Still in the Game: A Big U.S. Comeback for Regulation of Greenhouse Gases

Blog Post | June 26, 2013 - 12:42 pm
By Sara Hayes, Program Manager, Health and Environment

Yesterday the president unveiled a new Climate Action Plan for the United States. The president called on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use its authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases from power plants. This sounds like an opportunity for real progress toward addressing climate change in the U.S., but what can we really do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from a power plant that’s already built?

One of the least expensive ways to reduce greenhouse gases from the power sector is by reducing the amount of energy we waste. The potential for low-cost energy efficiency is massive and it exists in every state in the nation. I’m not advocating that we ignore other options such as renewables and carbon capture, but by including end-use energy efficiency in the mix we can substantially reduce the costs of meeting our clean energy goals.

It appears the president agrees. In a discussion of how we can reduce carbon pollution from the power sector he notes that more than 25 states have already set an energy efficiency target, often referred to as an energy efficiency resource standard. The president proposes to build on the leadership of state and local governments to ensure continued progress.

Energy efficiency isn’t the only option for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. We could switch to renewables and cleaner fuels and shut down those old plants. Alternatively, we could require installation of carbon capture and sequestration. As a society that wants to keep its coastlines and minimize the risk of future visits from devastating storms like Katrina and Sandy that is a direction we should consider. But carbon capture technology is expensive and is still largely in the research and development stage. And it’s expensive to build renewable facilities. The EPA is required to consider such cost in its rulemakings, and it should.

What is really promising about this new rule is that it allows for so much flexibility. The EPA doesn’t need to mandate renewables, carbon capture, or anything else. It just needs to set a performance standard for existing power plants and let American ingenuity determine what is the cheapest way to get the clean energy we all want. The best way to do that is by:

  • setting a standard that is stringent enough to motivate action; and
  • establishing a compliance regime that is flexible enough to allow creativity and the market to determine the cheapest route to meeting that standard. In order to achieve this, a compliance regime must allow for end-use energy efficiency.

Recognizing the important role energy efficiency could play in EPA’s efforts, ACEEE has jointly released a new report outlining some of the key considerations that are likely to come up if energy efficiency is included as an option in a rule for reducing greenhouse gases from existing power plants. The paper looks to past EPA rulemakings that have included energy efficiency in order to highlight ways it might be handled in this new rule. Given the decades of experience the EPA has with energy efficiency as an air pollution reduction strategy, its future as a greenhouse gas mitigation strategy looks bright.