This blog is part of a Friends of the Earth series analyzing the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. To see the other posts, visit our website. To write comments on how to improve the plan, click here.
The United States and the rest of the world must move quickly toward an energy system based on clean renewables. Only a rapid and coordinated system shift will avert the worst impacts of climate disruption. This transition requires countries to invest in renewable energy technologies, such as wind and solar, and to build corresponding infrastructure. Continued reliance on dirty fossil fuels like natural gas and coal will result in further investment in the current infrastructure, locking in our dependence on these fuels for decades to come.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed carbon pollution standards for existing power plants that could provide an important opportunity to encourage states to increase their reliance on renewable energy. Unfortunately, in calculating the state targets, the EPA assumes that states will only grow their renewable energy capacity at around the rate of their neighbors as mandated by their current renewable energy policies. Therefore, for those regions where states have taken little to no action, the EPA’s projections for their renewable energy were incredibly low. For instance, the states in the Southeast do not have renewable energy standards, which require a percentage of the state’s energy production to come from renewable energy by a specified date. Moreover, their current renewable energy generation is pathetic at less than three percent. The EPA allowed these states to continue being laggards by giving them low targets since all the states in their region have few, if any, policies promoting renewable energy.
Meanwhile, the impact of this approach on states with policies promoting renewable energy was to codify these policies in the rule, thereby, encouraging these states not to roll back their policies. This lowest common denominator approach does not do nearly enough to promote clean renewable energy in states. Instead, the EPA should have based targets off of the potential for wind and solar in order to mandate huge increases in the use of these resources.
More ambitious renewable energy targets are achievable
Greenpeace found that the United States could generate over 70 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2030. This future is only possible through massive investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency improvements and the phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies. Unfortunately, the EPA rule fails to catalyze this transition to a renewable energy future. New Hampshire has the highest target of 25 percent renewable energy by 2030, but the average rate for all the states combined is about 13 percent. The EPA also presents “alternate” projections, which it based on a comparison of renewable energy potential to existing renewable energy generation. Despite the potential to more heavily weigh potential and push states toward greater renewable energy, these projections would require states to meet even less ambitious targets. Some states think the EPA is more likely to use this approach in the final rule, which will lock in targets that will do nothing to spur an increase in renewable energy.
The Union of Concerned Scientists found
that EPA underestimated by about half
the proportion of cost-effective renewable energy that could be included in the state emission reduction targets. This analysis finds that EPA’s approach barely results in an increase
of renewable energy’s proportion of electricity sales when the Clean Power Plan could actually result in it more than doubling. Part of UCS’s approach was to better reflect the deployment rates already being achieved and assume compliance with policies already in place. The majority of states have mandatory or voluntary renewable energy standards
, many of which require more renewable energy than the EPA predicts those states to bring on-line. For example, Missouri’s existing clean energy policies
have them on track to meet the EPA target by 2021. In fact, Missouri’s renewable energy goal is about five times more ambitious
than EPA projections of what the state can accomplish. Ambitious targets are necessary for the rule to generate significant increases in each state’s renewable energy generation.
Many states have much greater renewable energy potential
The state targets should be modified to reflect the states’ actual renewable energy potential by requiring a greater percentage of electricity production from renewable sources. For instance, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates Kansas' onshore wind potential at more than 3,600,000 gigawatt hours, which would far exceed the state’s current electricity needs of 3736 gigawatt hours. Despite this strong potential from just one renewable energy source, the EPA set a target for Kansas of only 20 percent. Some states, especially those in the Southeast, have greater wind potential than the NREL maps reflect because of higher wind turbines. Updated data would show that even greater wind potential exists from these states, which EPA should account for in the targets. Furthermore, the Energy Information Administration projects that solar and wind will account for almost all growth in the renewable energy sector; wind will surpass hydropower by 2040, and the rule should reflect that growth.
For some states, models are unnecessary to prove a state’s potential is greater than the EPA’s target because the state already exceeds the EPA’s projections. Take Minnesota, which currently relies on renewable energy for 18 percent of its energy, as the proposed rule itself admits. Despite this progress, the EPA’s formula for projecting renewable energy targets only requires Minnesota to generate 15 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030. While coal-fired generation has recently been declining in Minnesota, renewable energy has accounted for a growing percentage of the new electric generating capacity. Minnesota’s initial energy shift and strong wind potential should earn it a higher, not lower target to stimulate additional renewable energy growth. While the coal dependent states must make much larger increases than states that have already taken action, even states like Minnesota can increase their share of renewables.
The rule should not give coal-dependent states a free pass
Not all states are equal when it comes to their energy mix. Some states are relying much more heavily on coal than others. The new EPA rule assumes that these states will continue to invest in little to no electricity generation from solar and wind. Kentucky, for instance, has a paltry 2030 renewable energy target of two percent with an alternate goal of one percent. Considering that Kentucky has the country’s highest carbon emissions per megawatt of electricity produced, the EPA should be taking stronger measures to ensure that Kentucky reduces its reliance on coal. There is a lot of room to grow: in 2013, Kentucky produced less than one percent of its electricity from renewable sources, compared to about 93 percent from coal.
Although Kentucky and other coal states depend on coal for electricity, politics is the biggest obstacle to transitioning to clean, renewable energy. This obstructive obsession with coal needs to end, and the EPA’s existing power plant rule provides the perfect opportunity to encourage states to start. Unfortunately, the proposed rule took politics into account; if a state has shown opposition to the rules or renewable energy, they were probably given a more lenient target. The Clean Power Plan must ensure that each state implements aggressive renewable energy and energy efficiency policies that realize substantial emission reductions.