Hydro, energy efficiency bills get early start in Congress

Lawmakers and business executives may fantasize about Congress passing sweeping legislation that would establish a comprehensive energy policy for the United States.

But given the politically divided Congress and tight budgets, the best chance for action is on small, focused bills with bipartisan backing.

On Tuesday, the Senate kicked off work on four such measures, as the Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on a measure that aims to boost energy efficiency and separate bills that would spur hydropower development.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the panel’s top Republican, noted the bipartisan support for all of the measures and predicted at least one of them will pass Congress and “be signed by the president.”

“Efficiency is part of the all-of-the-above energy plan,” Murkowski added. “When we’re talking about efficiency, this is a bottom-line issue — an area where it is in our best interest to find agreement, particularly as we deal with these very difficult budget constraints.”

Clean enrgy policy: States turn against renewable energy as natural gas price plunges

The efficiency bill, sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, would force federal agencies to winnow their power use while creating a separate state-based program to help finance energy efficiency changes in buildings. It also would encourage new, more energy-efficient building codes.

Similar legislation won the committee’s approval by a vote of 18-3 last year, but Portman and Shaheen revised this year’s measure in response to concerns about spending. For instance, they scrapped a state grant program in last year’s bill for the new financing initiative.

“We have made it more fiscally prudent,” Portman said Tuesday.

A possible point of contention are the building code provisions in the bill. While not proposed to be mandatory, some critics view them as a pathway to formal requirements.

Kathleen Hogan, a deputy assistant energy secretary, acknowledged “some confusion out there in the building codes space.”

The Energy Department would conduct “what we hope is very sound analysis of the cost and benefits of new measures,” Hogan said.

Without dams: New hydropower could add 12 gigawatts

The hydropower bills aim to speed up the permitting of those water-based energy projects, particularly smaller facilities that would be built on existing dams.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the panel chairman, noted that hydropower is the exception to a Congress paralyzed by gridlock.

“Hydro is back,” he said. “This is an area where people can make a dent in . . . climate change without some of the friction and polarization that accompanies a lot of aspects of the climate debate,” Wyden said.