After a year in review, and following approximately 4 million comments and appeals by state public utilities commissions (PUCs), legislators, and special interest groups, the Obama Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have released a final ruling on the Clean Power Plan.
The Proposed Rule was released last June. It included interim (2020) and long-term (2030) regulations that will be imposed state by state to decrease CO2 emissions from generation facilities. It also requires gradual decommissioning of high-emissions facilities, increased support for low-emissions natural gas and renewable generation, and improvements in demand-side management and energy efficiency. Speculations and protest across stakeholder groups has been colossal.
According to a paper sponsored by the Brookings Institute, the majority of comments to the plan centered upon several major issues: fairness, reliability impacts, attainability of goals, and its legal basis—many reaching past state boundaries and party lines. Fairness concerns, held by 23 states, are largely based upon the 2012 baseline level of emissions. Many states had been proactive in the decade prior, already attacking the low-hanging fruit and therefore were being forced to implement improvements with higher marginal costs than those states that had not yet proactively addressed emissions. Reliability impacts, which differ from state to state, caution the over-dependence upon less reliable sources of power, in particular renewables.
Perhaps the most contentious pushback centered upon the attainability and legality of the program. According to the Brookings report, 36 states commented on attainability, predominantly criticizing the timeline as too short. Some states have even argued that the goals altogether are unattainable. Wyoming, for example, has an economy that is reliant upon coal production and coal-based generation. Wyoming Public Service Commission Commissioner Alan Minier, as well as other agencies in that state, has been outspoken in stating feasibility concerns surrounding the decommissioning of coal-fired plants as much as 30 years before scheduled retirement. Similarly, although Wyoming has abundant wind resources, most of this power is exported and Wyoming would be unable to receive renewable energy credits under the plan.
The cherry on top is concerns on legality of the Clean Power Plan, particularly how it interprets the Clean Air Act (its legal basis), and that favoring gas-fired generation will encroach upon the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s least-cost principles in the dispatch of power. Experts have appropriately forecasted large sums in legal and lobbyist fees.
Issues and Opportunities
It’s clear that a number of issues exist within the Clean Power Plan’s approach to reducing CO2 emissions in the United States, and these do need to be addressed in order to realistically comply. But there are also many opportunities. In terms of creating pathways to alternative production and more efficient distribution of electricity, there has been more innovation in the energy in the past 5 years than in the previous 50. The introduction of the smart grid has invited the possibility of real-time, grid-wide networking and monitoring, enabling the use of renewable resources with very large to very small generating capacities, while ensuring reliability across the grid.
Many question the worth of derailing support for innovation in order to contest the rule. By supporting more engagement between utilities and building and industrial facility owners, city planners, and even individual homeowners to implement energy efficiency programs and integrate distributed generation, states can employ more creative and innovative approaches to compliance with the Clean Power Plan. The possibilities are endless in terms of inviting an array of new stakeholders and developing new revenue-generating systems that can help states achieve their state goal. The question is whether the state will lend itself to innovation or litigation.