Climate 411

The Clean Power Plan and Early Action by States to Reduce Carbon Pollution

(This post originally appeared on Resources for the Future's Expert Forum on EPA's Clean Power Plan, on October 24, 2014)

Should EPA credit early action taken by states to reduce carbon emissions? If so, how?

Under the Clean Power Plan, the United States will finally have Clean Air Act standards to address carbon pollution from existing power plants. During the long wait for these standards, a diverse group of states and companies have acted, leading the way in reducing carbon pollution. They have done so by deploying renewable energy, harvesting demand-side energy efficiency, and by shifting utilization away from high-emitting and toward lower-emitting power plants.

State and private sector leadership in addressing pollution is something that should be recognized and supported. Action at the federal level to address climate-destabilizing pollution is lagging perilously far behind the scope and pace of action that scientists tell us is necessary to mitigate harmful climate impacts and reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change. For these reasons, we have long supported the recognition of early action in the context of the Clean Power Plan. Yet the question of how to do so is complex.

Under Section 111(d), EPA identifies the “best system of emission reduction” available to address dangerous air pollution from stationary sources, and sets emissions performance targets achievable using that best system. This framework—like other frameworks under the Clean Air Act—looks at existing pollution problems and how they can be addressed going forward. It does not provide for an assessment of past emissions reductions by those sources (or that state).

Of course, under the Clean Power Plan, states and companies that have already transitioned toward lower-carbon and zero-carbon energy and energy efficiency are closer to the full deployment of the best system of emissions reduction than others—and EPA should consider clarifying that states that go beyond their targets under the Clean Power Plan would receive credit for those actions under future updating of the carbon pollution standards for power plants.

The years between 2012 and 2020 present a distinct quandary. EPA uses 2012 data on power sector infrastructure in assessing the potential for emissions reductions to be secured under the best system during the 2020 to 2029 compliance period. Crediting emissions reductions secured between 2012 and 2020 would encourage states and companies to act earlier, moving emissions reductions forward in time. All else being equal, earlier action to reduce emissions is certainly better than later action. But the potential to reduce carbon pollution during 2012 to 2020 was not taken into account in setting the state targets. As such, giving compliance credit to those actions taken during this time that would have happened regardless of the Clean Power Plan—take, for example, renewable energy deployed under a renewable energy standard in a state strongly committed to clean energy—would create a bank of compliance credits. Those banked credits would be used by that state during the compliance period in the place of other, beyond business-as-usual actions to reduce emissions—and the overall emissions reductions achieved by the Clean Power Plan would be reduced by the same amount.

There are, of course, highly compelling reasons to begin to take action now to reduce carbon pollution. States and companies can take advantage of the five years between the finalization of the standards and the beginning of the compliance period to gradually build out renewable generation and build up energy efficiency programs so that these resources are ready to deliver carbon reductions. The reductions in co-pollutants that will result will help states deliver cleaner air for their citizens and meet other clean air standards. Companies can develop business models built on a foundation of clean energy and efficiency, and investments in cleaner energy and efficiency will create jobs. Improvements in energy efficiency will cut utility bills for homes and businesses, and spending those savings in their communities will stimulate the local economy. These are simply common sense actions, with tremendous co-benefits—and the existence of an initial compliance date for the long-awaited carbon pollution standards does not alter that common sense.

Posted in Clean Power Plan, Greenhouse Gas Emissions| Comments closed

Flexible Pollution Rules can Boost the Economy: 5 Reasons Why

By Diane Munns, Senior Director, Clean Energy Collaboration

economy_378x235

Source: Flickr/Brookhaven National Lab

Nobody likes being told what to do.

Gina McCarthy, head of Environmental Protection Agency, knows that. So she asked her agency to craft a plan that leaves it up to states to shape their energy future – as long as they cut carbon emissions from power plants.

Often lost in the heated debate over EPA’s Clean Power Plan, however, is the fact this built-in flexibility will also give a boost to clean technology ventures, and speed up energy innovations already under way in many states. It could bring down costs for consumers, and maybe even give a much-needed boost to our economy.

Here’s how.

1. Flexibility will foster creativity.

All states have different strengths and weaknesses, and their infrastructure varies. Under EPA’s plan, a state can choose to close or upgrade coal plants, join a carbon market such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, invest in zero-carbon renewable energy sources, boost energy efficiency programs, or take any other step to meet the individual goal EPA set for the state.

Chances are, many state strategies will be multi-pronged and collaborative. The best and most viable solutions will surface to the top and be exported as best practices to other states. In fact, states and utilities looking to get ahead of the game are already beginning the discussions needed to one day craft plans.

2. State plans can be tweaked and improved over time.

States have 15 years to meet their individual carbon reduction goals. This is not supposed to be a rush job, no matter how urgent the climate challenge.

