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A Clean Energy Standard

President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address was a mixed bag with regard to this nation’s clean economy future, as detailed here yesterday. The President laid out some ideas that were cogent and compelling, and which could act as the pillars of a credible energy policy. Other proposals, however, would help further entrench an antiquated economy dependent on dirty energy.

Perhaps the most encouraging idea in the speech was the President’s call for a clean energy standard. This proposal is potentially a game-changer.

In the next few weeks, Senator Jeff Bingaman -- who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee -- plans to unveil legislation that would create a "clean" electric power standard and require utilities to get escalating levels of electricity from low (or lower) carbon sources.

While the Bingaman's proposal is unlikely to get very far in today's hyper-polarized and partisan Congress -- a fact President Obama acknowledged -- the introduction of this legislation will be an important step.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration conducted an analysis of such a clean energy standard at Bingaman's request, and released it at the end of November 2011. The analysis found that implementing such a standard would result in a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by 43 percent through the year 2035 -- yet have only a negligible impact on electricity prices through 2022. The report posits that electricity prices would increase in the subsequent years but as the costs of renewable energy continue to fall precipitously, the impact on the average household’s utility bill would be marginal.

The Bingaman proposal is not a perfect one. An important caveat is that using the designation "clean" rather than "renewable" is not ideal as less-environmentally friendly electricity sources such as nuclear power and natural gas can be categorized as "clean" or "low carbon." Still, let's not make the perfect the enemy of the good. The stakes could not be higher. The International Energy Agency’s 2011 World Energy Outlook warned that the planet is on track to experience a 6° Celsius (11° Fahrenheit) temperature increase, a scenario that would lead to an irreversible climate catastrophe.

So again, even if Bingaman’s plan is sure to be DOA in the current Congress, it remains a sound policy that would represent significant progress toward a more stable climate and a more sustainable economy. Future Congresses would be well-advised to make it a top priority. And Obama should keep cheerleading for the idea.