The Clean Power Plan: Keeping up with the Burnses

As is with seemingly every decision that comes out of Washington, this too is an example of making a compromise towards achieving a greater end.

This past week, the final draft of the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan was released. Headed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this document enforces the first ever, national standards to limit carbon pollution from power plants. You are reading correctly. Up until this point, power plants could release as much carbon pollution as they wanted to. By no means is this to say that all power plant owners and managers are as devious as Mr. Burns (character from The Simpsons television show), but it is to say that there have been no safeguards in place to prevent the rise of one, or many, in real life.

The justification and background for this plan is “We have an obligation to protect our children and future generations from the impacts of climate change, and we can do so by setting the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants. Carbon pollution fuels climate change, which triggers more asthma attacks and respiratory disease, worsens air quality, and contributes to more frequent, destructive, costly and deadly extreme weather events. Power plants are responsible for 40 percent of the carbon pollution in the United States, the single largest contributor to dangerous climate change, the effects of which we are already seeing. Right now we limit mercury, arsenic, lead, soot and other dangerous pollutants from power plants, but not the carbon pollution driving climate change.”

EPA has developed a flexible approach that allows for significant emissions reductions at low cost. Flexible approach here means goals customized to the existing makeup of each state’s current energy mix and allowing the states to propose various methods and energy sources from which to base their energy infrastructure on. As an example, it is not technically or politically feasible to expect West Virginia, from the heart of coal country, to catch up with frontrunners in clean energy technology like California, Massachusetts or New York. Though, the plan does allow for states to partner in making joint plan, which may appeal to states that lack existing infrastructure. It is conceivable to think that these states, such as West Virginia and Kentucky, could look to partner with other states to meet their mandated standards through averaging out with states more developed in renewable energy infrastructure. Check out the expected standards by state at It is also infeasible to expect solar panels on every home and on every other surface. Other solutions like large-scale wind, bioenergy, hydropower, nuclear energy and energy efficiency are all available options. Varying weather conditions, electricity rates and existing ordinance and permitting codes are all factors to consider in thinking about which renewable solutions best fit the goals each state must achieve. You read correctly, nuclear power is potential option states can choose from. Mr. Burns is not necessarily being shut down, he just needs be more careful in setting operating standards for his nuclear power plant.

It is an approach that draws on a wide range of tools to reduce carbon pollution, and it can pass legal muster. EPA estimates the proposal will reduce CO2 emissions on a national basis (rolled up estimates of the impact of state standards) 26% below 2005 emissions by 2020 and 30% by 2030. That is equivalent to 18% below EPA’s forecast of what would happen without the standards (i.e., business-as-usual) by 2020 and 25% by 2030 or 13% below 2012 emissions by 2020 and 17% by 2030. The four primary targets of this include: making existing coal plants more efficient, using existing gas plants more effectively, increasing renewable and nuclear resources, and increasing end-use energy efficiency.

Making existing coal plants more efficient

Some states rely heavily on coal as part of fitting energy reliability needs and as a source of employment. These numbers have actually increased under the Obama Administration. As a reference point, under the most recent Bush Administration employment in the coal industry annually averaged 76,500 in coalmines across the country. Under the Obama Administration, one that has been recognized as more cognizant of environmental issues, employment in coal has actually increased to average around 88,000 annually! This can be attributed to increased demand for coal abroad, increased underground mining that required more workers for production than strip mining, and was in a time frame in which decreasing unemployment as a whole was being heavily focused on. Since 2000, Central Appalachian states, such as West Virginia and Kentucky, account for more than one third of those jobs. Understandably, shutting down these plants is not politically feasible, so moving for better efficiency is a compromise to consider.

Using existing gas plants more effectively

Similar to coal, natural gas is a major source of energy consumption and employment. Therefore, mandating states to rid themselves of producing and relying upon natural gas is a fool’s errand. The compromise of greater efficiency prevents stark job loss and decreased reliability that relying entirely on renewables, for the time being, would entail. Natural gas provides a level of reliability in state’s energy matrices. Like coal, it provides a level of reliability necessary to meet state needs for ramping up for daily needs and, it is seen as a less polluting alternative to coal. Some would call it a gateway towards greater reliance upon renewables. Currently employment in natural gas sits north of 3 million. The largest producers of natural gas include: Texas, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Wyoming.

