Senate passes energy bill with benefits for solar and renewable energy integration

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Given the rapid growth of solar and wind energy and their potential to transform U.S. electricity grids, one would be tempted to think that these would be the main focus of the first energy bill which threatens to pass through the U.S. Congress in nine years. And given this length of time, one might also think that this bill would include ambitious policy proposals.

?Looking at the energy bill which passed the Senate, one would be wrong on both counts. The Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016 (S.2012) instead focuses largely on conventional energy sources including hydroelectric power and facilitates the expansion of natural gas exports. And as the New York Times Editorial Board stated, “both sides of the aisle put aside their most ambitious energy proposals in an effort to achieve small gains”.

However, buried in the legislation are a number of small gains which could be strategic for the future deployment of more solar PV in the U.S. electricity system. Significantly, the bill calls for programs to study grid modernization including the integration of renewable energy on the distribution grid. This includes orders for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to conduct research, development and pilot programs for energy storage.

“A lot of this does work on breaking down barriers to integrating high levels of renewable energy,” Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Senior Attorney John Moore told pv magazine. “While this bill does not include massive levels of funding, I think the types of studies that are in the bill are certainly addressing some of the right issues.”

Digging even deeper there are a number of other benefits specifically for solar. According to Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the bill includes language directing DOE to identify appropriate costs and benefits for the valuation of distributed solar and provisions to improve permitting of PV projects sited on federal lands.

Additionally, the bill directs DOE to study bird populations and establish baseline scientific information. This could help developers of large solar projects in desert regions fend off legal attacks from conservation groups, who have at times used questionable methods to estimate wildlife deaths and hired scientists with a history of anti-renewable energy activity to testify.

“The bill’s proposals on improving building energy efficiency and on funding for grid modernization and research on energy storage could spur new opportunities for collaboration and partnerships between utilities, the solar industry and other clean technology developers,” states Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) President and CEO Julia Hamm.

S.2012 passed the Senate 85-12, indicating broad bipartisan support, and the bill now must be reconciled with another energy bill which passed the U.S. House of Representatives. However, there are still roadblocks to approval. Environmental organizations including NRDC are protesting language in S.2012 which require the federal government to consider woody biomass to be carbon-neutral, and U.S. President Obama had indicated that he would veto the House energy bill.

It remains to be seen if the two houses of congress can come up with an acceptable compromise. If in that process some of the details in this bill remain, it will be a victory for the solar industry and the progress of renewable energy integration.