Q&A: EPA Regulation of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Existing Power Plants
On August 3, 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adopted Carbon Pollution Standards for Existing Power Plants, known as the Clean Power Plan.
Adopted pursuant to EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act, the Clean Power Plan establishes unique emission rate goals and mass equivalents for each state. It is projected to reduce carbon emissions from the power sector 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Individual state targets are based on national uniform “emission performance rate” standards (pounds of CO2 per MWh) and each state’s unique generation mix. See more resources and maps at the C2ES Carbon Pollution Standards Resource Page.
Q: Why is EPA regulating carbon dioxide?
Under the Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, greenhouse gases meet the definition of air pollutants under the Clean Air Act, meaning they must be regulated if they could be reasonably anticipated to endanger public health or welfare. EPA made this determination in 2009. In June 2013, President Obama directed EPA to work closely with states, power plant operators, and other stakeholders in developing carbon standards for existing power plants, and to finalize the standards by June 2015. EPA released its proposed rule in June 2014 and the final rule in August 2015.
Q: Why do we need to regulate power sector carbon emissions?
The power sector is the largest source of U.S. carbon emissions, which are contributing to global climate change.
Many businesses, cities and states are cutting emissions, increasing renewable energy, and improving energy efficiency. In addition, newly abundant natural gas has begun to displace coal (which emits twice as much carbon) in the U.S. electrical generation mix. But in the absence of major new policies, U.S. emissions are projected to rise as the economy grows, and as natural gas prices rise. Stronger policies are needed to increase energy efficiency, thereby reducing electricity consumption, and to expand the use of low- and no-carbon energy sources. Under a business-as-usual forecast, fossil fuels are projected to provide 66 percent of the U.S. fuel mix in 2030 compared with 60 percent under the Clean Power Plan, with most of the reduction coming from higher-emitting coal plants. Therefore, under a business-as-usual scenario, carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector are expected to increase around 6.5 percent (from 2014 levels) to 2,177 million metric tons in 2030, while under the Clean Power Plan carbon dioxide emissions would fall more than 19 percent (from 2014 levels) to 1,644 million metric tons in 2030.
Figure 2: Projected Electric Power Sector Carbon Dioxide Emissions under Business-as-Usual Scenario
Q: What is in EPA’s Clean Power Plan?
Typically, under the Clean Air Act, EPA sets standards and states implement them. The Clean Power Plan:
- Sets unique emission rates goals and mass equivalents for each state, reflecting the variation in their electricity generation mixes, to be met starting in 2022;
- Provides states significant flexibility in choosing how to meet their targets;
- Provides incentives for early deployment of renewables and efficiency measures benefiting low-income communities;
- Provides tools to assist states choosing to implement market-based approaches; and
- Contains a Federal Implementation Plan that EPA would use in states that do not accept adequate implementation plans.
EPA set interim and 2030 targets for each state based on uniform emission performance rates (application of BSER) and its unique generation mix.
Q: How was each state’s target calculated?
Uniform, national emission performance rates for affected power plants are based on the “best system of emission reduction” (BSER), using three “building blocks” or potential pathways applied regionally to reduce CO2 emissions:
- Make affected fossil fuel power plants more efficient;
- Increase generation from lower-emitting natural gas combined cycle plants; and
- Increase generation from new zero-emitting renewable power sources.
See a map of state targets for a more detailed explanation.
Q: What are the big differences between the proposed and final plans?
States will have more time to submit their implementation plans (they can get extensions to 2018) and two more years (until 2022) to begin phasing in pollution cuts. C2ES and others encouraged allowing states more time so they could take a longer view on planning and investment.
The final plan also proposes a voluntary Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP) to encourage early installation of renewable energy projects and energy efficiency programs for low-income communities before the 2022 compliance start date. EPA has invited comments on the CEIP and will address design and implementation details in a future action.
Market-based mechanisms are more explicitly encouraged in the final rule. The proposed federal implementation plan includes an option for states to join an interstate cap-and-trade program. It also outlines how states could participate in emissions credit trading without the creation of interstate compacts.
In calculating individual state targets, EPA had proposed taking into account each states’ energy efficiency potential, but it chose not to do so in the final rules. However, like the proposal, the final plan allows states to use energy efficiency programs for compliance.
