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Renewable Mess: Sen. Graham's Proposal Focuses on Nukes, Coal

Never accuse the Republican party of disdain when it comes to renewable energy: Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is working on a draft renewable energy bill that would put the country on course to generate 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, and 50 percent by 2050.

Graham's draft was scooped by Greenwire, an industry publication, which it posted here. In some ways, it's an impressive proposal. For instance, it appears to seek similar cuts to those proposed by by a tripartisan group of Graham, Sen. John Kerry and Sen. Joe Lieberman back in December -- before cap and trade looked dead in the water.

The catch: Coal and nuclear, which are, respectively, not even remotely renewable and debatable at best, are the cornerstones of the plan.

Of the roughly 11 potential renewable energy sources proposed by Graham, three are related to coal: coal-mined methane, advanced coal generation (clean coal), and "eligible retired fossil fuel generation." The last of those is about as vague as it sounds, but it could mean pretty much any fossil fuel, as long as it's burned in a plant that's slated to close.

It's clean coal that Graham is certainly most concerned with; his region is dependent on standard coal plants. To qualify as a renewable, Graham wants today's plants to begin capturing at least 65 percent of their carbon dioxide emissions. That would put them more or less on par with the emissions of natural gas, but it's a lower figure than many environmentalists would like to see.

Nuclear power would get the biggest boost under the plan. Graham proposes setting aside enough money for nuclear power to ensure that 60 new reactors would be built. Right now, perhaps a tenth that many reactors are in the works, though it's not certain all of them will be built.

Another interesting nuclear-related detail dug up by Greenwire is that Graham is working with the backing of General Electric. From their story:

Several sources said General Electric Co. helped Graham in crafting the legislative language. GE has the world's largest gas turbine manufacturing plant, in Greenville, S.C., and the company also is leading development of new nuclear reactors and a "clean coal" technology known as integrated gasification combined cycle, which has the capacity to capture and permanently sequester carbon emissions...

The company also praised Graham's efforts on the broader climate and energy bill. "Without his bipartisan leadership and collaboration in the Senate, the U.S. will lose its leadership role in one of the most promising sectors of our economy that could stimulate job creation, technology investments and American exports," it said.

GE also has significant investments in renewable energy, but that part of its business is still fairly small. Orders for dozens of new nuclear reactors would more than make up for less focus on solar and wind power.

It's unlikely that other renewable energy backers will agree. Focusing on big, centralized generation from nukes and coal plants won't help real renewables grow, and in many ways Graham's proposal follows his party's line of ignoring new technology in favor of a nuclear power resurgence.

That might be palatable to President Obama, who just approved $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for a new nuclear plant in Georgia (though not in Graham's district).

But other members of Obama's party, who are already cooling to his environmental policies, are likely to reject the proposal. And even Graham can't expect support from his own party; since he started work on his energy proposals, he has often been derided as a RINO, or Republican in Name Only. For now, it looks like the gulf between Democratic and Republican energy proposals will likely remain as wide as ever.

[Image credit: Michael Wuertenberg / flickr]

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