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Utilities May Get a Break from EPA on Cutting CO2

Bruce Braine, the vice-president of American Electric Power, a major regional utility, voiced the concerns shared by many utilities when he spoke at the Morgan Stanley headquarters in New York last fall about the Obama administration’s plan to snuff out emissions from coal-fired power plants as a way to tackle climate change. Braine complained that the plan forces them to cut too many emissions too quickly.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy hinted this week that the EPA is not only listening, but is also considering allowing utilities to take more time to cut their CO2 more gradually. The change, allowing the cuts over the next 15 years instead of requiring most of them in the next five, could appear when the final version of the plan is unveiled this summer.

Wind power and other renewables are expected to part of many states' strategy to comply with the Clean Power Plan should it be approved later this year. Credit: Jason Corneveaux/flickr

The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan proposes to slash carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. But states have to make progress quickly, cutting most of those emissions — about 26 percent — by 2020, mainly by making natural gas the dominant way utilities generate power.

It means that once the plan takes effect — possibly later this year — and states draw up their plans for how they’ll cut CO2, utilities would have to scramble to put new natural gas power plants online and find other ways to reduce electricity use in just a few years. The upshot is, a flurry of coal-fired power plants are already scheduled to be retired by next year, but that may not be enough.

Though some environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council are pushing for dramatically more CO2 cuts than are currently proposed, not all of the plan’s supporters are opposed to allowing steep emissions cuts go beyond 2020. Utilities say a lot needs to be done to meet the 2020 targets, which American Electric Power, or AEP, and other utilities have asked the EPA to eliminate.

“The 2020 targets are a major issue because when you change where and how the electricity is produced on the grid, it has an impact on the way the grid works,” AEP spokeswoman Tammy Ridout said. “You can’t just pull out power plants here and there and expect the grid will continue to work as it does today.”

It’s too difficult for utilities to build the new lower-emission power plants and power transmission lines necessary accommodate them by 2020, she said.

EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones said McCarthy has heard utilities’ concerns and the agency is “looking closely” at a solution.

Fossil fuel-fired power plants, such as this one in California, are the target of the Clean Power Plan, which seeks to slash CO2 emissions from these plants by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Credit: haymarketrebel/flickr

“EPA has heard from some states and utilities that their interim targets are too much too soon, but at this stage of the rule-making process we’re still going through comments and no final decisions have been made,” Jones said.

Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies and Clean Power Plan proponent, said moving back the 2020 emissions goals is a good idea.

“As we understand, they are not backing off the 2030 deadline,” he said. “At issue, as many states have claimed, is the difficulty of meeting a very significant portion of the 2030 targets 10 years earlier.”

The planning process to make that happen is complex, and it makes more sense for those steep cuts to be made later, he said.

“It can and should be effective,” he said.

Jones said the EPA is still processing the millions of public comments the agency received about the Clean Power Plan. The final version of the plan is expected to be unveiled this summer.

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