So a state that needs to abandon plans for a certain new technology, or that wants to switch to a more affordable solution, will likely have time to do so. The long-term planning horizon will allow new technologies and business models to be tested and take hold.

3. As old plants close, new and cost-effective technologies move in.

The EPA rules are being proposed at a time when utilities nationwide are pondering how to best replace aging infrastructure. Three-quarters of all coal-fired power plants are at least 30 years old, which means they only have about a decade left to operate.

This transition is expected to speed up over the next few years as a 2015 deadline for reducing mercury emissions and other harmful pollutants from power plants draws near.

With carbon storage still out of reach, no off-the-shelf technology available to affordably cut pollution from coal plants – and with natural gas, a fossil fuel, not a long-term viable alternative – we expect utilities to increasingly turn to renewable generation and energy efficiency solutions to meet EPA’s goals.

Energy efficiency remains the single best value for the dollar and it can easily be deployed within the 15-year timeframe.

4. A changing energy landscape will bring new business.

As zero and low-carbon technologies become more valuable and competitive over time, there will be more opportunities for companies to move into this space – and to flourish.

For years already, utilities have been switching from coal to natural gas, a cleaner and cheaper fuel that emits about half the carbon coal does. Industry analysts expect this transition to speed up in anticipation of the new power plant rules.

As state regulators push utilities to comply with the EPA emissions targets, look for new opportunities for industry and entrepreneurs to reduce emissions and improve efficiencies at natural gas plants.

Other businesses will scale up investment in alternative energy sources as the market for such technology gains value and broadens. There are already many active players in this emerging industry, and they want to grow in the United States and beyond.

5. Coming: A new way to produce and consume energy.

States working to cut emissions from fossil plants will be exploring new approaches – not just for energy production, but also for how we consume energy. There is “low-hanging fruit,” untapped opportunities for carbon reduction and customer savings, that won’t require additional power plant investments.

Expect EPA’s plan to fuel smarter utility business models where power companies are rewarded for helping consumers save energy rather than wasting it. The environment will benefit, as will American households and businesses.

This post originally appeared on our EDF Voices blog.

Posted in Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, Energy, Green Jobs, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Policy| Comments closed

The Clean Power Plan and the Deployment of Renewable Energy

(This post originally appeared on Resources for the Future's Expert Forum on EPA's Clean Power Plan, on October 2, 2014)

The proposed Clean Power Plan identifies the “best system of emission reduction” to address carbon pollution from power plants as comprised of four building blocks: (1) efficiency improvements at coal-fired power plants; (2) shifts in utilization away from higher-emitting fossil plants towards lower-emitting fossil plants; (3) deployment of zero-carbon generation sources such as wind and solar; and (4) harvesting demand-side energy efficiency improvement opportunities.

This system best satisfies the statutory command of the Clean Air Act, which directs EPA to identify the system that maximizes emissions reductions, considering cost and impacts on energy and other health and environmental outcomes.

This system also reflects what is happening across the country (and indeed, around the world) to reduce carbon pollution—states and companies are using the interconnected electric system as a whole to cut carbon pollution, deploying zero- and low-emitting generation and reducing reliance on high-emitting generation, and doing so flexibly to ensure that reliability is maintained and emissions reductions are achieved cost-effectively.Fifteen states wrote to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy as the Clean Power Plan was being developed to describe the success they have had in deploying this system, cutting carbon pollution from power plants by 20 percent between 2005 and 2011, with some states achieving reductions of over 40 percent during that period.

Renewable energy is our future.

More than 60,000 megawatts of wind energy capacity have been installed in 39 states and an additional 12,000 megawatts are under construction. Wind power capacity in the United States has increased nine times over since 2005, supporting over 80,000 jobs and driving a new manufacturing sector with over 550 facilities across the country. Solar generating capacity is also rising rapidly—increasing by 418 percent between 2010 and 2014. PG&E has connected more than 100,000 customers with solar panels to the grid, saving the average residential customer with solar panels $130 a month. Costs of renewable generation have been falling rapidly, and power companies such as Xcel, DTE, MidAmerican, Georgia Power, and Austin Energy have announced renewable energy purchases that are outcompeting fossil-fueled alternatives and that will lower customer bills by saving fuel costs.

The Clean Power Plan’s assessment of the potential for renewable energy to reduce carbon pollution bases state targets on an average of existing renewable energy policies in different regions of the country. By taking this approach—effectively looking backward—the proposal fails to reflect the dynamism in renewable energy deployment that is happening across America, and fails to satisfy Section 111’s technology-forcing framework.

The proposed alternative approach, which would consider the technical and economic potential to harvest renewable energy in each state, has the potential to better reflect the country’s vast renewable energy resources. The analysis underlying the alternative approach needs to be updated to reflect current technologies (such as taller wind turbines and distributed generation) and current costs (which are falling rapidly).

