The Environmental Protection Agency this week rolled out a Federal rule – known as the Clean Power Plan – that is designed to reduce toxic emissions from power plants. The Clean Power Plan is a necessary top-down step to cut fossil fuels and toxic emissions, especially in states where policymakers are climate deniers and shills for the coal industry.But let’s be honest – the easiest path for most states to achieve the relatively weak targets set by the Clean Power Plan will be profitable for most utility companies and power plant owners, and destructive to wildlands and wildlife. And the states that have the most work to do on emissions reductions are the ones least likely to prioritize sustainability or local ownership in how they respond to the plan.
As the President said of the Clean Power Plan, “this is our moment to leave something better for our kids…let’s make the most of it.” We have more work to do to ensure that the Clean Power Plan unleashes sustainable changes in how we generate and consume energy. And we will need a strong grassroots effort to ensure that the renewable energy transformation we see will be one that we can applaud, rather than one that we regret.
Hopefully Just a Starting Point
The Clean Power Plan largely leaves it up to the states to decide how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the EPA estimates that power plant emissions will be cut by an average of 32% of their 2005 levels. States will have until 2018 to finalize their own plans laying out how they will achieve emissions reductions.
Although there is a lot of support for the Clean Power Plan, many in the environmental community recognize that it sets a relatively low bar. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that some states have likely already exceeded the emissions standards, and many are over half way to their goal. Hopefully these goals are just a start, for the sake of our climate, and perhaps many states will take a cue from the plan and set even more ambitious goals for reducing fossil fuel use.
In the southwest, the states that have the most work to do are Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. California, New Mexico, and Colorado probably will not have to change much to meet the current Clean Power Plan’s targets, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, because of actions they have already taken to shut down dirty power plants and increase renewable energy generation.
Opportunity or Threat to Sustainability?
For states that are furthest behind their emissions target, the Clean Power Plan will act as an indirect renewable portfolio standard (RPS), encouraging states to close down dirty coal power plants and switch to renewable energy (although the Clean Power Plan criteria also allows states to meet targets by switching to natural gas). It is no surprise that many corporations and utility companies actually support the Clean Power Plan – it is an opportunity to make money by building new power plants and infrastructure. And although we frequently see references to energy efficiency and locally-owned renewable energy, some southwestern states have a poor record of actually prioritizing these sustainable alternatives.
The final Clean Power Plan does not require energy efficiency to be a part of a state’s plan, but states can choose to invest in efficiency to meet their target. Although energy efficiency and energy conservation are the cheapest, most sustainable ways to cut fossil fuel use, it’s likely that this route will be under-utilized without more encouragement. Utility companies don’t make money if they are not selling energy to you. So local policymakers usually need to require that utility companies invest a certain amount in efficiency programs.
Take Nevada, for example. From 2008 to 2013, Nevada fell from 15th nationwide to 33rd on energy efficiency performance. The Sierra Club commissioned a study showing that the state’s ratepayers could save $59 million dollars over 20 years and retire the toxic Reid-Gardner coal plant if the utility – NV Energy – improved efficiency by just 2%. Reid-Gardner is now slated to close, but not because of energy efficiency improvements. The utility instead plans to increase natural gas generation and bulldoze desert habitat for utility-scale solar projects.
Solar installations on rooftops, over parking lots and other places in our communities is another sustainable way to cut fossil fuels. Utilities have had a hard time figuring out how to make money from this, however, and are working to undermine policies that compensate individuals that share excess solar energy with the grid.
In Arizona, the main utility has spent ratepayer money on ads to attack rooftop solar and has proposed adding penalty fees to the bills of rooftop solar owners. In Nevada, NV Energy has also lobbied against rooftop solar. Don’t bet on sustainability featuring prominently in any clean energy policies in Nevada. First Solar – the company that has bulldozed several square miles of intact habitat in the Ivanpah Valley – joined Nevada officials and executives to hail the Clean Power Plan as likely to position the state as a net-exporter of clean energy. And they plan to accomplish this by bulldozing wildlands and building dozens of miles of expensive, destructive transmission lines.
Policies that encourage local ownership would help save wildlands by encouraging investment in clean energy in our cities. Feed-in-tariffs, on-bill repayment, and property-assessed clean energy would go a long way to quickly increasing renewable energy generation and making financing for rooftop solar available to individuals. Community solar programs – especially those that place an emphasis on local installations – allow renters and those that live in apartment buildings to buy into clean energy.
And if you think local ownership does not add up quickly enough to combat climate change, consider that roughly 85% of Denmark’s wind turbines are owned by farmers and small co-ops. Nearly half of Germany’s 73,000 megawatts of renewable energy generation is owned by individuals. And companies like First Solar want us to think that distributed generation is too expensive (see this study challenging that perspective), even as they bulldoze priceless public lands. Just as we face an uphill battle tossing out fossil fuels, so too will we face challenges keeping clean energy on a sustainable path.