This last September, the U.S. Senate introduced the Renewable Electricity Promotion Act of 2010, Senate Bill 3813, a stand-alone Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) that will require sellers of electricity to retail customers to obtain certain percentages of their electric supply from renewable energy resources. If S. 3813 looks familiar, it should. The legislation is what remains of comprehensive climate change legislation that was introduced in the American Clean Energy Leadership Act of 2009 S.1462. This is therefore perhaps the last chance for any comprehensive federal approach to climate change or renewable energy prior to the next election.

So what does it mean for solar energy? In sum, it doesn’t hurt solar, but its immediate effects may not help much either. The proposed alternative compliance payment (ACP), which is the penalty energy suppliers must pay if they do not comply with their requirements is set low, especially when compared to current state RES programs such as New Jersey or D.C that have developed a foundation for a strong solar market. In addition, the portfolio of qualifying technologies may be too inclusive (by including numerous technologies the impact on any one technology is limited.

However, the legislation provides the framework, a seed of sorts, for the continued implementation and development of RES legislation nationwide. As RES markets develop nationwide, the solar industry can begin the task of adjusting to a more sustainable regulatory mechanism that is likely to help accelerate the implementation of solar technology (and others) well into the next decade. Our analysis is below.

BACKGROUND

What Does a Federal RES Do?

The federal Renewable Electricity Standard requires that a certain percentage of the electricity purchased in the country come from renewable energy resources. The purpose of an RES is to set up a competitive market in which utilities either (1) directly produce a specific amount of renewable energy based on their total load or (2) effectively purchase this renewable energy from others producing it or (3) pay a penalty. Most utilities will choose some combination of all three. In some state markets, an RES is called a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) or alternative energy portfolio standard (AEPS).

If utilities opt to go with the second strategy listed above, they usually do not purchase the energy from renewable energy resources, they simply purchase title to the “credit” associated with the renewable energy, termed a renewable energy credit (REC). Since energy can be measured in megawatt-hours (MWh), one REC represents the green attributes associated with one MWh of production from a renewable energy resource. Each time a homeowner or business produces one MWh from its solar system, it can sell the REC associated with this MWh in a competitive market. Technologies compete to produce RECs and sell them, and as these technologies scale, the supply of RECs increases, and the costs of these RECs decreases. The market is designed to drive down the costs of compliance and catalyze alternative energy technologies to scale.

CURRENT RES OVERVIEW

Volumes

The RES targets are less than the twenty to twenty-five percent recommended by most industry groups and President Obama himself this last year. The current RES requirements are below:

2012-13: 3%
2014-16: 6%
2017-18: 9%
2019-20: 12%
2021-39: 15%

The Alternative Compliance Payment

The Alternative Compliance Payment, which is the fee that electric utilities must pay in lieu of actually purchasing or producing the renewable energy credits required by the RES, is $21, adjusted for inflation. This means that for every MWH of electricity that the utility fails to supply from renewable energy, it must pay a fine of $21. The ACP effectively sets the ceiling on the value of renewable energy credits, with the caveat that there are multipliers (described below) that make some RECs more valuable than others.

Qualifying Technologies

Under the current RES, those resources include solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, landfill gas, qualified hydropower, marine and hydrokinetic renewable energy, incremental geothermal, coal-mined methane, qualified waste-to-energy, and potentially other technologies.

Multipliers

In order to incentivize certain technologies, states (and in this case the federal government) often provide multipliers for RECs from specific technologies or locations. Under the federal RES, utilities will receive double credit for RECs produced by renewable energy systems located on Indian land (to incentivize the development of renewable energy on Indian land) and triple credit for small renewable distributed generation less than 1 MW. Although not stated, it is likely that the maximum ceiling on energy efficiency credits will conversely reduce the value of RECs produced from energy efficiency upgrades.

No Preemption

The national RES will not preempt current state RES or RPS standards. Instead, the RES is meant to set a floor for states without current RES or RPS legislation to set up trading regimes and complement preexisting state legislation. The RES is a bit like the federal Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act in this respect, both of which provide states with a blueprint which they can either accept in whole, or mimic with state-specific standards that are as strict or less strict. This is incredibly important for those states that have more favorable solar requirements than the federal RES.

National Market

It is unclear at this point whether a national market will develop because of the legislation. Currently, the legislation provides for the delegation of responsibilities to either a national trading mechanism or a more regional mechanism. States will have to figure out whether they want their REC markets to be regional, like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), or isolated, like Delaware, New Jersey, Massachusetts and others.

SREC Values

The value of solar renewable energy credits (SRECs) is typically a function of supply and demand . It is therefore unclear what the values of SRECs will be since this supply and demand will differ from state to state. Taken by itself, the legislation will not push SREC prices very high since the ACP is $21, with a potential multiplier of three ($63). However, current RPS states will likely retain their markets, and states without an RPS may develop more aggressive RPS legislation in light of the national RES.

ANALYSIS

Potential Negatives

1. The effective solar alternative compliance payment (SACP) is $63 per MWH for distributed solar energy systems (those below 1 MW in nameplate capacity). This is low enough that it is not likely to create a significant market for solar renewable energy credits (since the ACP provides a ceiling on the value of SRECs). This legislation is therefore unlikely to single-handedly develop robust markets for solar. However, as discussed below, the RES may provide the necessary legislative framework for the creation of such a market.

2. The list of qualifying “renewable energy resources” includes technologies that will be much less expensive to implement initially, and will likely flood REC markets. Solar energy, for example, is not likely to be able to compete with biomass or methane from mining.

3. Utilities can purchase energy efficiency credits. These credits are also likely to be much less valuable than SRECs, and may also flood the market – although they are limited to 26.67 percent of their overall required needs.

Potential Positives

Setting up a national RES begins to set minimum requirements, build the framework for the introduction of renewable energy legislation that many states currently do not have in an organized fashion, and develop a sustainable means by which to incentivize renewable energy. RES legislation is especially important for new technologies that may have higher up-front costs (like solar) because requirements can be structured around these costs. Although the standards may not be perfectly structured to assist solar energy at this time, most RES legislation is tweaked over time to better suite solar energy.

OUR CONCLUSION

The proposed federal RES is a good beginning, and provides a decent foundation for future legislation. Although it may not be perfect for solar initially, it forces legislators to address the important issue of alternative energy development, and provides them with a blueprint with which to do so. Our guess is that the requirements, and the ACP, will likely increase on a state-by-state basis. In the meantime, renewable energy is able to put itself on the map, and we’ve taken the first step of many in diversifying our energy infrastructure and moving towards a more sustainable future.