And it all starts in New Mexico. The state is a gold mine for renewable energy sources, Udall says. "We are, in a sense, the Saudi Arabia of the country." New Mexico put its own standard in place— 10 percent by 2011—and PNM was able to meet it early, he adds. Plus, 28 other states have their own renewable energy standards, he says. So it's not like the measure is coming from left field.
Nationally, though, he says the country is only using on average between 4 and 5 percent renewable energy. Some utilities aren't fans of the Udalls' bill; companies in the South are fighting it. "They're more invested in nuclear power and not really liking the idea," he says.
Critics also suggest that renewable energy is more expensive than fossil fuels, so demanding increased use of them will cost more. They say this could mean the federal government would have to offer subsidies, or people would pay higher rates.
But Udall counters that alternatives are competitive, price-wise, with traditional sources. "Wind is very close, and solar is catching up very quickly." PNM handled the issue by asking customers to pay a little extra to use wind energy under the Sky Blue program.
"We are, in a sense, the Saudi Arabia of the country."
A national standard would also create a marketplace for clean energy, says the senator, and encourages innovation in the private sector. "That's where we're going to see breakthroughs in the future."
Plus, it should revitalize parts of rural America, the best place to mine renewables. Farmers could lease part of their land to wind turbines, Udall says. There’s also employment potential in the manufacturing and maintenance of turbines, which would bring jobs to less-populated areas.
In Tucumcari, N.M., for example, Mesalands Community College is home to the North American Wind Research and Training Center, where turbine building and care is taught. "We're already seeing in New Mexico the development of this curriculum," Udall says.
According to a Sustainability Education and Economic Development Center article, half the population of Tucumcari fled the town over the last two decades. Why? The ranching, trucking and rail industry jobs dried up. So the college created the wind training program, and in 2008, a 1.5 megawatt turbine was erected. The first class began its education that year. Mesalands’ stated goal is to create higher-wage jobs for people who live in the area.
So New Mexico's ahead of the game, and Udall's trying to translate those ideas to the rest of the country. He’s been pushing these kinds of measures since he was a member of the House of Representatives. He introduced similar legislation in 2002.
It’s always had significant bipartisan support, he says, and passed the House and the Senate several times. But a bill has to pass both and be signed by the president to become law. Udall says now is the time. "I think they'll pass it again. Over time, we’ve filed down some of the rough edges."
With all the turmoil in Congress surrounding the deficit and the budget, how long will it be before environmental measures get real attention? It has to happen, says Udall, "because that's the way we grow out of this situation we're in."