An up-to-date analysis of the technical and economic potential for renewable energy to cut carbon pollution will provide a strong legal and technical foundation for the Clean Power Plan, and help facilitate our transition to the clean energy–fueled economy of the future.

Posted in Clean Power Plan, Economics, Energy| Comments closed

How scientists linked the California drought to climate change

A drought-stricken vineyard in Napa Valley. Source: John Weiss/Flickr

California has officially entered its fourth consecutive year of drought, and is trapped in its worst water shortage situation ever.

Because we know that human-caused climate change cantrigger and exacerbate drought conditions, media, public officials, California residents and scientists have all been wondering for years if rising global temperatures likely caused or contributed to the current drought in California.

The short answer: Yes, they did.

Weather won’t cooperate

Scientists have suspected for some time now that a certain meteorological condition lies behind the long-lasting California drought. The persistence of a stubborn high-pressure system off the coast has been preventing storm systems from reaching California and instead deflecting them to Alaska and elsewhere.

While weather events are almost always multi-causal, the California drought is largely a result of this atmospheric weather pattern. The question is whether climate change has influenced the development, or sustenance, of this system.

Stanford scientists connected the dots

When destructive events happen, people want to know right then and there what’s going on— whether it’s an epidemic, riot or weather disaster.

But evaluating an extreme weather event for climate change influences is a scientific process that takes several months of computer simulations and statistical techniques. It can frustrate some who demand an answer right away.

Well, the results from several, month-long studies are finally in. Scientists from Stanford have found that the meteorological conditions that have caused the California drought are far more likely to occur in today’s warming world than in one without human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases.

It shows us – ironically and tragically – that the state thatleads the nation in curbing greenhouse gas emissions is right now suffering more than any other from climate change.

California is not alone

The California drought attribution studies are a subset of alarger collection of recently published studies that explain 16 extreme weather and climate events of 2013.

Twenty research teams explored the causes of events such as heat waves in Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Japan, China, and Europe; torrential downpours in Colorado and India, a blizzard in South Dakota, and a cold spell in the United Kingdom.

The studies overwhelmingly indicated that all heat waves were largely attributable to human-caused climate change. One study even suggested that the heat wave in Korea has been made 10 times more likely due to human influence.

The extreme rainfall events in India were concluded to have been more likely in a human-influenced world, but data for assessing precipitation events is rather limited as compared to heat waves. Further, studies concluded that the extreme rainfall event in Colorado, the blizzard in South Dakota, and the cold spell in the U.K. were unlikely to have been influenced by climate change.

Climate change is happening. Now.

So for anyone who may still think that the consequences of climate change are in the distant future, this collection of studies suggest that human-caused climate change is right now causing a crisis in America’s most populous state and the world’s eighth largest economy.

California reminds us that climate change is a major concern for societies everywhere, and that all nations are vulnerable to extreme weather events. It’s time we roll up our sleeves and stop this, once and for all.

This blog originally appeared on EDF Voices 

Posted in Basic Science of Global Warming| Comments closed

A New Step in the Fight to Reduce Toxic Mercury Pollution from Power Plants

(This post was written by EDF Senior Attorneys Graham McCahan and Tomas Carbonell)

Today, EDF and its allies joined the latest fight to protect the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

We filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to deny the petitions that are seeking review of a lower court decision upholding the standards.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) will require crucial and long-overdue emission reductions of toxic pollutants including mercury, arsenic, and acid gases from the single largest source of toxic air pollution in the U.S.— coal-fired power plants.

Starting in April 2015, when they go into effect, these standards will prevent thousands of premature deaths, heart attacks, and asthma attacks every year.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards were upheld by a panel of judges on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in April 2014 against a variety of legal challenges.

Fortunately, most power plants in the U.S. are already on track to comply with these life-saving standards.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that by the end of 2012 — or more than two years ahead of the April 2015 compliance deadline:

64.3% of the U.S. coal generating capacity in the electric power sector already had the appropriate environmental control equipment to comply with the MATS.

Unfortunately, some power companies and their industry partners continue to file legal attacks against the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

Our opponents are continuing their legal attacks in spite of the D.C. Circuit’s detailed opinion strongly upholding EPA’s authority to issue the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and affirming the EPA’s well-reasoned determinations on key technical issues.

Industry interests and states have filed petitions asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the D.C. Circuit’s decision.  Their petitions primarily emphasize the alleged costs of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards — even though some of the same power companies have recognized that the standards include flexibilities that have helped them slash their compliance costs.

