Past is prologue, and as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moves forward with new limits on carbon pollution from the nation's electric power plants, familiar alarms are sounding that the limits will drive up electric bills, threaten the reliability of our electric power system, and harm our economy. Nonsense.
Almost 25 years ago, when major amendments to the Clean Air Act forced power plant owners to cut pollutants causing smog, acid rain, asthma and respiratory illnesses, opponents made the same argument. Yet by 2012 those emissions ï¿½ nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide_ were down 74 and 79 percent respectively, and the system remained robust. Moreover, electricity rates are actually lower today than they were 20 years ago, adjusting for inflation.
Yet here we are again, listening to the same sky-is-falling claims when the urgency of climate change necessitates carbon emissions reductions. The U.S. electric power sector, which generates one out of every 15 tons of carbon emissions globally, has a critical role to play.
As the recent U.S. National Climate Assessment makes clear, the impacts of climate change are already serious with worse yet to come. From extreme drought impacting agriculture, to rising sea level threatening coastal populations, to extreme heat, heavy precipitation and flooding, every corner of the country and every sector of the economy is feeling the pinch.
Though the EPA carbon reductions will challenge states and power producers, they can meet this challenge, just as they have in the past, while keeping our lights on and our economy growing.
First, long-term emissions trends show that electric power producers are already beginning to "de-carbonize." Between 2005 and 2012, carbon emissions declined by 13 percent_or one-third of the way towards EPA's 30-percent reduction plan by 2030. The rising affordability of natural gas and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, and an increase in energy efficiency, have contributed to this trend. Even safely operating existing nuclear plants have a role to play.
In fact, many power companies have indicated that the rule is achievable and that they look forward to working with EPA and the states to implement it. "I am strongly encouraged by EPA's efforts to reduce CO2 emissions through sensible and practical regulation," National Grid U.S.'s President Tom King, told The Buffalo News.
Second, the electric power industry understands, as does the EPA, that a reliable electric supply is fundamental to the U.S. economy. Compliance with environmental regulations has never disrupted the power supplies that we all rely on, and is not expected to in the future. The power sector has a record of innovating to meet regulatory challenges to protect public health.
Third, the EPA is regulating carbon emissions under a Clean Air Act provision that gives states and power providers wide latitude in how they meet the new standard. Moreover, the limits are crafted to each state's unique circumstances and power generation sources.
Power companies will have many tools at their disposal for meeting carbon reduction targets. For example, they can shift power generation from coal-fired plants to less carbon-intensive natural gas power plants. In 2012, only half the capacity of such plants was utilized.
"By simply increasing utilization of these facilities sooner rather than later, meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reductions may be achieved ... while ensuring electric reliability," Derek Furstenwerth, of the Houston-based Calpine Corporation, told Hearst Newspapers.
Power providers can also encourage end-user energy efficiency programs and expand use of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydropower, which are the fastest growing sources of new generation in this country.
As for a potential near-term increase in electric rates, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy estimates it will cost households "the price of a gallon of milk a month." Over time, prices will lower if the states rely on energy efficiency to increase energy productivity as part of state compliance plans.
In short, nothing in past experience, or the power sector's current preparedness, suggests that the nation's electric system is at risk or that rates will spike when EPA carbon-reducing limits for power plants go into effect. Quite the contrary: cutting carbon from the electric sector is a vital step forward in creating a sustainable economy in a warming world.
ABOUT THE WRITERS
Mindy Lubber, is president of the nonprofit sustainability group Ceres and former EPA Administrator for New England. Susan Tierney is senior advisor for the Analysis Group, former Assistant Secretary for Policy at the U.S. Department of Energy, and author of Greenhouse Gas Emission Reductions From Existing Power Plants Under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act: Options to Ensure Electric System Reliability.