At Issue. Bills differ on having renewable-energy mandate for utilities.
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Bills differ on having renewable-energy mandate for utilities.

Congress may be stepping up its slow pace on legislation to spur energy efficiency and use of renewable power sources. The Senate passed an energy measure in June, and the House approved its version in August. Lawmakers didn’t seem to be making much headway in reconciling the two bills, but that may be changing. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on Nov. 26, “We have made significant progress toward completing this package and hope to have a final agreement next week.”

That would require bridging gaps on key points. The House bill would require utilities to get 15% of their retail power from renewable resources, like wind and solar, by 2020. The Senate bill has no such provision. Environmentalists like the House language, but the Edison Electric Institute, which represents utilities, doesn’t. “Our industry is very much in favor of renewables,” says EEI spokesman Jim Owen. “The thing that we’re opposed to is just a federal, one-size-fits-all [standard], particularly at a time when the states are filling that void.” He says more than 20 states now have renewables standards.

The House bill has $16 billion in tax breaks; the Senate version has no tax title. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) expects the tax package will end up between the House level and a $32-billion plan that failed to make it into the Senate bill. The House measure extends the production tax credit from renewables for four years and expands it to ocean energy. It also extends the 30% energy-investment tax credit for solar and fuel-cell equipment for eight years and authorizes $2 billion in “clean renewable energy bonds” for low-emission coal and other projects.

The Senate bill sets a standard for renewable transportation fuels, like ethanol, of 36 billion gallons by 2022 and a 35-mile-per-gallon automobile fuel- economy mark for 2020 models. The House has neither provision.

Buildings provisions are likely to be in a final bill. Senate and House bills require new and renovated federal buildings to trim fossil-fuel use to zero in 2030 and call for a “green buildings” office at the General Services Administration. Both also seek better energy efficiency in commercial buildings through aid to an envisioned consortium of industry and other nongovernment members. But Jeffrey Shoaf, Associated General Contractors’ senior executive director for government and public affairs, says the private sector is “already demanding energy efficiency probably in excess of what Congress is thinking about.”