Sen. Reid has plan to reform energy infrastructure

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to introduce legislation this week to expand federal authority over plans for electric transmission line development.

Stephanie Condon Staff writer, CBSNews.com
Stephanie Condon is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.
Stephanie Condon
3 min read

A fool with a plan can beat a genius with no plan--or so the saying goes, according to T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire oilman turned clean-energy advocate.

To provide a plan to boost the nation's use of clean energy, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced Monday he will introduce major legislation this week to reform electric transmission line development. Reid made the announcement at a Washington conference where he, Pickens, former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore, and others met to discuss guiding principles to reform the United States' energy policy. The forum was titled the "National Clean Energy Project: Building the New Economy."

The Obama administration has said it would like 25 percent of the nation's energy to come from renewable sources by 2025, and the billions of dollars provided in the recently signed stimulus package offer the means to get there, Reid said. His bill, he said, will provide more guidance for that funding to be used appropriately.

The deployment of renewable energy across the country has faced setbacks because of the challenges facing the construction of electric transmission lines, such as who will fund them and where to site the lines. The bill aims to give the federal government more authority over those questions.

It's a proposal that has been met with some resistance, Reid said at the conference, hosted by the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

"If this is going to succeed, we're going to have to accept that's how we've always done things," he said, citing the federal government's central role in developing railroads and a national highway system. "Everyone should get off the kick this program won't work if the government's involved in it."

The legislation will call for the president to designate renewable energy zones with significant clean-energy-generating potential. Once that occurs, the bill will call for massive planning efforts to site transmission lines around those zones--a process that the federal government will take over if it stalls.

The federal government would also have authority under the proposed bill to decide on the cost allocation for transmission line projects. The bill will also provide added incentives for projects that facilitate renewable-energy usage.

The states are largely opposed to a federal takeover of siting authority, said New Jersey Board of Public Utilities Commissioner Fred Butler, but are willing to consider shared responsibility of the process.

"I'm here to tell you we're willing to work with you," he said.

Many participants in Monday's conference brought up steps they see as necessary to jump-start the renewable-energy market but that will not be included in Reid's legislation. These proposals, Reid said, will be addressed down the line.

For one thing, said Denise Bode, the CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, a renewable-energy standard is critical for giving the industry certainty that there will be a market for renewables.

"It provides that certainty, that signal," she said. "Unlike in the past, where we provide a tax credit and then don't renew it--it's like Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown."

Gore also called a renewable-energy standard one of the best ways to wean the country off of foreign oil.

"Our political will is vulnerable to being diminished when oil goes down," he said. "Now is the time... to get the market to work for us by putting a price on carbon."

Clinton said the development of a clean-energy market will also depend on separating energy use from prices.

"I don't see how we can create the market...unless we mandate decoupling," he said.

The energy sector has an opportunity to follow the model and growth of the telecommunications sector, Clinton and others said.

"We built a national backbone for the Internet in 1979 called ARPA," said Robert Kennedy, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "What happened to the price of bits and bytes? It plummeted to almost nothing. That's what's going to happen to electrons."

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the chair of a House energy panel and former chair of a House Internet panel, added, "There's a generation of Sergey Brins waiting for us to get the marketplace right. The green generation is ready to unleash this second revolution."

Reid said he will push for bipartisan support of his legislation, though many at the conference noted proposals for reform will face naysayers.

"There's always some reason why it's not in someone's interest to get this done," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.