EPA also changed its methodology for determining incremental renewable energy to better reflect regional technical potential, rather than state-level renewables policies, as in the proposal.
Unlike in the proposed plan, states with nuclear power plants under construction – Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee – will be able to count this generation toward compliance instead of having it factored into their targets.
The final rule also takes the interstate nature of the electric system into greater consideration. The proposal calculated state targets by applying building blocks to each state. The final rule uses the characteristics and potential of electric grid interconnections (Eastern, Western and Texas) to determine emission performance rates for units, which are then applied to each state’s unique generation mix to calculate a target.
Q: How can states reduce power sector carbon emissions?
States have wide latitude in designing their strategies to reduce emissions. In most cases, they will rely on a variety of measures. Major options include substituting natural gas for coal; improving energy efficiency; and increasing reliance on renewable energy.
States can implement the Clean Power Plan individually or in cooperation with other states. They also can employ market-based mechanisms, such as averaging or trading, to help power companies identify least-cost emission reductions.
Examples of steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the power sector are illustrated in Figure 3 and Table 1.
Figure 3: Opportunities to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the power sector
Table 1: Policy options to reduce power sector carbon dioxide emissions
|Power plant performance standard||Each power plant must achieve a set emissions intensity||California, New York, Washington|
|Renewable Portfolio Standard||Utilities must deliver a set percentage of renewable electricity||Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Missouri, Nevada, Rhode Island, and others|
|Energy Efficiency Resource Standard||Utilities must cut demand by a set amount by target years||Arizona, Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota, Texas, and others|
|Decoupling||Reduce utility incentive to deliver more electricity by decoupling revenue and profit||California, Idaho, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, and others|
|Net Metering||Encourage residential solar by paying homeowners to put excess electricity back on grid||Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Louisiana, and others|
|Cap & Trade||Issue a declining number of carbon allowances, which must be surrendered in proportion to each plant’s emissions||California, Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative|
|Carbon Tax||Charge a tax for emitting carbon||British Columbia|
|Grid Operator Carbon Fee||Add a carbon price to grid operator decision over which power plants to run||None currently|
|Appliance Efficiency Standards||Require new appliances sold to meet set electricity consumption standards||California, Florida, New Jersey, and others|
|Commercial & Residential Building Codes||Require new buildings to include electricity saving measures||California, Illinois, Maryland, Mississippi, and others|
Q: How could states use market-based approaches to implement the plan?
Economists consider market-based approaches to be the most efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The Clean Power Plan encourages states to consider using market mechanisms, which could include a cap-and-trade program, a carbon tax, or tradable renewables or efficiency certificates.
EPA intends to set up and administer a program to track trading programs for states that choose to use them. In addition, the Federal Implementation Plan that EPA would employ in states without adequate plans includes market-based programs, which can be used by states as a model for their own plans.
Under EPA’s proposed new Clean Energy Incentive Program, states that act early to cut carbon pollution, either with renewables or energy efficiency, would be rewarded with emission reduction credits (ERCs), which they could use to meet their targets or sell to other emitters.
Q: How can states work together to implement the Clean Power Plan?
States have long collaborated to achieve energy and environmental goals. The successful trading program to reduce sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain, is an example.
The plan is designed to facilitate interstate compliance strategies, including different forms of trading. The federal implementation plan outlines strategies to determine the equivalence of emission reduction credits in different states. It would also create a national platform that can be used to track the buying, selling, and trading of credits across state lines.
An example of states already working together is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeast. A multi-state approach could also be accomplished through another existing authority such as a Regional Transmission Organization (RTO) or Independent System Operator (ISO).
Q: Will states be able to use Canadian hydropower to comply?
Renewable energy from outside of the United States, including Canadian hydropower, can be used for compliance purposes, provided it is incremental and installed after 2012 and meets some other conditions. More than a dozen U.S. states already import a significant amount of Canadian hydropower. According to a C2ES report, importing hydropower from even a modestly sized new Canadian project (250 MW) could help a state bridge the gap between its current carbon emissions rate and its 2030 target.
Q: Will the Clean Power Plan affect the reliability of the electric grid?
In response to concerns raised by EPA’s proposed rule, the final plan includes a “reliability safety valve” temporarily relaxing emission standards on individual electric generating units under extraordinary circumstances where electric system reliability is concerned.
