National labs find RPS mandates yielding ‘sizable’ benefits

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, January 7, 2016

Renewable portfolio standards have “sizable” impacts on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, water use, job creation and the economy, two national laboratories say in a report released today.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and National Renewable Energy Laboratory conclude that renewable portfolio standards in 29 states and the District of Columbia resulted in $2.2 billion in benefits from reduced greenhouse gas emissions, assuming a “midrange” scenario and a central value for the social cost of carbon.

The labs weighed new renewable generation in 2013, as that was the last year for which full data were available. RPS-linked reductions in air pollution resulted in $5.2 billion in health and economic benefits that year, particularly in the coal-rich eastern United States.

There also was a benefit to water-stressed regions, as RPSes reduced water withdrawals from fossil-fuel-fired plants by about 830 billion gallons nationwide, the report says. There was a wide variation regionally because of differences in fuel types used in power plants.

The results are “informative for RPS debates that may be happening in the future,” said Jenny Heeter, a senior energy analyst at NREL and one of the co-authors of the report. She noted in an interview that many of the nation’s existing renewable standards are set to expire by the end of the decade.

The report differentiates between “benefits” associated with renewable standards — such as greenhouse gas reductions — and “impacts” on jobs, wholesale electricity prices and natural gas prices.

It concludes that RPS policies supported 200,000 renewable-energy-related jobs in 2013, particularly in California, where large, utility-scale solar projects were built. Partly because of downward pressure on natural gas prices from RPS generation, consumers saved about $1.2 billion from reduced electricity prices, the report concludes.

The authors emphasized, however, that the report is not a complete picture of the current RPS system. It doesn’t consider factors such as job loss in the coal industry, for example. It also is not designed to examine renewable policies in any one state.

“While the overall benefits reported are large, the study carefully documents its methods and highlights where uncertainties exist. For example, benefits from greenhouse gas reductions ranged from $.7 [billion] to $6.3 billion,” the report says. A similar wide range in air pollution numbers resulted from varying conclusions in academic studies.

The analysis is the second in a series from the two labs.

Heeter said an upcoming report will examine the future impacts of RPSes.

The standards have been a focal point for contentious policy debates in many states, particularly in the wake of U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

There has been a push in many state legislatures to alter the standards. Supporters say the standards are key drivers of low-carbon electricity at affordable prices, while critics often say they spur spikes in the cost of power.