Renewables and Efficiency: Opportunities in the Federal Carbon Standards

May 20, 2014 | 9:16 am
Jeremy Richardson
Former UCS Fellow & Energy Analyst

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is poised to release the first-ever carbon standards for existing power plants in early June. Since the electricity sector is responsible for about 40 percent of our nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, these standards are a critical component of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan—a series of actions the administration is taking to address the impacts of climate change, which are happening now and getting worse. Renewable energy and energy efficiency are swift and cost-effective ways to achieve the deep cuts in carbon emissions needed to tackle the climate crisis, and can provide a multitude of benefits to states and communities.

Strong and Flexible Standard

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA will set the level of carbon emissions reductions for existing power plants, but states will have a leadership role to play in devising implementation plans for meeting those standards.

The EPA should not only require ambitious reductions in heat-trapping emissions, but also give states the flexibility to use renewable energy and energy efficiency programs to comply with the standards. Rumors are that the agency will do just that—setting a deep level of emissions reductions.

A sectorwide approach—actions across the electricity grid, not just at the individual power plant—provides the best opportunities for the deeper, cost-effective emissions reductions. This would provide incentives to states and power producers for expanding reliance on renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Regional Cooperation

The EPA should also allow states to use various approaches—including regional ones—in their implementation plans. By cooperating with their neighbors, states can amplify the impact of efforts to expand renewable energy and energy efficiency, as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeast has demonstrated. Regional efforts can lower the overall cost of complying with the standards. Regional grid operators (RTOs and ISOs) can help enable multi-state cooperation.

A wind turbine in Hull, MA. Source: Phil LaCombe

A wind turbine in Hull, MA. Source: Phil LaCombe

Wide Range of Benefits

Renewable energy costs have been falling dramatically in recent years. States should take advantage of significant opportunities to reduce carbon emissions by expanding renewable energy and energy efficiency programs—and reap a number of other benefits at the same time. Doing so would also reduce air and water pollution, diversify the electricity mix, save consumers money, and strengthen state and local economies. In the case of coal-dependent states and communities, investments in renewables and efficiency can help to diversify the local economy, and provide new jobs and opportunities for residents.


The EPA should continue to provide states with robust criteria and methods for accurately quantifying reductions in carbon emissions from state and regional programs that support renewables and efficiency. The agency has already released a tool for calculating reductions in pollution from such programs and recently revised its guidance on energy efficiency and renewable energy as part of a state’s implementation plan. To make that approach work, states must ensure that air-quality regulators, energy offices, and public utility commissions coordinate their efforts.

In Short

Shifting to clean, low-carbon power sources such as renewable energy and energy efficiency is a swift and cost-effective way to achieve the deep cuts in carbon emissions needed to help tackle the climate crisis, clean up and diversify the electricity mix, and create healthier, more productive communities. By tapping existing and expanded programs to spur renewables and efficiency, states and communities can meet federal carbon standards while enjoying the environmental and economic benefits of the transition to a low-carbon electricity system.