources by 2025.

A nationwide standard would result in 274,000 more jobs around the country than sticking to the status quo, and will be needed to help stave off job declines expected to come in the short term as tax incentives and stimulus funding for U.S. renewables start to slack off, the report found.

It isn’t the first time someone has talked about a national goal for renewable energy. President Obama has called for a 25 percent national RES by 2025, and the Union of Concerned Scientists said in March that this would create 297,000 jobs and save consumers $64.3 billion in electricity and natural gas bills. While not quite so ambitious, the Waxman-Markey energy and climate bill now cooling its heels in the House of Representatives, calls for the nation to get 20 percent of its power from renewables by 2020.

But Navigant’s report — which also assumes shorter-term national RES’s of 12 percent by 2014 and 20 percent by 2020 to get things going, and doesn’t include energy efficiency as part of an RES, as Waxman-Markey does — says that its more aggressive framework would create about three times the number of jobs that would come from the House proposal.

About 30 states now have their own renewable energy mandates in place, with California’s call for one-third of its power to come from renewables by 2020 among the most ambitious. But “Contrary to popular belief, a strong national RES will have major impacts in every state,” Jay Paidipati, a Navigant managing consultant, said in a Thursday conference call. In fact, sticking with the status quo is likely to lead to job losses in 10 states over the next 15 years, compared to a 25-percent RES scenario, which would lead to job gains across every state, the report contends. About half of those jobs would be in manufacturing, and another quarter or so in construction and craft trades, but a fair share of white-collar jobs would also be created, the report found.

The idea of a national standard has traditionally faced opposition from states seen as lacking in the natural resources behind renewable energy — most notably, states in the Southeast, which lack the sunny skies of the Southwest or the strong winds of the Midwest to capture for power generation. But the southeast could make up those deficits by turning to hydropower, waste-to-energy and biomass energy in a big way, according to Navigant.

Much of the growth in biomass jobs — 60,000 by 2025, the report says — could come in states such as Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia. Robert Cleaves, CEO of the Biomass Power Association, said the Southeast was “unequivocally the future of this industry” — a clear call to Southeast states to get behind a renewables push they’ve so far been slow to adopt. (By the way, a national RES isn’t quite as simple as each state getting 25 percent of its power from in-state renewable sources, as states and utilities could trade renewable energy credits with each other to reach the goal).

There’s a lot that Navigant didn’t tackle in its Thursday report, including just how much capital investment would be involved in getting a quarter of the nation’s power from renewable resources by 2025, and what effects it would have on the price of electricity. Another question left unstudied was the impact of having — or not having — a price on carbon over that time. Of course, with President Obama publicly saying this week that carbon cap-and-trade is less likely to be included in ongoing work on national energy legislation this year (see Wall Street Journal), it might be wise to avoid making any assumptions on that point.

Images courtesy of Navigant.

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By Jeff St. John

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