Fix­ing the Clean Power Plan is sen­si­ble first step

The Phoenix - - OPINION - By Terry Jar­rett Guest colum­nist Terry M. Jar­rett is an en­ergy at­tor­ney and con­sul­tant who has served on the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Reg­u­la­tory Util­ity Com­mis­sion­ers.

Wash­ing­ton loves con­tro­versy. And crit­ics are un­doubt­edly cluck­ing right now about the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plan to re­place the Clean Power Plan (CPP) with a mod­i­fied ef­fort. But the ad­min­is­tra­tion de­serves credit for up­dat­ing the plan, rather than scrap­ping it en­tirely.

For starters, the CPP en­vi­sioned by Pres­i­dent Obama rep­re­sented a mas­sive over­reach of the EPA’s au­thor­ity un­der the Clean Air Act. In­stead of ad­dress­ing in­di­vid­ual power plants, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion sim­ply man­dated whole­sale changes to large swaths of Amer­ica’s power grid. The Supreme Court found this prob­lem­atic, though, and is­sued an un­prece­dented stay of the rule while a lower court was re­view­ing it.

It wasn’t just the EPA’s in­tru­sion into the way in­di­vid­ual states gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity, how­ever. There was also the in­cred­i­bly high price tag. Ac­cord­ing to a study by En­ergy Ven­tures Anal­y­sis (EVA), the CPP would have forced the clo­sure of enough gen­er­at­ing ca­pac­ity to power 24 mil­lion homes. This would have cost con­sumers an es­ti­mated $214 bil­lion in ad­di­tional elec­tric­ity costs be­tween 2022 and 2030, plus $64 bil­lion for re­place­ment in­fra­struc­ture. Such a mas­sive ex­pense prompted 27 states to chal­lenge the rule, and a bi­par­ti­san ma­jor­ity of Congress to for­mally state their dis­ap­proval.

What the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is now at­tempt­ing with its “Af­ford­able Clean En­ergy” (ACE) rule is to fo­cus on im­prove­ments for ex­ist­ing plants. This is a far more law­ful ap­proach, and it means the EPA will re­spect both the bound­aries es­tab­lished un­der the Clean Air Act and the abil­ity of in­di­vid­ual states to se­curely gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity.

Es­sen­tially, the new rule means the ad­min­is­tra­tion wants to in­no­vate and up­grade ex­ist­ing fa­cil­i­ties, rather than scrap them. There’s prece­dent for this, since ex­ten­sive in­vest­ments in en­vi­ron­men­tal con­trols for Amer­ica’s coal fleet have al­ready re­duced emis­sions of sul­fur diox­ide, ni­tro­gen ox­ide, and par­tic­u­late mat­ter by 92 per­cent per kilo­watt-hour (kWh) since 1970. Util­i­ties have in­vested more than $127 bil­lion in emis­sions tech­nolo­gies through 2018, and are also ex­pected to spend an ad­di­tional $5 bil­lion through 2020.

The CPP was a blunt ham­mer, and it aimed to rapidly elim­i­nate coal-fired power in the U.S. But shut­ting down key parts of the na­tion’s power grid could have re­duced the re­li­a­bil­ity and af­ford­abil­ity of Amer­ica’s elec­tric­ity mix. A re­cent EVA study found that re­plac­ing just three of the coal plants fac­ing pre­ma­ture re­tire­ment could cost con­sumers 15 times more than pro­vid­ing sup­port to keep them op­er­at­ing.

Coal cur­rently gen­er­ates 32 per­cent of the na­tion’s power sup­ply. It’s part of a long-term ef­fort to main­tain a bal­anced en­ergy mix. The CPP over­reached, in that it would have im­posed mas­sive costs on U.S. con­sumers. But it of­fered lit­tle gain in re­turn. A fully im­ple­mented CPP would have yielded only a the­o­ret­i­cal 0.018 de­grees Cel­sius re­duc­tion in global tem­per­a­tures by 2100, and re­duced power plants CO2 emis­sions by less than 1 per­cent.

Yes, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has waded into a com­plex and con­tro­ver­sial is­sue. But they’ve taken a pru­dent ap­proach to help states gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity safely, re­li­ably, and af­ford­ably. More can be done to scale up wind and so­lar power, for ex­am­ple. But that should be en­cour­aged along­side ad­vances in coal tech­nolo­gies that can fur­ther im­prove safety while also pro­vid­ing re­li­able elec­tric­ity ev­ery day.

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