Halted Clean Power Plan incentivizes renewables for power generation
President Barack Obama's legacy regulation to curb carbon emissions and transition to a clean energy economy is in legal limbo.
Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency announced the final version of Clean Power Plan on Aug. 3, 2015.
It has been hailed as a historic achievement, but it is now up to the courts to decide if it will have staying power.
Enforcement could reduce carbon emissions from the power sector by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.
Under the Clean Power Plan, the EPA establishes emissions goals for each state and the power sector overall, which accounts for nearly 40 percent of energy usage and 40 percent of carbon emissions in the country.
States then create their own plans for the power plants within their borders. They can implement programs like emissions trading to meet their targets and/or adopt to renewable sources like wind, solar and hydropower.
By providing utilities with the incentive to shift to clean energy, which have no carbon emissions, the rule will result in renewables making up 21 percent of power generation by 2030, up from 12 percent in 2012, the EPA estimates. BY 2040, that percentage will increase to 27 percent, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
That's short of Obama's ambitious 80 percent goal, but it still almost doubles electricity generation from renewables by 2012 levels.
Implementation of the Clean Power Plan, however, has been halted. A coalition of 27 states, led by West Virginia and Texas, and various businesses sued to block the rule. On Feb. 9, 2016, the Supreme Court ruled to stay the rule, pending a final ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals.
Some states, however, moved forward with the compliance process. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimated that 32 state legislatures were considering bills or resolutions on the Clean Power Plan, as of April 18, 2016. Three states — Kansas, West Virginia and Wyoming — had enacted bills to begin creating plans.
Several states including Arkansas and Michigan have already met or are on track to meet their compliance goals thanks to declining coal use, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.
Without the Clean Power Plan, renewables are expected to make up about 18 percent of power generation by 2040, a much less significant increase from 2012 levels and a fourth of Obama's stated target.
Steve Clemmer, the director of energy research and analysis at the Union of Concerned Scientists, pointed out that federal tax credits for renewables also play a role in moving towards a clean energy economy.
By the union's analysis, the rule and the credits together would move renewables, not counting hydropower, to account for 21.5 percent of electricity generation by 2030.
These policies "take you into the direction" of Obama's promise but "they might not get you to these levels," Clemmer said, adding that regardless of the final legal outcome for the Clean Power Plan, "The fundamental economics of renewable energy technologies isn't going to change."
Given that the Clean Power Plan doesn't fully meet Obama's stated renewable target and its fate is currently unknown, we rate this promise Compromise.
Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Power Plan, Sept. 14, 2016
U.S. Energy Information Administration, Energy in Brief, Dec. 29, 2015
U.S. Energy Information Administration, Analysis of the Impacts of the Clean Power Plan, May 2015
National Conference of State Legislatures, State Reactions to EPA Greenhouse Gas Emissions Standards, April 18, 2016
Environmental Defense Fund, Power Companies and States -- On Track to Meet Clean Power Plan Goals, Sept. 14, 2016
Union of Concerned Scientists, Accelerating Toward a Clean Energy Economy, May 2016
Interview with Steve Clemmer, director of energy research and analysis at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Nov. 29, 2016
New EPA proposal puts this promise back in play
After failed attempts to push climate change legislation in his first term, President Barack Obama is going around Congress to move forward his climate change goals.
Obama is using executive authority to act on one of his 2012 campaign promises: set a standard for utility companies that would make 80 percent of America's electricity clean by 2035. This week, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed ambitious new rules that could reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 30 percent, compared to 2005 levels, by 2030.
Some are calling the Clean Power Plan proposal one of the most significant steps aimed at combating global warming to come out of the White House.
The electric power sector, primarily coal plants, accounts for about 40 percent of carbon emissions and about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Coal plants are the largest producer of electricity in the United States – nearly 40 percent. A big change there could have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions and the amount of electricity produced with clean technology.
But it is difficult to predict how much these changes – assuming the current proposal becomes the final rule – will chip away at that 80-percent-by-2035 goal. Regardless, this rule could reduce the amount of coal-produced energy and encourage utility companies to adopt clean technologies, said David Konisky, a public policy professor at Georgetown University.
"The new rule will represent an important step forward on reducing these emissions," Konisky said.
Under the EPA's proposed rule, coal-fired power plants across the country would have to adopt the new carbon emission limits, and each state would decide how to make it happen it from a list of options. The options include establishing or joining a regional or state-based cap-and-trade program, or plants could adopt clean energy technologies—such as solar or wind power.
