Obama vows carbon cap for power plants in climate policy overhaul

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By Denver Nicks, Associate Editor, Power Engineering

In a major policy announcement Tuesday, President Obama proposed new regulations on carbon emissions from existing power plants in an effort to jump start the administration’s goals for combating climate change. If implemented, the carbon emissions cap on existing plants would be a first-of-its-kind regulation sure to have significant and reverberating impacts across the power generation industry and the wider economy.

“As a president, as a father, as an American, I’m here to say: We need to act,” Obama said, speaking before an audience at Georgetown University. “Power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free. That’s not right, it’s not safe, and it needs to stop.” He noted that existing power plants account for 40 percent of carbon emissions in the United States. Obama vowed to make reducing power plant carbon emissions the cornerstone of his climate policy.

Though his speech was short on details, the president doubled down on his commitment to shale gas development, stating flatly that “We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer.”

Under Obama’s plan, renewable energy power generation, which doubled during the administration’s first term, will be doubled again by 2020. Obama noted that, “Many power companies have already begun modernizing their plants and creating new jobs in the process,” and that a number of state and local governments have already implemented carbon emissions regulations. “It’s just time for Washington to catch up with the rest of the country,” he said.

Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association representing roughly 70 percent of the American electric power industry, struck a cautious tone. Kuhn stressed that any new regulations "contain achievable compliance limits and deadlines, minimize costs to customers, and are consistent with the industry’s ongoing investments to transition to a cleaner generating fleet and enhanced electric grid.” Kuhn added that fuel diversity must remain a top consideration in any new energy policy.

A group of leading environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and the Environmental Defense Fund, issued a joint statement praising the president’s proposals. “President Obama’s decision to take action to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants for the first time ever is particularly important since power plants are the largest unlimited source of carbon pollution and cleaning them up is key to protecting Americans from the impacts of climate change,” the statement said.

The renewables industry welcomed the administration’s commitment to expand the use of renewable energy technologies. “America’s solar energy industry stands ready to do our part to help fight climate change and usher in a new era of clean energy in America and around the world. Despite what some critics say, this isn’t a choice between clean energy and a robust economy. We can have both, and solar is showing how to make that possible,” said Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association. Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, said, “we’re ready to do our part to help America address global warming, especially in the early years of the climate protection effort when few other solutions are as readily deployable and scalable.”

Nuclear power received short thrift in the president’s climate address, but a cap on carbon emissions could have a far-reaching positive impact on the American nuclear industry, which has been beleaguered in recent years with high costs and new regulations. The Nuclear Energy Institute moved to stake out territory in the discussion on emissions-free energy alternatives

“There is no debating this fact: Nuclear energy produces nearly two-thirds of America’s carbon-free electricity,” said NEI President Marvin Fertel. “As a nation, we cannot reach our energy and climate goals without the reliable, carbon-free electricity that nuclear power plants generate to power our homes, businesses and infrastructure. President Obama recognized this during the presidential campaign when he said, ‘It is unlikely we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power as an option.’ Likewise, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz supports the expansion of nuclear energy to meet national energy and environmental imperatives.”

Resistance to the president’s plan came swiftly. Representatives from the coal industry, which will be the primary target of any new emissions regulations, were unsurprised by the announcement but no less troubled for it. “Even brand new, state-of-the-art plants wouldn’t be able to meet these regulations,” American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity’s Lisa Miller told Politico.

Republican attorneys general from Oklahoma, Alabama, Montana and West Virginia vowed to challenge new regulations, saying in a joint statement, “This president’s unprecedented use of the Environmental Protection Agency to enact overreaching regulations and circumvent state primacy has prompted our fellow Republican attorneys general to fight back and full force, and we plan to continue.”

The American Public Power Association said in a release that while it agreed with some parts of the President's plan, it had some concerns over emissions regulations.

"APPA is encouraged that the President has directed EPA to re-propose last year's flawed proposed rule for new power plants that effectively banned new coal-fired plants," the statement said. "However, we are concerned that the net effect of a re-proposed rule may be the same. Thus, we urge EPA to make substantial changes including provisions that differentiate between fuel types and set a standard for coal that can be achieved using current commercially available technology.

"Of even greater concern is how EPA will address emissions from existing power plants," the statement continued. "Under the relevant Clean Air Act authority, EPA is to set broad national guidelines, not numeric emissions requirements or limits, and allow the states to develop specific programs to implement those guidelines. Since there is no commercially available technology to control GHG emissions from power plants, state programs will likely and appropriately vary depending on a number of factors."

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