For and Against Give and Take About the Clean Power Plan

by Karl Ràƒ¡bago, Pace Energy and Climate Center, and Tim Echols, Georgia Public Service Commission

Karl Ràƒ¡bago is for the Clean Power Plan. Here is his take:

Karl Ràƒ¡bago

I teach energy law at the Pace Law School in White Plains, New York. We have a strong environmental and energy reputation, especially due to our Pace Energy and Climate Center, which I now have the privilege to lead. This is not my first tour at Pace. In 1990, while teaching law at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, I attended Pace at night to earn a post-doctorate degree in environmental law. That’s when I got the electricity regulatory bug that has defined my career for the past 25 years.

Some other things happened over those 25 years

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration:

Comparing April 1988 to April 2015 (27 years), natural gas consumption in the power sector more than tripled, renewable energy consumption more than doubled, nuclear energy consumption increased 47 percent, and coal consumption decreased 17 percent. Electricity generation has become less energy and carbon intensive over time. Compared to April 1998, April 2015 generation in the electric power sector was 44 percent higher, but the associated primary energy use and carbon dioxide emissions increased by only 33 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

Annual carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants in the U.S. are now about the same as they were in 1990. But importantly, they have been declining steadily since 2005, making up for steady growth from 1990 to 2005.

That is the prologue to this moment, and that is the prologue to the final adoption of the Clean Power Plan under § 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. It has been a full eight years after the U.S. Supreme Court, in Massachusetts v. EPA, held that the U.S. EPA has the authority and the responsibility to regulate carbon dioxide emissions upon an endangerment finding relating to this air pollutant. This is where we find ourselves six years after the EPA made that finding, and three years since the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld that finding.

I wonder what I will be teaching about the Clean Power Plan five, 10 or even more years into our common future.

By 2025, I hope we can say that the Clean Power Plan added to the critical momentum in the decline in carbon dioxide emissions in the electricity sector that had finally begun in 2005. Building off successes at the state level such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the Clean Power Plan will drive emissions reductions at an even greater pace in the decade after 2015 than in the decade before, in spite of futile obstructionism that was finally overcome by recently imposed Federal Implementation Plans.

The momentum will grow because the rules reflect and reinforce the markets’ clear and consistent message that coal-based electric generation has long been dying a death of economic causes because cleaner energy technologies continue to decline in cost and because customers continue to improve the efficiency of their electricity use. What has been judged in 2015 to be relatively modest regulations on carbon emissions establishes the framework for driving even deeper reductions, provides certainty to clean energy investors, and serves to counteract reactionary regulatory maneuvers in public utility commission proceedings.

The U.S. EPA rules will be upheld as a reasonable exercise of agency authority against a stubborn and angry assault by those that have profited by dumping their carbon dioxide pollution into the atmosphere without accountability for so long. The future may hold that the new president elected in 2016 will uphold the rules. They will be implemented in creative ways that unleash a wave of clean energy innovation across the country. Based on the RGGI model, coalitions of states will establish and link market-based cap and trade systems, and drive emission reductions even further than expected. States that led the way and submitted thoughtful implementation plans will be rewarded for early action and prosper from affordable, reliable electricity, and from allowance sales. Sadly, customers in the holdout states will pay a price.

The rules may end up costing far less than expected overall; indeed, a healthy debate is ongoing about whether the rules ultimately have any incremental cost at all. They can also yield hoped-for returns in international global climate negotiations shortly after adoption, as the U.S., a leading global emitter of the pollutants that cause climate change, takes real action to assume responsibility for their share of the global problem.

And the political fates of those who stand against the rising tide of climate responsibility will be measured in increasingly wide margins of electoral defeat.

It takes a long time to turn the course of an industry as large and powerful as the one that profits by mining and burning coal. But markets, and the superior technologies that markets ultimately favor, are the greater force in our capitalistic democracy. The Clean Power Plan did not spring fully formed from the minds of EPA regulators in 2015; the regulations are the culmination of a trajectory toward prosperity with environmental responsibility that was laid down by the will of the people in the Clean Air Act decades ago.

As global temperatures break new records almost every month, the Clean Power Plan comes not a moment too soon. It is not responsible to delay it any longer.

Tim Echols is against the Clean Power Plan. Here is his take:

Tim Echols

Recently, I took a trip down to the bottom of Tallulah Gorge to see a still-working hydro plant that started operations in 1914. The experience served to further my concern about the Clean Power Plan and its consequences on my state and others.

