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The surprising things Democrats and Republicans agree on when it comes to energy

Republican Senator from Texas John Cornyn (R) responds to a question from a member of the news media beside Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell (L) and Republican Senator from Wyoming John Barrasso (Back) following a Republican policy luncheon, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA, 19 April 2016. The Senate is expected to vote this week on an energy modernization bill. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS
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This story has been updated.

Energy policy is a deeply partisan issue. Democrats want to fight climate change and fund huge investments in clean energy; Republicans celebrate our domestic oil and gas booms and decry a “war on coal.” Many still regularly question whether climate change is even a problem.

Nonetheless, and somewhat surprisingly, the U.S. Senate could soon vote on a bipartisan piece of energy legislation, the brainchild of senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a Republican, and Maria Cantwell of Washington, a Democrat. And given that the bill passed out of committee by an 18-4 vote, there are good reasons to think it could pass the entire Senate as well.

The vast bill, more than 350 pages in a recent version, isn’t easy to characterize, because it isn’t a clean energy bill, a climate bill, or anything so naturally pigeon-holed. Rather, it contains all kinds of measures on some of the less storied aspects of energy: cyber-security, liquefied natural gas exports, energy efficiency in buildings, modernizing the grid. The stuff that most people sleep through.

Still, the bottom line is that the Senate can, apparently, agree on a lot of things related to energy – or at least, we’ll be able to say that if the bill does indeed pass.

“Assuming it passes, it’s a positive test for the Congress being able to legislate across the bitter partisan divide, and frankly Chairman Murkowski and Senator Cantwell deserve considerable credit,” said Phil Sharp, the president of Resources for the Future and a former member of Congress. As to the legislation itself, Sharp notes that it doesn’t really address the biggest energy problem — the fact that energy use in this country results in the second largest carbon dioxide footprint in the world. But still, that doesn’t mean the bill isn’t important.

“Most provisos are very modest, but that doesn’t mean they’re not useful,” Sharp said.

Here are some of them:

Energy storage. The bill would spend half a billion dollars, over 10 years, for a Department of Energy “research, development, and demonstration” program on adding energy storage to the electric grid. This is wonky but extremely important, because the more the grid features large batteries, which could be charged up by renewable sources and then switch on in a flash when there is more demand for electricity, then the less it will need to ramp up so-called “peaker” plants fired by natural gas. That means cleaner electricity for everyone, and less emissions. (And this is only one of many uses of energy storage on the grid.)

Energy from water. The bill would also spend $ 55 million in 2017 and 2018, and then $ 60 million per year from 2019-2021, on research and demonstration projects involving marine and hydrokinetic energy. What this means, basically, is getting electricity from rivers, or from ocean tides, but not by using huge hydro-electric dams.

Americans have done an amazing job in the past decades of beginning to convert energy from the sun and from the winds into electricity for everyday use. But we’re far behind when it comes to doing the same for water — with the exception, that is, of large dams that tend to have have their own associated environmental problems. But to tap into river and ocean energy without blocking major flows or causing major damage — that could be a very big step forward, although to be sure, the availability of the source would be regionally limited (you need to be near a river or the ocean).

I wrote about ongoing research in the hydrokinetics area being conducted by the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, a research institute at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, and a private firm named Oceana, in August. At the time, I quoted the Department of Energy’s Jose Zayas, head of its Wind and Water Power Technologies Office, who noted that when it comes to these technologies, “Surviving in any water-based environment for a 20-year design life is very difficult.” Finding the innovations that can do that could lead to key advances in water-based forms of energy.

Alaska’s quest to power remote villages — and how it could spread clean energy worldwide

A better grid. The bill would spend even more — $ 2 billion — on technologies to improve and modernize the electric grid, including significant investments in micro-grids, or smaller grids that are not necessarily connected to a larger transmission system. This, too, is an important step because the grid of the future is going to have to combine battery or storage features with an advanced ability to integrate intermittent, renewable sources of generation, especially wind and solar, to make sure that nobody experiences outages.

More with less. The bill has earned huge praise from groups like the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and the Alliance to Save Energy for its provisions to greatly increase the energy efficiency of buildings, through efforts like weatherization and a “smart buildings” program. Energy efficiency is pretty bipartisan — nobody likes waste, or using more energy than we need to (and paying more than we need to).

Granted, some aspects of the legislation are still controversial. Many environmental groups — and a number of scientists — have balked at an amendment to the bill that would define forest bioenergy, derived from the burning of trees in power plants, as carbon neutral (based on the idea that trees grow back again). These groups counter that because some trees take a long time to grow back after being chopped down and burned, it’s inaccurate to call them carbon neutral in the short term.

But overall, the legislation has been praised by Energy Secretary Earnest Moniz, who said it looked like the bill “will have many very, very positive elements,” and at least cautiously by the White House, which said it “supports some provisions of the legislation” though it has concerns with others.

The biggest trick, it would seem, is what happens if the bill passes but then has to be reconciled with a House of Representatives energy bill that is much more controversial. That’s where things get interesting.

The big picture, though, is that the legislation doesn’t actually tackle climate change and its tie to energy — except, that is, indirectly through some of the provisions listed above. “This Congress, for the last couple congresses, simply has taken no action in that direction, and frankly that is the ultimate, significant energy legislation that we need,” Sharp said.

Read more at Energy & Environment:

Yes, you should listen to Bill Nye instead of Sarah Palin on climate change

This Baltimore 20-year-old just won a huge international award for taking out a giant trash incinerator

These striking numbers show just how fast we’re switching off coal

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