Increasing renewable and nuclear resources

Without even looking at the Clean Power Plan, some people will associate it with the mandated imposition of renewable, green, liberal hooey sources of energy like solar, point to the failures of Solyndra that were beat into their heads a few years ago and write it off as not being appropriate for their state. The good news is that the price of solar has continued to decrease as more units have been sold, more states continue to incorporate solar into their energy mixes, and consumer confidence rises. More than 6200 Megawatts of solar were installed at the utility and residential scales in 2014. Since the implementation of the solar investment tax credit in 2006, the price of solar has decreased 73%.

It is important to remember that other sources of renewable energy can also be viable and in some cases more viable than solar. Large- scale wind has been successful in some states already, including Texas. As of 2011, Texas held 10.684 Megawatts of wind. Wind power has zero fuel costs and can provide economic benefits for local communities. Just as with solar, it should be noted that wind alone cannot account for all energy needs and must be incorporated as part of an energy mix along with other sources.

It is also notable to point out that nuclear energy has been listed as a potential path on the Clean Power Plan. Some states heavily produce nuclear energy such as Illinois and Pennsylvania, whereas others like California have gone away from nuclear. Nuclear is a tricky subject. In a perfect world, the benefits of nuclear energy like low pollution (why it was included in the CPP), and reliability would stand up against and potentially subdue renewable sources of energy. However, “with great power, comes great responsibility.” The risks associated with nuclear greatly hinder the ability of the industry to take hold. The environmental impacts of uranium, radioactive waste disposal (as often characterized in The Simpsons), and nuclear accidents (including Chernobyl and Fukushima) are all imbedded in the minds of voters and likely would not be popular for state legislators to encourage as part of a state energy strategy. With that being said, a number of states currently utilize nuclear energy and may see this as an opportunity to expand upon existing infrastructure instead of starting from scratch with an unexplored or less developed energy source within their state.

Increasing End-use energy efficiency

Unique to the four proposed methods, this one falls on consumers to pursue and utilize. Energy efficiency as a practice is the easiest to wrap up and present as a way for saving money for businesses and consumers. States can encourage or create customer programs that promote more energy efficient amenities such as compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), newer refrigerators, more energy efficient windows, solar panels and so on. Companies like Opower make a business out of utility-scale behavioral energy efficiency. They send personal energy usage reports to consumers, informing them on how they compare to neighbors. Wasters of energy are made to feel self-conscious when they realize they are using excessive amounts. Case studies have shown utility territories reducing energy usage by 1-2% within a year after employing these personalized energy reports.


The Clean Power Plan has gone through a draft phase, was open for public commentary and has now gone into its final form. Some will say that it is overly prescriptive in what it is mandating states to accomplish. This critique is double faceted in that it is aimed towards federal intervention in state decisions and at forced acknowledgement that climate change/global warming is happening. Others will say that the plan isn’t prescriptive enough- meaning they want to see heavier forcing of renewables onto the grid and/or abandoning production of coal and natural gas altogether immediately.

As is with seemingly every decision that comes out of Washington, this too is an example of making a compromise towards achieving a greater end. Forced closure of power plants and production of coal or natural gas would be devastating to state and local economies, and create even more ill-will towards reliance on renewable energy as a job killer. The price of clean energy technologies, including fuel, continues to drop as more consumers adopt them (remember that the petroleum industry has had subsidies for over a century and continues to receive them to this day). However, even in the most progressive states, infrastructure does not yet exist to rely entirely on renewables. Neither solar, nor other renewables are capable as resources of solely sustaining the daily load shape of energy usage in any state (Google duck shape curve for further information). Natural gas remains reliable as a resource that can ramp up and down to generate electricity to maintain reliability on the grid- aka you have exceedingly high confidence that the lights will turn on when you flip the switch. Further research and investment into energy storage can lessen reliance upon natural gas in the future.

One thing this plan does though is say that climate change is happening and that it is our moral obligation to do something about it. The Obama Administration is uncompromising on that belief. This topic remains a debate in congressional and senate chambers floors, with campaign dollars, fancy words and snowballs being used as weapons to prop up and knock down the issue of climate change. This plan will force the issue in developing long-term strategic plans for each state. Blue, red, or purple…. you have to think green.



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