In the middle of its recent immigration showdown, the U.S. Senate quietly passed an energy bill that forces electricity consumers in states such as Maryland to subsidize cheap electricity for Southern states, even while power plants in the Southeast continue to dump their pollution here.
For a week, senators engaged in a tumultuous debate over a federal renewable portfolio standard, a provision requiring all utilities across the nation to generate 15 percent of their electricity from renewable resources by 2020.
Despite a comprehensive study by the Network for New Energy Choices showing that a federal standard would benefit his home state, Republican Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico threatened to filibuster the entire bill until Democrats stripped out the renewable portfolio standard provision. Mr. Domenici's single largest campaign contributor is Southern Co., an Atlanta-based utility that has long opposed a federal renewable portfolio standard, claiming that there are not enough renewable resources in the South to meet the standard without raising electricity rates.
Twenty-two states (including Maryland and Delaware) and the District of Columbia have adopted renewable standard laws in an attempt to clear the air and diversify the nation's electricity fuels. Seven more states are considering similar requirements.
For most utilities, a uniform standard would save them money by removing the need to comply with a patchwork of inconsistent, often-competing state regulations. Southern Co. is one exception because it operates across a pocket of Southern states that have so far resisted adopting their own renewable requirements and have blocked passage of a federal standard 17 times in the last 10 years.
The South, home to some of the most polluting power plants in the nation, produces more pollution than any other section of the country. Unfortunately, nitrous oxide, particulate matter and ozone pollution from Southern Co.'s coal-fired power plants in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi do not respect state borders. Instead, these pollutants waft northward and are dumped on Maryland, Delaware and D.C.
In 2002, the Maryland Department of the Environment found that particulate-matter pollution in the state was more than twice the level of pollution in New York and New Jersey - even though Maryland was emitting less than half the pollution of those states. Complex maps of pollution migration from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show that almost 70 percent of the air pollution in Maryland comes from other states.
In many ways, Maryland's ratepayers unwittingly subsidize the ability of Southern consumers to enjoy cheap (and dirty) electricity. Without a national renewable portfolio standard that distributes the burden of cleaning and diversifying our nation's energy among all states, Maryland's ratepayers will continue to pay higher electricity costs and experience worse air pollution so that Southern consumers can breathe cleaner and enjoy cheaper electricity rates.
The House will soon consider its own version of the energy bill, and opponents will repeat the same hackneyed claims that a national standard is unfair to Southern states that lack abundant sources of clean energy. A plethora of new research shows that the South has ample renewable resources, including some of the nation's most valuable solar energy and offshore wind, as well as vast stocks of agricultural by-products that can fuel renewable biomass generators.
But even if a federal requirement raises electricity rates in the South, a national policy is far more equitable than continuing to force downwind states such as Maryland to shoulder the burden of "free rider" states unwilling to pay the price of their dirty-energy choices. Contrary to Mr. Domenici and his benefactor, a national renewable portfolio standard is less a "one-size-fits-all" prescription than an "everyone-shares-equally" solution.
Christopher Cooper is senior policy director for the Network for New Energy Choices. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Benjamin Sovacool is senior research fellow for the network and teaches in the government and international affairs program at Virginia Tech. His e-mail is email@example.com.