Efficiency left out of cap and trade

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By Elisa Wood

October 15, 2009

Waxman/Markey’s climate change bill is about 1,400 pages.  Its length and complexity, alone, provides fuel for its opponents.  Would it stand a better chance of enactment if it encompassed less?

For example, would it have been wiser if Congress pursued cap and trade one year and a renewable energy standard another? I’ve asked this question a lot during interviews the past few weeks, and received a range of responses. But what I found most enlightening, at least from an energy efficiency perspective, was a webinar offered by Bill Prindle, vice president at ICF International. http://www.icfi.com/markets/energy/webinar/webinar-archive.asp.

Here’s what I took away: Energy efficiency helps the carbon reduction cause. But the carbon reduction cause doesn’t do much for efficiency.

Most versions of cap and trade programs now on the table do not recognize the value of demand-side resources in reducing emissions.  Credit goes to emissions reductions at the power plant level, not at the retail customer level. So while my new, efficient heat pump will cut my energy use and therefore carbon emissions, this action is not acknowledged anywhere in a cap and trade system. Cap and trade offers no financial reward to the consumer or business that invests in energy efficiency measures.

In a perfect world, lawmakers would rethink cap and trade to encompass demand-side efficiency. But it appears that political and technical obstructions make that difficult. This is bad news – and downright odd – given that energy efficiency is widely acknowledged to be the cheapest way to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

So what’s to be done?

Prindle describes the need to enact polices that complement cap and trade. This is where a national renewable energy standard comes into play. Within Waxman/Markey, the standard requires not only a certain percentage of renewables in a state’s energy mix, but also certain amount of efficiency – a so-called energy efficiency portfolio standard. With a standard in place, efficiency increases, energy use declines, and fewer greenhouse gases are emitted – without any cap and trade influence. As is often the case, the states have already jumped out in front of federal policy:  19 now have such energy efficiency portfolio standards.

A bill with just a cap and trade scheme, one without a portfolio standard, eliminates a powerful way to reduce carbon emissions. So perhaps the 1,400 pages of Waxman/Market are justified. The verdict, of course, is out on whether or not Congress will pass an energy bill this year. Much has been made of the complexity and length of health care reform legislation. Expect the same when, and if, the energy bill comes under public scrutiny. We’ll see what pages make it beyond the cutting room floor.

Visit Elisa Wood at http://www.realenergywriters.com/ and pick up her free Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of MicrogridKnowledge.com. She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.