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RANCHO CORDOVA, Calif. – Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order Tuesday giving California the nation’s most aggressive alternative energy standards, requiring utilities to get a third of their power from renewable sources by 2020. Schwarzenegger said the order signed at a solar field in a Sacramento suburb will reduce California’s dependence on fossil fuels and help clean its air while creating a reliable power supply for a state with 38 million people. It also will ensure that California remains a pioneer in clean energy, he said.

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Southwest Washington’s high-tech industry is wising up to the business opportunities in the smart grid — also called the Internet for the electrical power grid.

Bringing the nation’s aging electrical grid into the information age will require overlaying the existing grid with a digital communications system that includes sensors, controls and wireless devices. Such systems, proponents say, will give utilities more precise control over power production and distribution that in turn creates energy savings, increases power quality and reliability, and allows more renewable energy sources to come online. Consumers will also gain more control over their energy costs through flexible utility rates and in-home monitoring devices a smart grid would allow.

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As the most ambitious energy and climate-change legislation ever introduced in Congress made its way to a floor vote last Friday, it grew fat with compromises, carve-outs, concessions and out-and-out gifts intended to win the votes of wavering lawmakers and the support of powerful industries.

The bill was freighted with hundreds of pages of special-interest favors, even as environmentalists lamented that its greenhouse-gas reduction targets had been whittled down.

The biggest concessions went to utilities, which wanted assurances that they could continue to operate and build coal-burning power plants without shouldering new costs. The utilities received not only tens of billions of dollars worth of free pollution permits, but also billions for work on technology to capture carbon-dioxide emissions from coal combustion to help meet future pollution targets.

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The Environmental Protection Agency has released a list of 44 “high hazard potential” coal ash waste dumps across the country. The “high hazard” rating applied to sites where a dam failure would most likely result in a loss of human life, the environmental agency advisory said, but did not assess the structural integrity of the dam or its likelihood of failure.

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President Obama announced tougher energy efficiency requirements for certain types of fluorescent and incandescent lighting on Monday, the latest step in the administration’s push to cut the country’s energy use.

The new rule, scheduled to take effect in 2012, will cut the amount of electricity used by affected lamps by 15 to 25 percent and save $1 billion to $4 billion a year for consumers, the White House said.

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For decades, most of the nation’s renewable power has come from dams, which supplied cheap electricity without requiring fossil fuels. But the federal agencies running the dams often compiled woeful track records on other environmental issues.

Now, with the focus in Washington on clean power, some dam agencies are starting to go green, embracing wind power and energy conservation. The most aggressive is the Bonneville Power Administration, whose power lines carry much of the electricity in the Pacific Northwest.  Yet the shift of emphasis at the dam agencies is proving far from simple. It could end up pitting one environmental goal against another, a tension that is emerging in renewable-power projects across the country.

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Badly outnumbered and months behind in the debate on energy and climate change, House Republicans plan to introduce an energy bill on Wednesday as an alternative to the Democratic plan barreling toward a House vote this month.

The Republican proposal, drafted by a group led by Representative Mike Pence of Indiana, leans heavily on nuclear power, setting a goal of building 100 reactors over the next 20 years. No new nuclear plants have been ordered in the United States since 1978 because of the high cost of construction and uncertainty about regulatory approval.

The bill also provides incentives for increased oil and gas production on public and private lands and offshore. It would also authorize oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, a focus of 30 years of controversy in Congress.

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The federal government is spending $5 billion in stimulus money to weatherize homes across the country. That is almost as much as it has spent on weatherization since the program was created in the 1970s to cut heating bills and conserve oil for low-income people.

An unusually large share of the money will be spent not on keeping cold air out but on keeping cold air in.  Many environmentalists say cutting electricity use for cooling is just as worthwhile as reducing the use of oil or gas for heating. But there are substantial questions about whether it is the most efficient way to save energy.

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With an aging energy infrastructure, rising energy costs, and increasing concerns about the economic and social effects of climate change, energy experts are looking to a new type of technology that integrates the digital age with the electric age.

The “smart grid” has become the buzz of the electric power industry, at the White House and among members of Congress. President Barack Obama says it’s essential to boost development of wind and solar power, get people to use less energy and to tackle climate change.

What smart grid visionaries see coming are home thermostats and appliances that adjust automatically depending on the cost of power; where a water heater may get juice from a neighbor’s rooftop solar panel; and where on a scorching hot day a plug-in hybrid electric car charges one minute and the next sends electricity back to the grid to help head off a brownout

It is where utilities get instant feedback on a transformer outage, shift easily among energy sources, integrating wind and solar energy with electricity from coal-burning power plants, and go into homes and businesses to automatically adjust power use based on prearranged agreements.

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The Senate Energy Committee is working its way through a massive draft energy bill that focuses heavily on renewable power.  Tomorrow the committee will gather to “mark-up” or debate and amend the legislation.  Their focus will be a national renewable electricity standard.

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