To mitigate reliability issues, states are required to address reliability in their compliance plans. Importantly, the plan gives states up to seven years before interim targets must be met, providing time for state regulators and reliability entities to work with utilities and other key stakeholders.
The plan is also expected to encourage energy efficiency, which helps lower demand growth and improve reliability.
Q: How much will implementing the plan cost?
EPA calculates that savings from increased energy efficiency will outweigh the costs of implementing the plan, reducing household electric bills by about $7 per month by 2030. The agency estimates compliance costs of $5.1 billion to $8.4 billion and total benefits of $34 billion to $54 billion.
Q: How does the plan address nuclear power?
Nuclear provides nearly 20 percent of the nation’s power and is the largest source of carbon-free baseload electricity. Five reactors are now under construction in Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina and are expected to be online by 2030.
Unlike the proposal, the final rule does not consider existing or new nuclear power for the purposes of setting state targets. Therefore, the five reactors under construction and any new units or upgrades can count toward compliance.
Q: How is natural gas treated in the plan?
Both the proposal and the final plan envision about a third of U.S. electricity coming from natural gas in 2030. However, under the final plan, less new natural gas generation capacity is anticipated.
Natural gas demand was expected to grow more quickly under the earlier compliance date called for in the proposed rule. Proposed incentives for early deployment of renewables may encourage more investment in renewable energy in the short term.
Q: What does this plan mean for coal?
Demand for coal in the U.S. has been decreasing for many years because of the availability of relatively less expensive natural gas to meet baseload power demands and because of other environmental and safety regulations. Even before the Clean Power Plan, very few new coal plants were expected to be constructed. According to EPA’s IPM modeling of the final rule, coal is expected to make up 27 to 28 percent of the electric generation mix in 2030. Under a business-as-usual scenario, coal is expected to deliver 36 percent of U.S. electricity in 2030.
Figure 4: Distribution of Fossil Fuel Power Plants across the Contiguous United States
Q: What is the timetable for implementing the plan?
States have one year to either submit a plan or request an extension. All final plans are due by September 2018. EPA will approve or disapprove a final plan within a year.
The Clean Energy Incentive Program begins on January 1, 2020. States that have expressed their interest in participating in this program in their final plans are eligible. This program runs throughout 2020 and 2021.
On January 1, 2022, states must begin complying by meeting their interim targets. On January 30, 2030, states must meet their final CO2 reduction goals.
Q: Won’t this end up in the courts?
A number of states have already brought legal actions challenging the rule (some of these states are simultaneously working on their implementation plans).
Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act – the section under which the Clean Power Plan was adopted – has not been used often in the past, so EPA has few precedents to rely on. However, the courts historically have granted EPA a fair amount of discretion in implementing the act, and some of the changes made in the final plan will make it better able to withstand legal challenge.
Q: What happens to states that fail to comply?
States now have up to three years to write implementation plans, applying their knowledge of their utilities and the programs that have worked in the past.
Under the Clean Air Act, any state that fails to submit a plan or get EPA approval for its plan will be subject to a federal implementation plan. The current proposals for the federal implementation plan would use flexible, market-based solutions for compliance.
The finalization today of EPA’s Clean Power Plan offers Americans a clear, realistic roadmap for addressing planet-warming emissions that threaten the environment and the U.S. economy.
Most importantly, it puts states in the driver’s seat to devise innovative strategies to reduce emissions efficiently and cost-effectively. Now it's time for states to work together with businesses and cities to craft the approaches that work best for them.
Climate change is a critical challenge, and the impacts will only grow more costly if we fail to act. Last year was the warmest on Earth since we started keeping records over a century ago. During the first half of this year, it got even hotter. Climate change impacts include more extreme heat, which can exacerbate drought and wildfires, more frequent and intense downpours that can lead to destructive floods, and rising sea levels that threaten coastal cities.
New federal standards are already reducing heat-trapping emissions from the second-biggest source, transportation, by increasing the fuel economy of cars and trucks. The Clean Power Plan takes the next logical step by addressing the largest source: the electric power sector, responsible for nearly 40 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.
