As a big energy package moved through the Senate, lawmakers on June 16 narrowly approved an amendment that would require electric utilities to tap solar, wind, geothermal or other renewable sources of energy for 10% of the power they sell in 2020. Earlier in the day, the Senate defeated a proposal that would have required the U.S. to trim its dependence on foreign oil by 40% in 20 years.

Bingaman's amendment sets 10% renewables benchmark by 2020.

The renewables amendment, proposed by New Mexico's Jeff Bingaman, the top Energy and Natural Resources Committee Democrat, passed on a 52-48 vote. Several Republicans joined nearly all the Democrats to approve the proposal.

It would establish a "renewable portfolio standard," beginning at 2.5% of a utility's power sold in 2008, then rising to 5% in 2012, 7.5% in 2016 and topping out at 10% in 2020.

Bingaman said that the 10% requirement "would give industry the certainty it needs to successfully undertake new projects to improve the diversity of our electricity generation mix and to relieve some of the pressure that is leading to high natural gas prices."

The amendment also would set up a program under which utilities could buy and sell renewable energy credits to help meet the requirement. A company that failed to reach the renewables benchmarks could be hit with a civil penalty.

The proposal to cut foreign-oil dependence, offered by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), was defeated on a 53-47 vote.

In another energy bill development, the Senate Finance Committee approved a package of tax breaks totaling $10.7 billion over the 2005-2010 period. Conservation advocates were pleased that $3.7 billion of that total would go for energy efficiency or conservation and $2.7 billion for alternative fuels or hybrid, electric or alternative-fuel vehicles. The tax provisions are to be attached to the broad-based energy measure during the week of June 20.

Domenici pleased with energy bill progress

Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, says the tax provisions "will create new markets for efficient buildings, appliances and vehicles, and will provide immediate relief for businesses and consumers struggling to meet the rising costs of natural gas and oil."

Among the incentives are credits for building new energy-efficient homes and for buying energy-efficient dishwashers, clothes washers, refrigerators and alternative-fuel vehicles.

Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) was happy with the energy bill's progress in its first several days of floor debate. "We are ahead of where we expected to be," he said.

After the bill clears the Senate, it would have to be merged with the version that the House passed in April. The House bill's conservation tax incentives total only about $500 million, says Callahan's group.

(Top right photo courtesy of office of Sen.Jeff Bingaman)

(Bottom left photo courtesy of office of Sen. Pete Domenici)