For instance, Southern Company CFO and Executive Vice President Arthur P. Beattie stated in 2012 that the amount the company projects for MATS compliance costs would be far lower than previously predicted:

[B]ecause of the new flexibility that [the company has] found in the final rules of the MATS regulation." (Arthur P. Beatty, CFO and Executive Vice President of Southern Company,  Deutsche Bank Clean Tech, Utilities and Power Conference, May 15, 2012)

In fact, as the D.C. Circuit recognized in its decision, EPA’s cost-benefit analysis found that the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards would yield as much as $90 billion in annual health benefits once implemented — approximately nine times the anticipated cost of the rule.

The good news is that many people and organizations— including public health, equal justice, and environmental groups, plus a number of states and cities — are standing together to safeguard these protections for our communities and families.

Those groups include the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Lung Association, American Nurses Association, American Public Health Association, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, Clean Air Council, Conservation Law Foundation, Environment America, Izaak Walton League of America, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Natural Resources Council of Maine, Natural Resources Defense Council, Ohio Environmental Council, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Sierra Club, and Waterkeeper Alliance – along with EDF, of course.

That’s why today we joined together to file a brief with the Supreme Court asking the Justices not to reconsider the D.C. Circuit Court’s decision upholding these life-saving clean air protections.

Posted in Clean Air Act, EPA litgation, Health, Policy| Comments closed

Why California thirsts for rain and the East Coast gets soaked

Source: Flickr/Jared Tarbell

If you think the weather’s acting strange, you’re correct. Extreme weather in the United States is trending upward, and human-caused climate change has already been blamed for much of it – most recently in connection with theCalifornia drought.

But along with extreme weather we’re also getting extreme contrasts. What on Earth is going on when New York gets endless rain and San Francisco none, and when one part of the country is freezing while another suffers under record heat?

You guessed it, rising temperatures have something to do with it – and here’s how.

Rain patterns are changing

In the Northeast, the combination of more moisture in the atmosphere from a warmer world and changes in circulation patterns are bringing more rain. In the Southwest, meanwhile, rainfall is suppressed by a northward expansion of high pressure in the subtropics.

The crippling drought now plaguing California is due to a persistent high pressure system off of the coast that is deflecting storms away from the region. A recent study shows that these systems are much more likely to occur with human-caused climate change.

Rain is more intense

Heavy downpours are controlled by cloud mechanisms and moisture content, which are both changing as global temperatures rise. Clouds that can dump a lot of rain are more common in a warmer atmosphere.

More evaporation has led to more moisture in the atmosphere which, in turn, leads to more intense rainfall when it rains. That helps explain why the entire U.S. is experiencing more heavy downpours – even in the drought-stricken West.

Droughts are taking hold

Rain and evaporation will determine how moist the soil will be. So although evaporation is increasing nationwide due to warmer temperatures, higher precipitation in the Northeast yields a net increase in soil moisture in that part of the country.

In the Southwest, on the other hand, the drop in overall precipitation brings drier conditions that spawn or magnify drought. As the soil there dries out, the incoming sunlight will heat the ground instead of evaporating water from the soil. This creates a vicious cycle of more heat and less rain.

Flooding is more common

The potential for flooding, meanwhile, depends a lot on what's going on with the soil. The higher the soil moisture content, the higher the chance that there will be more runoff from rainfall.

Because soil moisture is increasing in the Northeast, flooding events are on the rise. Fortunately for the region, many heavy rain storms occur in the summer and fall when soil moisture is low and the ground can absorb more water.

On the other hand, the sea level has risen by a foot since the 1900s in the Northeast. That, in turn, contributes to more flooding.

Disaster costs are also rising – but there is hope

In 2013, intense storms, severe regional drought, and extreme flooding led to more than $9 billion in disaster costs in the U.S. alone. It’s uncertain what the total bill was if you factor in ongoing agriculture, human health and infrastructure losses from changing weather conditions

Unless we curb emissions of heat-trapping gases, scientists expect these trends to continue and worsen – and the contrast between wet and dry areas of the U.S. will likely become even sharper. Our hope now is that the push for climate action amps up so we can finally set ourselves on a better path for the future.

This post originally appeared on EDF Voices 

Posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Science| Comments closed
  • About this blog

    Expert to expert commentary on the science, law and economics of climate change.

  • Categories

  • Get blog posts by email

    Subscribe via RSS

  • Meet The Bloggers

    Megan CeronskyMegan Ceronsky
    Attorney

    Nat KeohaneNat Keohane
    Vice President for International Climate

    Ilissa Ocko
    High Meadows Fellow, Office of Chief Scientist

    Peter Zalzal
    Staff Attorney

    Gernot Wagner
    Senior Economist

    Graham McCahan
    Attorney

    Mandy Warner
    Climate & Air Policy Specialist

    Pamela Campos
    Attorney

    Kritee
    High Meadows Scientist