The concept behind the new rules come from Obama's Climate Action Plan, which he announced a year ago.
"Right now, there are no federal limits to the amount of carbon pollution that those plants can pump into our air. None. Zero. That's not right, that's not safe, and it needs to stop," he said in a speech at Georgetown University in 2013. "So today, for the sake of our children, and the health and safety of all Americans, I'm directing the (EPA) to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants and complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants."
So how are Obama and the EPA able to put these regulations in place without Congress? Back in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA is required to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. On the same day he gave his Georgetown speech, Obama directed the EPA to act on this rule and come up with a proposal regarding the first-ever regulations on carbon emissions at new power plants by Sep. 20, 2013 (they did) and regulations for existing power plants by June 1, 2014 (the latest proposal).
The EPA will spend the next year collecting comments on the proposal, and Obama expects them to issue a final rule by June 1, 2015.
We expect the administration will encounter plenty of opposition before the EPA issues its final rule and begins to enforce the regulations. We'll be watching to see how events play out. For now, we move this promise from Stalled to In the Works.
Environmental Protection Agency, news release, June 2, 2014
Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Power Plan proposal, June 2, 2014
New York Times, "President Said to be Planning to Use Executive Authority on Carbon Rule," May 28, 2014
Environmental Protection Agency, "Clean Energy and You," accessed May 30, 2014
Email interview with Georgetown University public policy professor David Konisky, May 30, 2014
The White House Office of the Press Secretary, "Remarks by the President on Climate Change," June 25, 2013
The White House, "The President's Climate Action Plan," June 2013
U.S. State Department, letter from the Office of the Special Envoy for Climate Change, Jan 28, 2010
Resources for the Future, "Obama's Biggest Climate Move Wasn't in His Speech," June 26, 2013
Supreme Court of the United States, Syllabus: Massachusetts, et al vs EPA, et al, Decided April 2, 2007
Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Air Act section 111(d), accessed May 30, 2014
Environmental Protection Agency, 2013 Proposed Carbon Pollution Standard for New Power Plants, Sep. 20, 2013
New York Times, "Obama to Take Action to Slash Coal Pollution," June 2, 2014
The Hill, "Obama's new climate war opens today," June 2, 2014
Congressional inaction makes new standards unlikely
Obama set a high standard when said he would set standards requiring electric companies to obtain 80 percent of their energy for clean sources by 2035. Our first question: what did he mean by "clean energy”?
Obama's definition includes wind, solar, nuclear, natural gas and clean coal, which is a broad interpretation. The president's role here is to get a legislative standard that utility companies will follow.
Getting clean energy legislation passed is no easy task. Former Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M, proposed the Clean Energy Standard Act of 2012 in March of that year, but it never made it out of the Energy & Natural Resources Committee. That was the last new piece of legislation relevant to Obama's promise.
Right now, there's nothing new coming down the pipeline, either, said David Konisky, an environmental politics professor at Georgetown University. He said the chances of legislation moving in Congress are "obviously low given the energy policy preferences of Republicans in the House.”
Many states have individual renewable energy standards, but none as aggressive as 80 percent, Victor said. He added that these policies have nothing to do with Obama policy and long predate his terms.
On the national level, Obama's nomination of Ron Binz to chair the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could be a step towards setting broader electricity requirements. In Colorado, Binz oversaw a shift to renewable energy.
But FERC alone could not implement a new standard, said David Victor, a University of California, San Diego political science professor and environmental policy expert. Also, Binz hasn't yet been confirmed and may face opposition.
Overall, there's nothing happening on the congressional front to create a clean energy standard for electricity. We'll keep our eye on this through the end of Obama's term, but since no legislation is moving, or even being introduced, for now we rate this promise Stalled.
Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency, "Summary Maps,” accessed August 2, 2013
Email interview with Georgetown University environmental politics David Konisky, July 31, 2013
Email interview with University of California, San Diego political science professor David Victor, August 1, 2013
Obama For America, "A Plan for Jobs and Middle-Class Security,” October 23, 2012
Politico, "Conservatives ID Next Confirmation Fight: FERC,” August 1, 2013
U.S. Energy Information Administration, "AEO2013 Early Release Overview,” December 5, 2012
White House, "FACT SHEET: The State of the Union: President Obama"s Plan to Win the Future,” January 25, 2011
White House, "President Obama Announces More Key Administration Posts,” June 27, 2013