EPA’s proposed carbon standard for power plants is stringent and flexible

The Obama Administration today took a major step toward reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that are impacting our climate. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its “Clean Power Plan,” which leverages existing authority in the Clean Air Act to propose carbon pollution standards for existing power plants, the largest single source of U.S. carbon emissions. The proposal would cut emissions in the power sector by 30 percent by 2030, based on 2005 levels. We reviewed the basics of the Clean Power Plan with four critical questions in mind:

1. Is the standard based on emission reductions outside the power plant fence line?

The short answer is “yes.” EPA cannot require states or power plant operators to take any specific measures, but it can set the emissions target stringent enough so that it would be challenging to achieve unless certain measures are taken. EPA is proposing state-specific targets based on the capacity of each state to leverage four “building blocks.” They are:

  1. Make fossil fuel power plants more efficient.
  2. Use low-emitting natural gas combined cycle plants more where excess capacity is available.
  3. Use more zero- and low-emitting power sources such as renewables and nuclear.
  4. Reduce electricity demand by using electricity more efficiently.

Although “outside-the-fence-line” measures are not specifically required under the proposal, states would be hard-pressed to meet their targets without using programs to reduce the demand for fossil electricity, by, for example, increasing energy efficiency and encouraging renewable energy.

Looking to Figure 1, EPA has chosen the System-level Option.

Figure 1: Scope of reduction requirements

What to watch in EPA’s power plant carbon emissions proposal

On June 2, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to release its proposal to cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from existing power plants. This proposal is a key element of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, and will be critical to reducing U.S emissions of CO2, the most common greenhouse gas contributing to climate change.

The proposed rule, being developed under EPA’s authority under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, could be groundbreaking for at least two reasons. First, it has the potential to drive major reductions in the highest emitting sector in the United States – the power sector – which is responsible for nearly 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions.  Second, EPA has indicated that the proposal will include a number of novel policy provisions to advance low-emitting generation and energy efficiency.

At C2ES, we’ll be looking for answers to four key questions as we read through EPA’s proposal. These questions are expanded upon in our new brief, Carbon Pollution Standards for Existing Power Plants: Key Challenges.

California leads the way on climate action

California, a leader in efficiency and clean energy policies for decades, is about to embark on another pioneering climate change program.

November 14 marks the first auction in its cap-and-trade system, which uses a market-based mechanism to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet.

On its own, California’s program will drive down harmful emissions in the ninth largest economy in the world. But perhaps more importantly, California’s example could guide and prod us toward national action against climate change.

Can Nuclear Be Part of Our Clean Energy Future?

Nuclear energy is often touted as a reliable, carbon-free element in our electricity portfolio, but three major challenges must be overcome before it can play a bigger role in our energy mix: cost, reactor safety, and waste disposal. Recent progress on each of these fronts shows that nuclear energy may indeed be a greater component of our clean energy future.

As a zero-carbon energy source that also has the highest capacity factor, new nuclear generation is especially well suited to provide baseload generation, which is an emerging gap in our electricity system. As electricity demand rises, aging coal plants are retired, and we pursue greenhouse gas emission reductions, there is a growing need for new low- and zero-carbon baseload electricity generation. Without technological breakthroughs in electricity storage technology, wind, and solar, energy cannot adequately meet baseload demand due to intermittency. Natural gas is lower emitting than coal, but it still emits greenhouse gases and has historically been vulnerable to price volatility.