President Obama's Climate Action Plan:
By Michael Tubman
Two years after President Obama announced his Climate Action Plan, the administration has made marked progress toward achieving its goals. The plan, announced June 25, 2013, outlines 75 goals in three areas: cutting carbon pollution in the United States, preparing the United States for the impacts of climate change, and leading international efforts to address climate change. To date, there has been at least initial government action related to every item in the plan.
The proposed Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants is a long overdue turning point in America’s response to climate change.
EPA’s approach gives the states tremendous flexibility to design strategies that work best for them. States have always been incubators of innovation, and they will drive technological and policy innovation as they encourage low-cost solutions to implement the plan.
We need to encourage that innovation – by cities, states, and businesses -- to show the path forward to a clean energy economy.
C2ES submitted comments today as part of the EPA’s process to seek stakeholder input to the proposed rule before finalizing it in June 2015.
Here are five suggestions that could make EPA’s framework even better.
With all the fuss around the EPA’s proposed carbon dioxide standard for new power plants, you would be forgiven for missing the following line: “EPA projects that this proposed rule will result in negligible CO2 emission changes, quantified benefits, and costs by 2022.” That’s right, the standard will likely have little to no effect before the date by which EPA will be required by law to revise it.
Why? As I recently told the National Journal, because the most credible projections have natural gas so inexpensive for the next several years that very few power companies are planning to build new coal plants – compared with the 150 natural gas power plants in the works. Pulling the proposed standard wouldn’t change that reality. In fact, the one coal plant being built today includes carbon capture and storage (CCS), and is expected to meet the tough carbon standard EPA has proposed. A handful of additional coal plants with CCS may move forward in the next several years, as well.
So what’s all the fuss about?
I recently replied to a question on the National Journal blog, "Do the results of the 2012 election pave the way for Washington to achieve bipartisan energy and environment policies?"
You can read other responses at the National Journal.
Here is my response: In his victory speech, President Barack Obama called for an America “that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” With mostly the same players who failed to pass any significant climate legislation returning to Washington, can we expect a different result?
Possibly -- and for two reasons.
It’s too early to know whether Hurricane Sandy will be the “Love Canal” of climate change, catalyzing a strong national response. But with Sandy’s costs still mounting, President Obama has an opportunity and an obligation to press the case for stronger climate action.
In his victory speech, the president called for an America “that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” We hope he keeps driving that message home -- to be clear with the American people about the urgency of cutting carbon emissions and strengthening our critical infrastructure against the rising risks of climate change.
In a resounding victory for sound science and policy, the US Court of Appeals decided unanimously this week to uphold both EPA’s finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare and the agency’s initial set of regulations limiting emissions from vehicles and major new and modified industrial sources.
Given the choice, we’d much prefer to see a new law establishing a comprehensive market-based program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But until Congress gets its act together, regulating emissions under the Clean Air Act is really the only option.
Statement of Eileen Claussen
President, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions
June 26, 2012
Today’s decision reaffirms sensible science-based regulation and takes an important step to protect the American people from dangerous climate change.
We’ve always maintained that the best way to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions is through new legislation establishing a comprehensive market-based approach. But in the face of Congressional inaction, EPA has no choice but to move forward under the existing Clean Air Act—not the best tool, but for now the only one available.
As expected, the Court affirmed EPA’s interpretation of the overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change endangers America’s environment and economy. It also affirmed common-sense steps by EPA to tailor the somewhat cumbersome provisions of the Clean Air Act to the particular challenges of regulating greenhouse gases.
The ruling significantly reduces the regulatory uncertainty facing major emitters so they can begin factoring carbon reductions into their investment decisions. Far from the draconian scenarios painted by opponents, the greenhouse gas standards for vehicles will deliver huge fuel savings for consumers,
Hopefully we can now move past the false debate over whether or not climate change is real, and continue the hard work of building common ground for common-sense solutions.
Contact: Rebecca Matulka, 703-516-4146, firstname.lastname@example.org
This week, C2ES filed comments on EPA’s proposed greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions standard for new power plants.
Let me start by saying I would prefer to be working on the implementation of a market-based program to reduce GHG emissions. For years, C2ES has believed that a market-based policy—whether a cap-and-trade program, an emissions tax, emissions averaging among companies, or a clean energy standard with tradable credits—would be the best way of reducing GHG emissions and spurring clean energy technology. Market-based policies create a good division of labor, with the law setting the goal, and private industry deciding how best to achieve it.