This week, the EPA extended by 45 days the public comment period on its Clean Power Plan, the agency’s proposed rule for reducing carbon emissions from power plants. That gives stakeholders — power companies, environmental groups, etc — more time to give input on the complex rule. “Input” here includes both legitimate concerns about how to implement a huge economic/policy change and shameless attempts to undercut any action on climate change whatsoever.
In the second category: a letter sent to the EPA last week signed by 15 governors, all Republicans, which declares the carbon rule is illegal. Several of those states are suing the EPA over its authority to regulate carbon as a pollutant. Arkansas isn’t part of the suit — but many elected officials and candidates say they want us to join in.
National Geographic published a very helpful piece last month (which I’d missed until now) about the challenges Arkansas specifically faces in complying with the rule. Arkansas is required to reduce its CO2 output from electricity generation by 44 percent over the next 15 years, a steeper mandate than most states face. But that’s largely because of decisions the state has made in the past regarding its energy mix. Unlike most states, Arkansas has “no formal plan to invest in more renewable energy such as wind and solar,” says the author.
Instead, it has remained committed to coal, which produces the cheapest, but also the dirtiest, electricity. Some believe that the state’s newest plant, the John W. Turk Jr. facility near the southwestern border with Texas, might be the last conventional coal plant ever built in the United States. It’s the only “ultra supercritical” coal plant in the country, meaning it has advanced technology to burn coal highly efficiently. Southwestern Electric Power Company brought it online at a cost of $1.8 billion at the end of 2012, when utilities in many other states were moving to natural gas that had been made cheap and plentiful by advances in fracking technology.
Contrary to what the power industry says, the economics of shifting away from fossil fuels are complex. Energy rates might go up, affecting both households and business. The dirtiest of Arkansas’s five coal plants may have to close. But, as the National Geographic author notes, the rule also incentives investment in natural gas-burning plants across the nation, which would raise gas prices to the benefit of Arkansas producers. There are potential job-creating benefits from increased energy efficiency programs, and although Arkansas isn’t a particularly windy state, it is home to a large turbine manufacturing company (thus, investment in wind elsewhere in the country benefits Arkansas jobs). And there’s potential from Arkansas biomass, says Ken Smith of the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association:
The state’s robust timber and paper industries already generate more than 400 megawatts by capturing waste heat generated from burning natural gas, wood, and biomass. The state could probably increase that by at least 700 megawatts. “That’s a power plant,” he said. “That’s actually two power plants.”
This underscores a point that was illustrated forcefully in a must-read article from the New York Times earlier this week about Germany’s unprecedented push to transform its energy infrastructure: it’s not impossible for a modern economy to make the transition from coal and other fossil fuels to renewable sources.
Germany now gets an astounding 30 percent of its power from renewables, thanks to aggressive public investment of some $140 billion in incentives. Polls show that the Germans approve of making renewable energy a priority of government and are willing to pay for it.
Germany’s relentless push into renewable energy has implications far beyond its shores. By creating huge demand for wind turbines and especially for solar panels, it has helped lure big Chinese manufacturers into the market, and that combination is driving down costs faster than almost anyone thought possible just a few years ago.
Electric utility executives all over the world are watching nervously as technologies they once dismissed as irrelevant begin to threaten their long-established business plans. Fights are erupting across the United States over the future rules for renewable power. Many poor countries, once intent on building coal-fired power plants to bring electricity to their people, are discussing whether they might leapfrog the fossil age and build clean grids from the outset.