Five Things You Should Know about the EPA Power Plant Carbon Standards

May 28, 2014 | 10:48 am
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is planning to release draft carbon standards for existing coal and natural gas power plants on June 2. Here are five things you should know about why they could be a climate game changer if they are strong:

Total US GHG emissions by sector

Total U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Economic Sector in 2012.  According to 2012 data, coal-fired power accounts for nearly three-quarters of the CO2 emissions from electricity generation and natural gas contributes nearly a quarter of those emissions. Source: U.S. EPA

1)  These historic standards will be the first to limit carbon emissions from the single largest source of those emissions in the United States, the electricity sector.

2)  The standards can build on the ongoing transition away from coal-fired power to cleaner, increasingly cost-competitive generation sources like natural gas, wind and solar energy, and energy efficiency. In 2012, this shift helped lower energy-related emissions to their lowest level since 1994, and we now have the opportunity to go further.

The EPA has signaled that it will be allowing renewable energy and energy efficiency to count as compliance mechanisms for the carbon standard. If confirmed in the draft rule, this provision will provide states a significant opportunity to make deep reductions in their emissions in a flexible, cost-effective manner. It will also be important to help avoid the climate risks of an over-reliance on natural gas.


This post is part of a series on the EPA Clean Power Plan.

3)  States will lead the way in drawing up their own plans to help meet the carbon standard. This unique aspect of the Clean Air Act framework gives states the flexibility to come up with a plan that suits their particular circumstances while ensuring that the plans meet the basic federally-enforceable standard. States could use existing, new, or strengthened renewable energy and energy efficiency policies — like renewable electricity standards and energy efficiency resource standards — or carbon caps to help ramp up renewable energy and energy efficiency.

4)  The EPA’s guidelines could also provide states the option to meet the standard through multi-state or regional cooperation, such as the Northeast states’ Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) program. This would create increased opportunities to find the lowest cost compliance options across the entire region, including renewable energy. As UCS president and former chair of RGGI Ken Kimmell has pointed out in a prior blog post, the nine RGGI states have already reduced power plant emissions by approximately 40 percent since 2005 and are poised to reach a 50 percent reduction by 2020.

5)  These standards, a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s climate action plan, can help the United States make a significant contribution to global efforts to limit global warming emissions. The international community is looking to reach a global climate agreement in 2015 at the Paris UNFCCC meeting. An ambitious mitigation pledge from the U.S. early next year can help catalyze positive action by other countries, which is why this standard is being closely watched from Beijing to Brussels.

Of course, it remains to be seen how ambitious the EPA’s proposal will be. Key metrics I’ll be looking for include: the level of emissions reductions required and the time frame for achieving them; the rules and baseline year (i.e. the year from when onwards reductions are credited) for crediting emissions reductions from renewable energy, energy efficiency, and carbon cap programs; and the incentives to reduce emissions more than would have happened under existing programs.

What’s clear is that this is a significant opportunity – perhaps the most significant we’ve ever had – to make deep cuts in U.S. heat-trapping emissions. The power plant carbon standards could be a climate game changer! (We’ll need to do more, of course – including getting Congress to enact a nationwide limit on carbon emissions.)

Once the comment period for the draft standard begins, please tell the EPA and your state leaders that you want to them to ensure the final standard is as strong as possible.

Also, stay tuned for my blog post on Friday featuring a new UCS analysis that shows how carbon standards that include a significant role for renewable energy can deliver deep emissions reductions.