At one time, this plant lit up Atlanta. From the rock tunnel built to channel the water above the gorge to the brick powerhouse sitting in the bottom of the gorge to the tram that takes you down the cliff, these assets were built to withstand the test of time. While certain components have been replaced, the facility, which was state-of-the-art in 1914, is still producing power today. That makes it a great deal for ratepayers.

Likewise, as you travel throughout Georgia Power’s facilities, you find coal plants maintained in an equally meticulous manner. The power company has spent almost $5 billion adding pollution control equipment to these plants expecting to generate power for decades. But because the Clean Power Plan demonizes carbon dioxide, commissioners like me will be backed into a regulatory corner by the EPA and may be forced to close perfectly good assets.

Think of it as upgrading your smartphone before the end of your contract period-resulting in a much higher fee. When it comes to Obama’s EPA plan, prepare to multiply that times several billion dollars more because it is your state’s electric grid that the president is mandating be upgraded early.

I sat in the White House across the table from the President’s climate czar and was told that our country’s clean energy goals could not be met without new and existing nuclear power. Yet, the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant was closed recently, for economic reasons. No White House Rose Garden speech, no press conference from party leaders, and no intervention by this president to save an incredibly reliable asset in the northeast. Enough of the “moral” talk as he establishes his legacy it seems.

At the risk of being called cynical, I would like to suggest that this paradigm shift orchestrated by President Obama is political and essentially the fulfillment of a campaign promise. Sure, it has happened before, and when it is “our guy” on “our issue,” we simply smile and high-five our friends. But we saw this movie before when President Obama shut down the Yucca Mountain licensing process in fulfillment of a similar campaign promise. Both the Clean Power Plan and the Yucca decision are disruptive, costly and unnecessary.

Unnecessary? Think about this. Georgia is the fastest growing solar state in the nation. We produced more clean energy jobs than any other state in the first quarter of 2015, including California. We have more Nissan LEAF electric cars in Atlanta than any other city in America, including San Francisco.

Georgia has reduced our CO2 emissions by over 30 percent since 2005 and reduced mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions by over 85 percent since 1990. In 2005, over 50 percent of Georgia Power’s generation was coal. Now, it is 32 percent. In that same 10-year period, the use of clean natural gas increased from 27 percent of Georgia Power’s generation in 2005 to 49 percent in 2015. Not bad for a red state where every constitutional officer is a Republican.

But there are major consequences of the Clean Power Plan: first, the construction of additional transmission and gas lines. When coal and nuclear plants are closed and new gas or solar plants are constructed, the environment is disrupted. No one likes big power lines or gas pipelines in their back yard, but alas, these new assets will need to be built to accommodate this new world we are moving toward.

Look no further than the aforementioned closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant-which supplied 70 percent of Vermont’s power. To replace that “controversial” nuclear power, new lines may be built under Lake Champlain as well as above ground to bring in energy from solar or gas. Wouldn’t it be ironic for Vermonters to replace a carbon-free source of power with natural gas generation that does emit CO2? Go figure.

But wait, there’s more. It hasn’t been that long ago since the president spoke in favor of clean coal. “With the right technological innovations, coal has the potential to be a cleaner-burning, domestic alternative to imported oil,” he said in 2007 on the campaign trail. Southern Co. stepped up in Kemper County, Mississippi and invested in a coal gasification project. Yet the White House has been radio silent about the project and “coal” has become a four-letter word that no democrat wants to utter.

Finally, let me postulate the “Eaton Theory,” named after my colleague, Chuck Eaton, who believes that the Clean Power Plan will actually result in a net increase in CO2 worldwide. Commissioner Eaton believes that the coal will be sold somewhere, mostly India and China and other developing nations. Because these countries are far less restrictive in how they burn coal than the United States, Eaton postulates that we will see CO2 levels rise in their country. When the math is done, their increased usage will likely offset our reductions.

The U.S. is on the right track. We don’t need to speed up what is happening anyway. I can only hope that a court might grant a “stay” of this rule until its impact versus benefits can be properly analyzed. Stay tuned.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Power Engineering magazine, EL&P’s sister publication.


Karl Ràƒ¡bago is the Executive director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center, at the Pace Law School in New York. He has more than 20 years of experience as a public utility commissioner, a federal executive at the U.S. Department of Energy, a utility executive, a researcher, an advocate and a member of the RMI team.

Tim Echols was elected statewide to the Georgia Public Service Commission in 2010 and is up for re-election in 2016. He owns 3 electric cars, preaches energy efficiency, and installed solar thermal on his home.

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