A promise of action – the clean power plan

By Robert and Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

With droughts, heat waves, forest fires, devastating storms, rising sea levels and dramatic reductions in Arctic ice becoming common events, calls for action on climate change are intensifying. Ever increasing levels of heat trapping gasses in the atmosphere from human industrial and agricultural activities are seen as the only reasonable explanation for these trends.

For now the promised action is focused on cutting carbon emissions from U.S. power plants by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.  States are required to develop compliance plans by September of 2018, implement some reductions by 2022 and by 2030 be in full compliance. Two Supreme Court rulings have recognized greenhouse gases as pollutants and indicated the EPA must regulate them.

States could shut coal plants, run them less frequently, increase the use of natural gas to provide electricity, require solar and wind installations and stimulate efficiency improvements in homes and businesses. The action encourages states to develop cooperative programs to buy and sell carbon credits to meet carbon reduction goals. States that fail to develop energy programs acceptable to the Environmental Protection Agency will have a federal program imposed on them.

The new rules are expected to help stem climate change and provide health benefits by reducing soot and smog levels. Children and the elderly are the primary beneficiaries of the new regulations while the general public should benefit from predicted reductions in mercury, sulfur and arsenic from less coal consumption.

As with any proposed regulations, the clean power plan has its critics and advocates. Critics claim the plan exceeds the authority of the EPA, imposes higher electric costs on consumers and eliminates jobs, particularly in the coal industry. Several states including Wisconsin have joined in a lawsuit  with West Virginia and Ohio seeking to stop implementation of the plan on constitutional grounds. It is estimated that as many as 25 states could eventually join the suit.

While supporters of the plan herald it, they have expressed concern that it does not go far enough. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times acknowledges the plan is laudable but expressed concern that it relies too heavily on natural gas to meet its targets. They expect when the 2030 targets are met, additional carbon reductions will be needed and companies that invested in natural gas could be required to retool their operations once again. As costs of renewable energy continue to decline and economies of scale come into play, society would be better off if it had installed more renewable sources.

Naomi Klein, while acknowledging the benefits of the plan cutting carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, points out that other actions taken by President Obama contribute to climate change. Allowing Arctic drilling, the dramatic increase in fracking for natural gas and opening up new offshore oil and gas leases are seen as steps in the wrong direction.

She prefers bold policies that would lead to powering our entire economy on renewable energy over the next two decades as proposed by Mark Jacobson and the team at Stanford University.

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