The Right Way to Curb Power Plant Emissions

President Obama should require existing power plants to reduce their emissions by at least one-quarter by 2020.

By Daniel F. Becker and James Gerstenzang, reprinted with permission of the authors

ELECTRIC power plants spew about 40 percent of the carbon dioxide pollution in the United States, but, amazingly, there are no federal limits on utility emissions of this potent greenhouse gas. The Obama administration plans to remedy this situation by drafting rules that would curtail these discharges from existing plants. The president should make sure they are tough. Nothing he can do will cut greenhouse gases more.

By accomplishing this under the executive authority Congress granted him in the Clean Air Act, the president will be stepping in where recent Congresses have refused to go. He did the same thing last August, when he toughened auto emissions standards that will result in a new car fleet that averages 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, and again last spring, when he proposed rules, restricting carbon dioxide emissions, that will effectively prevent the building of new coal-burning power plants.

Now President Obama should require existing power plants to reduce their emissions by at least one-quarter by 2020. These plants emitted 2.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2011, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, so a 25 percent cut would result in a reduction of more than 500 million tons. This would reduce lung-related illness and premature deaths, slow the accumulation of climate-changing gases in the atmosphere and demonstrate to the rest of the world that the United States was serious about taking on global warming.

To achieve these reductions, the rules should favor making homes, buildings and power plants more energy efficient over the more costly conversion of coal-fired plants to natural gas. (Gas-fired power plants emit half as much carbon dioxide as coal-fired plants. But expanding energy efficiency will reduce electricity demand and eliminate the need for the coal plants. Closing them is better than converting them to gas.) The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy says the technology exists now to cut electricity use by one-quarter by 2020 through efficiency alone. Based on the average electricity production of the nation’s large coal-fired power plants, this would allow for the closing of close to 60 such plants across the nation.

Certainly, the coal and utility industries won’t take this lying down. Some coal mines may be closed, and the electric industry will be reconfigured. A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council estimated recently that reducing emissions by at least one-quarter over the next seven years would cost $4 billion in compliance expenses in 2020. But the reduced hospitalizations and fewer days of work lost to illness, and other health and environmental benefits would save $25 billion to $60 billion, the study said. The approach would also stimulate investments of more than $90 billion in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, according to the analysis for the N.R.D.C. by the consulting firm ICF International.

The progression to using less coal will create new jobs to build the highly efficient appliances, wind turbines, solar farms and other technologies that capture renewable energy. In addition, jobs will be created as some states and utilities choose to comply by building natural gas power plants, which should be done only if they won’t cause environmental havoc.

The auto industry is beginning to show how strong emissions standards and the technological advances they stimulate can benefit employment.

When the new rules were announced last summer, Bob King, president of the United Auto Workers, predicted that they would require “more engineers and more factory workers, expanding employment in the industry.” And Ford, which had already doubled its team working on fuel-saving engineering, said it planned to redouble the unit in 2015. Indeed, last week, Ford announced that it was adding 450 jobs at its Brook Park, Ohio, plant to produce its EcoBoost engine.

Not everyone will benefit immediately, of course. As demand for coal drops, some miners will lose their jobs. The nation owes them economic support, job training and sustainable jobs. There is a precedent for this: the government established a fund to help workers at nuclear weapons plants move to new jobs as the cold war ended.

But even as we reduce power plant pollution, we will need to do more to protect the atmosphere. We should also reduce emissions of such short-lived contributors to global warming as methane by tightening up leaky natural gas systems, and hydrofluorocarbons, which are used in air-conditioning.

Ultimately, we must meet our energy needs largely without coal, oil or gas. We must use energy more efficiently to lower demand to the point that ramped-up clean, renewable energy supplies most of what we require.

By ordering the new auto emissions standards, Mr. Obama took an enormous step in the fight against global warming. In a similarly bold move, he can reduce our reliance on coal, a dirty fuel that is the greatest contributor to the nation’s greenhouse gas pollution. By setting stringent power plant standards, he will slow global warming at a fraction of the cost of ignoring it.

— Daniel F. Becker directs the Safe Climate Campaign. James Gerstenzang, the campaign’s editorial director, covered the White House and the environment for The Los Angeles Times. Reprinted from the NY Times with permission of the authors.

10 Responses to The Right Way to Curb Power Plant Emissions

  1. Sasparilla says:

    I’d sure love President Obama to run with this. A huge chunk of the nations coal plants are 35 years or older (its close to ~50%), the restriction shouldn’t be implemented all at once where the industry could cause a power crisis, but slowly tighten year after year to the final restriction so they fall offline at a measured pace.

