Document Type


Publication Date



In 2006, a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concluded that “[r]educing the nation’s dependence on oil and carbon dioxide emissions in the next 25 years is not unlike the 1960s challenge to put a man on the moon.” In fact, this analogy may be understated. While the scope of the two challenges is similarly daunting, the consequences of failure are potentially much more serious in the case of the energy challenge. One key component of addressing this challenge will be changing the ways in which the U.S. meets its seemingly insatiable electricity demand. The environmental, foreign policy, health, and national security costs of relying on fossil fuels to generate our nation’s electricity are enormous. Not only are power plants responsible for approximately 40 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, they are also a major source of nitrous oxide, mercury, and sulfur dioxide emissions. Consequently, our high usage of power plants as a source of energy further entrenches our reliance upon fossil fuel sources located in some of the world’s most geopolitically unstable regions. In contrast, renewable energy has the potential to play a pivotal role in addressing our nation’s energy challenge by providing a clean, domestic substitute for foreign, polluting fossil fuels. In concert with energy efficiency policies to reduce United States’s energy demand, an increase in the use of renewable energy will be one critical component of altering the country’s energy mix and addressing climate change. But some thirty years after the U.S. first began promoting renewable energy, we have a woefully underdeveloped national strategy. Many states have stepped in to fill this national void by adopting their own renewable energy strategies. Most significantly, twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have adopted Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) that mandate that utilities purchase a certain percentage or amount of their power from renewable sources. However, it seems unlikely that such policies can keep pace with national energy demand so as to significantly change the national energy mix. Whereas some have argued that states should continue their “race to the top” as the primary policy engine for renewable energy growth, this paper argues the opposite: the federal government is uniquely positioned to bring about a large-scale change in our electricity supply efficiently and effectively, and should do so by adopting a national RPS. Part I of this paper outlines why we should regulate renewable energy, current policies and their effectiveness, and why an RPS is the U.S.’s most promising future policy option. Part II discusses federalism and renewable energy, identifying key reasons that the federal government should be at the forefront of renewable energy policy through adoption of a national RPS. Part III suggests a strategy for moving forward on a national RPS and discusses the interactions of renewable energy and climate change policy.


energy policy, renewables, electricity generation, federalism, climate change

Publication Title

New York University Environmental Law Journal

Publication Citation

17 N. Y. U. Env't L. J. 987 (2008)