Coal, Executive Insight, Natural Gas, Policy & Regulation

Carbon emission rules for US power plants set to spur innovation

Lux Research

This week the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a “Clean Power Plan” to mandate reduced carbon emissions from existing power plants. The rules have naturally sparked political controversy, but missing from the debate is the role of innovation. These rules can help spur innovation that will make it easier for the world to reduce its emissions, according to analysts at emerging technology advisory firm Lux Research.

The new EPA rules are unlikely to have a dramatic impact on global emissions on their own, given that nearly all future growth in carbon emissions will come from developing and underdeveloped countries — most notably China, which became the largest carbon emitter in 2007. Hence, much of the debate about the rules has centered on how likely they are to help induce China and other nations to agree to binding targets of their own.

“The political discussion about climate change misses a critical point,” said Aditya Ranade, senior analyst at Lux Research. “Whatever their role in climate negotiations, these new rules will accelerate technology development and deployment, making it more practical and affordable for nations everywhere to reduce emissions. Their influence on innovation is where they will need to have the biggest impact for the world to achieve its CO2 reduction goals.”

Lux Research analysts predict that four major technology sectors will get a boost:

  • Combined-cycle gas turbines (CCGTs) will gain. Most states will first target improvements to fossil fuel power plants. CCGTs, which use energy from burning natural gas, as well as steam generated from hot exhaust gas, will be in demand, given their higher efficiency, benefitting CCGT giants such as General Electric Co.
  • Commercial and utility-scale solar demand will rise in unexpected places. Subsidized internal rates of returns (IRRs) are already high for commercial and utility solar installations in states such as California and Massachusetts, ranging from 10 to 15 percent (see Lux Solar Demand Tracker). The new carbon emissions rules likely will open up hitherto unattractive markets such as Georgia and South Carolina. Expect a greater flow of debt capital and competing business models such as leasing from SolarCity and solar loans from Sungage to make their presence felt.
  • Negawatts will prove to be the cheapest compliance. Saving electricity is considerably cheaper for a utility than producing it — as little as $0.028 per kilowatt-hour, according to the American Council for Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE): twice as cheap as coal. Expect the utilities in coal-dominant regions, such as American Electric Power (AEP), to expand their residential energy efficiency programs, leading the adoption of air barrier materials, LED lights and double-pane, low-e coated windows.
  • Clean coal will get a new lease on life. Current costs of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) for coal plants using integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC) are an astounding $60 per ton, according to the Department of Energy, making the approach impractical. The new rules will accelerate the development of second- and third-generation technologies for CCS, such as metal organic frameworks (MOF), which have the potential to get costs down to $20 per ton.

The impact of the new EPA rules will come neither via a global binding climate deal nor from an absolute reduction in U.S. emissions but from catalyzing technology development and deployment. Innovative companies that are developing CCGT, CCS, solar, wind and building energy efficiency solutions will be in positions to deploy their technologies aggressively, helping the world reduce emission targets while growing their businesses.

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