Renewables to Overtake King Coal Under Obama Carbon Regs

Finalized EPA rules announced by President Obama would reduce carbon emissions by shutting down coal-fired power plants, shifting U.S. energy mix by 2030

3 min read
Renewables to Overtake King Coal Under Obama Carbon Regs
Illustration: Getty Images

At the White House on Monday, President Obama announced final rules intended to cut carbon emissions from the electric power sector by nearly one-third by 2030. The rules, part of Obama's Clean Power Plan, are projected to turn the tables on today’s power supply mix, putting King Coal one rung below renewable power sources. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) projects that full compliance with the rules will drive down the portion of the nation’s power supply that comes from burning coal to 27 percent by 2030—a major slip from its 39 percent share in 2013. Renewables will more than double their share of U.S. power generation over the same period, rising from 13 percent to 28 percent, projects the EPA.

Natural gas–fired generation is expected to maintain its current role of roughly 27 percent, rather than grow substatially as predicted when EPA released its draft plan in June 2014.

Timelines for initial compliance, meanwhile, have slipped back two years to 2022. This is mainly the result of the power industry’s complaint that a compliance regime beginning in 2020 would spur a rushed shuttering of coal-fired power plants and increase the risk of power grid blackouts

Despite the delay, however, the final rule is actually projected to achieve greater carbon reductions. By 2030, the EPA projects, carbon emissions from the power sector will be 32 percent lower than their 2005 level, an improvement on the 30 percent goal in the EPA’s 2014 proposal. This reflects, to a large extent, the carry-forward effect of strong recent growth in installations of renewable generation such as solar panels.

Obama said the pledged action by the United States sets the stage for an international deal at the Paris climate change negotiations to take place later this year. “In December, with America leading the way, we have the chance to put together one of the most ambitious international climate agreements in history,” said Obama.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which sets grid standards, issued a statement yesterday saying it was pleased that “the final rule addresses several topics identified as needing attention” in its evaluations of EPA’s proposal. “NERC’s principal finding recommended additional time in order to allow for extensive planning and significant investments in new energy infrastructure that will be needed to achieve emission reduction goals,” said NERC in its statement. 

The Washington, D.C.-based Edison Electric Institute, a trade group representing investor-owned utilities, struck an equally conciliatory tone. In a statement issued yesterday, EEI president Tom Kuhn welcomed the flexibility offered by the final rules and said they would “work with the states” as they develop plans to comply with the rules. “Today utilities are focused on the transition to a cleaner generating fleet,” said Kuhn.

Many leaders in the Republican party continue to express serious doubts as to the existence of climate change, or of its human origins, and adjusting the deadlines did not shake their opposition to Obama’s Clean Power Plan. However, Obama’s plan may pencil out even without its climate benefits. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has estimated that, thanks largely to the health benefits from reduced smog and soot emissions under the plan, its economic benefit will be 4 to 7 times larger than the $8.4 billion in costs that the EPA is projecting through 2030. 

At yesterday’s White House ceremony, Obama recalled an early personal experience with air pollution, and drew a lesson about critics of air pollution controls. Obama said his lungs constricted when he went running on his first day in Los Angeles in 1979, fresh off an airplane from Hawaii to attend Occidental College. “After about 5 minutes I had this weird feeling like I couldn’t breathe,” recalled the President. 

Obama predicted that, just as ingenuity triumphed over pessimism to clean up LA’s air, innovation and determination could deliver a lower-carbon power system in the years ahead without bankrupting the U.S. or global economies. “Because we pushed through despite those scaremongering tactics, you can actually run in LA without choking. We’ve got to learn lessons and know our history. We can figure this stuff out. We can upend old ways of thinking,” said Obama.

One such innovation is highlighted in the pages of this month’s issue of Spectrum: repurposing old power plant generators to function as voltage stabilizers, thus facilitating the importation of power from more distant power plants or intermittent renewable energy sources. Turning aging coal, gas and nuclear plants into synchronous condensers is a new spin on a rather old idea -- one that’s likely to have even more relevance thanks to the Clean Power Plan. 

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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