WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Monday won a key endorsement for its proposal to boost U.S. electricity generation by clean energy sources as the head of the Senate's energy panel said he could back the idea of including nuclear power in the fuel mix.
In his State of the Union speech to Congress last week, President Barack Obama proposed the United States produce 80 percent of its electricity from clean energy sources, such as wind, solar, "clean" coal and nuclear, by 2035.
Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he supports including nuclear power in the White House's clean energy standard as long as renewable energy sources like wind and solar also benefit.
"If we can develop a workable clean energy standard that actually continues to provide an incentive for renewable energy projects to move forward, and provide an additional incentive for some of the other clean energy technologies, nuclear being one, I would like to see that happen," Senator Jeff Bingaman told reporters.
Many environmentalists do not consider nuclear power to be "clean energy" because of the problem of storing the radioactive spent nuclear fuel from reactors.
Bingaman had previously said he did not think nuclear belonged in a renewable energy standard for generating electricity which included wind, solar and geothermal power.
But he said he is willing to live with nuclear in an expanded clean energy standard if growth in renewables is not slowed.
Bingaman said he has been in discussions with the White House over the last week on how to come up with a legislative proposal that would win bipartisan support in the Senate.
"I'm approaching the issue with a willingness ... to work on trying to come up with a way to achieve what the president set out," he said.
Bingaman said he did not know when a formal bill would be introduced.
The president's help will be needed to pass the legislation and the White House will have to take a more active role than it did with the failed climate change bill, Bingaman said.
"I think clearly the White House needs to be involved," he said.
Such a bill would have a more difficult time clearing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Republican Fred Upton, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, criticized the president's clean energy generation proposal, saying consumers and businesses should not be forced to purchase energy they cannot afford.
Bingaman's vagueness on when legislation would be ready shows the issue was not the top priority for the White House as it deals with other issues like the protests in Egypt, according to one energy policy analyst.
"What would have been news to me is he's dropping a bill next week," said Christine Tezak with RW Baird.
Tezak said the best way for a clean energy standard to pass Congress is for the president to address some of the energy concerns of Republican lawmakers, such as expanding oil drilling and speeding up government approval of permits for energy exploration.
"The Republicans are also going to have to get something for letting him have a win," she said.
To help pass the bill, the White House decided to expand the definition of a "clean energy" standard to include nuclear and clean coal so lawmakers could select an energy source that benefits their regions and would allow them to support the bill, according to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
For example, Chu told reporters last week the Southeast likes nuclear for power generation because it doesn't have strong wind energy resources like the Northeast states. In the Southwest, there is more support for solar power, he said.
"It's a recognition that solutions can be different in different parts of the United States," Chu added.
The White House wants to promote clean energy by spending more than $8 billion next year on related research and investment.
To cover that cost, the administration proposes ending billions of dollars in tax breaks for oil and gas companies. Bingaman said that idea failed before and he would "be surprised if it got traction" in the new Congress.
Reporting by Tom Doggett; editing by Jim Marshall