EPA Power Plant Standards Will Help Clean Up and Modernize Our Electric System

, Policy Director and Lead Economist, Climate & Energy | March 20, 2012, 5:24 pm EDT
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Today the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard. EPA Assistant Administrator, Gina McCarthy, testified forcefully about the tremendous public health and environmental benefits of this standard, as well as the fact that it is affordable to achieve and will not threaten the reliability of our electric system. Senator Inhofe used the opportunity to launch yet another tirade against the EPA, utterly failing to acknowledge that coal-fired power plants are the largest source of airborne mercury, a potent neurotoxin known to cause harm to fetal brain development.

EPA Power Plant Standards: A Powerful Catalyst for Modernizing our Electric System

UCS has just released a background paper, EPA Power Plant Standards: A Powerful Catalyst for Modernizing our Electric System, that debunks the tired rhetoric of the fossil fuel industry and its allies in Congress aimed at delaying or rolling back these vital health protections.

The long-awaited Clean Air Act power plant standards will bring significant public health, environmental and economic benefits by lessening our dependence on coal. Harmful pollutants released by burning coal have been linked to an increase in asthma attacks, heart disease, neurological problems, and premature deaths. Carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants contribute significantly to the risks of climate change.

The Lights Will Stay On

Some have greatly exaggerated the potential reliability and economic concerns related to this positive transformation of our electric system. The reality is that coal-fired power has become increasingly uneconomic for a variety of reasons (including competition from cleaner, low cost alternatives like natural gas, renewable energy and efficiency). Over the next few years, many coal plants will be updated with modern pollution controls that will reduce their harmful emissions. Those that do retire can be replaced by a number of economically competitive, readily available alternatives. For the most part, the standards are expected to have minimal impact on reliability. This will be possible through close coordination between electric reliability authorities and the use of well-defined processes and procedures to identify and respond to the isolated instances where reliability may be an issue.

However, additional policies that explicitly support the deployment of renewable energy and increased energy efficiency are needed, so that those resources can complement the role played by natural gas as part of a diversified and affordable clean energy resource base. Putting such policies in place will help ensure that the full benefit of this opportunity to modernize and clean up our electric system is realized.

Protecting Public Health and Strengthening our Economy

In her testimony today, Assistant Administrator McCarthy also quoted from the remarks of President Obama to EPA staff last January: “Safeguarding our environment is also about strengthening our economy.  I do not buy the notion that we have to make a choice between having clean air and clean water and growing this economy in a robust way.  I think that is a false debate.”

Keeping that in mind, it is time for the Administration to release new standards to curtail global warming emissions from power plants, the largest source of such emissions in our economy. The risks of climate change for our health are likely to be significant and they will only worsen if we fail to take prompt action to lower our emissions.

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  • beancounter

    OK, great, the “lights will stay on” but you carefully neglected to report how much all this will cost in $$ to energy providers…every penny (and more) to be passed along to us consumers. What is the tab on this?

    • Actually, I address the issue of costs at length in the background paper referenced in the blog post.
      The first thing to recognize is that we are already paying huge costs (billions of dollars a year) in terms of the health impacts of pollution from coal-fired power plants. For every dollar spent on reducing pollution from mercury and other toxics, for example, Americans will get $3-9 in health benefits in return.
      In addition, there are many cleaner, low-cost alternatives to coal such as natural gas, renewable energy and efficiency. Market forces are already leading to a transition away from coal because it is increasingly uncompetitive compared to these alternatives. We have an opportunity to build on this momentum and transform our electric system to a less polluting (i.e less health costs), more sustainable one for the long term. It would be economically prudent to retire old, inefficient coal plants instead of keeping on sinking dollars into keeping them limping along.

      • Practical Sam

        Great. We get to pay big $$ for EPA heavy-handedness in our electric bills at the same time we will be forced to purchase expensive health insurance to comply with Obamacare. If your wishful health claims had any validity, then applying EPA regs should trigger a repeal of Obamacare. We won’t need the medical profession thanks to EPA…to hear you spin it, anyways.