    Now Obama was a good friend to coal as a Senator and in the first 4 years of his administration – so while I’d love to see this kind of a proposal, I have a feeling we’ll see something much more akin to a wet noodle rather than a wire noose used around the coal industries throat to “take on climate change” with lots of delay thrown in there as well – but we’ll see.

  2. It’s a little unclear whether this proposal applies to all power plants, or just coal-fired plants, or if it applies to each and every plant, or to fleets.

    The focus on coal in the article makes me think they’re referring only to coal. But the comparison to EPA vehicle mileage makes me think they’re referring to fleets.

    It’s a great and timely idea, with these clarifications. Apply it to fleets. There should be companion funding for home retrofits because, as the article correctly points out, the real and permanent GHG reductions come at the consumer end.

    Since this was in the NYT, maybe it’ll get some attention in the right places.

  3. Superman1 says:

    When you see lung spots on the x-ray, you quit smoking ‘cold turkey’. We’re seeing x-ray spots all over the body. Step 1: end all non-essential uses of fossil fuels NOW!

  4. BillD says:

    I was angry and disappointed recently listening to Indiana state legislatures talking about state energy policy, especially for electrical utilities. They don’t seem to understand anything about climate change and don’t see that there is an economic risk to getting 80% of our electricity from coal. Obama needs to speak out and to act, so that these guys can start thinking about the liability of getting electricity from coal. Right now coal is still cheap, because climate and health costs are not factored in to those costs. A rapid switch from coal would be much more expensive than a more measured, well planned shift. My point is not that we should delay the shift, but rather that the untilities and state government needs to greatly accelerate their planning and efforts.

  5. Brooks Bridges says:

    One reason I approach despair is that I, amazingly, do agree with Superm1 on one point: Many plans still require TIME. As McKibben emphasizes: Physics don’t care about mankind’s TIME. So, I do not see how we can avoid disaster unless the world’s leaders impose WWII type changes as immediately as possible (yeah, I know – like “really unique”).

    A single “For instance”:
    Instead of: “a new car fleet that averages 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025,”

    Come close to that by 2014: Force two or more people per car most of the time. Can you imagine how much faster people would get to work?

    Notice the complete lack of any R&D to achieve this Bjorn and Andy.

    We’re talking, for most people, INCONVENIENCE, not sacrifice (and yes, extremely inconvenient in some instances). I mean PLANNING your trip to grocery store is draconian? Planning a car pool is a hard ship? Even generates a new source of income for some: hire out to ride in someone’s car.

    You choose: tax, fines, rationing, making every lane but one an HOV lane, a combination. Yes, there must be exceptions.

    So how to put this pressure on the world’s leaders?

  6. glen says:

    “A huge chunk of the nations coal plants are 35 years or older (its close to ~50%), the restriction shouldn’t be implemented all at once where the industry could cause a power crisis, but slowly tighten year after year to the final restriction so they fall offline at a measured pace.”

    However, most estimates point to: The window of opportunity of staying below 2°C Average Global Temperature (AGT) is rapidly closing. CO2 emissions must peak by 2016 and decline at 5% per year thereafter, if we are to have a 50/50 chance of keeping temperature rise below 2°C by 2100.

  7. Paul Klinkman says:

    Why should the coal mines shut down when they can double their production and send the coal abroad. Some other country officially cries crocodile tears in public and promises that they won’t do this any more someday when they get around to it. Then they burn the coal. Our nation gets a hole in the ground, a toxic tailings pond and a sky full of carbon dioxide that we technically didn’t put up. Technically. We just mined it.

  8. BobbyL says:

    Exactly. No reason for coal miners to be concerned about lost jobs with the US planning to ship huge amounts of coal to China. Let’s hope Obama wakes up to the fact that we are on a suicidal course. There is still time to stay below 5C although it seems tragic to even mention that as a goal.

  9. The time issue is critical, as I’ve written about here at Climate Progress:

    2013: The Year of Climate Decision

    But the timing issue is to get onto the needed emissions reductions “glide path” and to get off the business as usual approach to energy, development, and growth.

    The timing issue is not to do everything right now, or to drop all fossil fuel use overnight. The timing issue is to seriously GET STARTED going in a different direction.

  10. “Gas-fired power plants emit half as much carbon dioxide as coal-fired plants.”

    Sorry to see this canard still being propagated by these NY Times authors. While strictly type at the combustion stage, the often-repeated concept is deeply misleading and fundamentally wrong, when production emissions of GHG including methane are taken into account.