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Join our work today to help us build a thriving and just clean energy future. 

Four Things You Need to Know About EPA’s New Power Plant Rules

Evergreen Action sat down with a panel of climate experts, including Gov. Jay Inslee, to break down what these rules mean, why they are so important, and how we can make them even stronger.

 

Update

On April 25, 2024, EPA finalized the first-ever power plant pollution standards for the existing U.S. coal fleet and newly proposed gas plants, with most covered plants required to cut their pollution by 90 percent by 2032. Together, these rules are estimated to curb over 1.4 billion metric tons of carbon pollution and create $270 billion in climate benefits and $120 billion in public health benefits.

Read the newst blog.

 

In an important step forward for climate and public health, EPA introduced power plant rules that set carbon pollution standards for both new and existing fossil fuel power plants. These rules, proposed in May 2023, are the single most effective tool the Biden administration has to take on climate change and build on the investments from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). 

To dive deeper into what these rules mean, why they are important, and how we can make them even stronger, Evergreen Action’s Executive Director Lena Moffitt sat down with some of our country’s leading climate experts:

  • Gov. Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington
  • Sonia Aggarwal, CEO of Energy Innovation Policy & Technology; former Special Assistant to the President for Climate Policy, Innovation, and Deployment in the Biden administration
  • Dr. Leah Stokes, Anton Vonk Associate Professor of Environmental Politics at the University of California, Santa Barbara; author of Short Circuiting Policy
  • Lissa Lynch, Director, Federal Legal Group, Climate & Clean Energy Program at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

This is just an excerpt from the event and the transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Watch the entire webinar now.

1. Why are EPA’s new power plant rules so important?

Gov. Inslee: I just want to start by thanking the president and his team for stepping up to the plate to take a strong regulatory approach to power plants. In the absence of a cost-based cost approach, having a regulatory approach is absolutely necessary. And I know the administration is being both creative and thoughtful and coming up with a plan to do this. So I am very thankful for the president's leadership on this and very appreciative.

Dr. Stokes: We know based on modeling from a lot of groups, including Energy Innovation, that  the IRA is on track to get us about 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Now, why does that matter? Well, remember that in the Paris Agreement, folks said, “Let's get to 1.5 degrees [Celsius]. Let's not go beyond that.”

And so scientists figured out that if that's what we want to do, we have to cut carbon pollution by about half this decade. And President Biden stepped up, and shortly after he took office, and said, “Yeah, I'm going to do that.” I'm going to get to 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. So keep in mind, 40 percent is not 50 to 52 percent, but it’s close!

So these power sector regulations that we're starting to see are another piece in the puzzle. There are lots of pieces in the puzzle, but this is an important one to get the power sector to clean up faster. I want to echo some of the comments of the governor—these are really strong rules that are very much following the letter of the law. They're within the fence line. They're using technologies that are cost-reasonable and available today and used.

"We really are living in a very exciting moment, where we have the options right in front of us. We know how to build them. We see them built in our communities."

Sonia Aggarwal

Aggarwal: To contextualize a little bit, electricity emissions in the United States have already dropped about 35 percent since 2005. And the Inflation Reduction Act has really rocketed us into this new economic reality for cheap, clean electricity. Energy Innovation’s analysis of the Inflation Reduction Act suggested that emissions would drop by about 75 percent below 2005 in 2030 if utilities make the most of all of these economic choices that we now have to reduce electricity costs for customers, improve public health, and deliver a much more modern electricity system. So this one law is actually going to triple the rate of economy-wide decarbonization in this country, driven in large part by the electricity sector reductions contained in this bill. 

So, where do the EPA rules come in on all of this? So, of course, the administration has been advancing a suite of updates to standards in the electricity sector and in other sectors like the transportation sector, to accommodate the new reality that we are living in because we really can do more now. We know what the technologies are. They're getting cheaper and cheaper, and we know that we can operate systems reliably with very high shares of these clean energy technologies. So the 111 rules [power plant rules] provide an important backstop to ensure that the utilities, in fact, make these sound economic choices for their customers, and that we do see the public health benefits in our communities from this very cool suite of policies that we are now getting to live in.

Moffitt: These regulations will put limits on carbon pollution from power plants that don't exist right now. It is really just astounding to take a step back and think power plants are one of the key drivers of climate change, and yet right now, power plants can spew as much carbon pollution as they want into our atmosphere and into our communities. And that's no longer an option with this proposal. And that is a really big deal that the administration has used throughout authority. Hopefully, successfully, for the first time. 

 

2. Breaking down the nitty-gritty: What do these rules say?

Lynch: It helps to start with last year's West Virginia decision. The Supreme Court defined the bounds of EPA's authority, and they essentially drew the lines. They said what's clearly outside of those lines is the Clean Power Plan approach that relied on shifting from dirtier fossil generation to cleaner energy. I think a lot of us thought that that was the best way to decarbonize the industry. That's off the table now, at least for purposes of how EPA goes about setting these standards.

So what's still inside those lines that the Supreme Court drew are measures that reduce pollution on site at the power plants. And for fossil power plants to reduce CO2 emissions, there's really only a few options that fit that bill: Those include co-firing with a lower carbon fuel or installing carbon capture. So in this proposal, EPA is doing what it can using the options available and staying within those lines that the Supreme Court drew.

Starting with gas plants, for new gas plants, the proposed standard would apply to any plants that start construction from the date this proposal gets published onward. And the proposal divides those new gas units into subcategories based on how often they're going to operate. So for the subcategory of units that will operate the most often, which EPA calls baseload plants, they set a standard based on 90 percent carbon capture and storage by 2035.

And then they also offer an alternative pathway for complying with an equivalent standard by co-firing with clean hydrogen starting at 30 percent hydrogen by 2032 and ramping up to 96 percent hydrogen by 2038. They set less stringent standards for an intermediate subcategory of plants that would operate less frequently. That's based on partial co-firing with clean hydrogen, and then even less stringent standards for plants that operate only a small percentage of the time.

The standards phase in over time, so there are initial emission limits that would apply immediately based on the most efficient type of turbine available, and full compliance would be required by 2035 if you’re deploying CCS, and 2032-2038 if co-firing with hydrogen. And that's to give time for infrastructure to be built out. For the rest of the existing gas fleet, EPA is just taking comments on what the approach should be, and again, I think that's a place where we'd really like to see improvements.

For existing coal plants, the approach is a little bit different. EPA looks at the reality on the ground, that the coal fleet is really old, and a lot of those plants may retire over the next 10 or 15 years, totally independent of these new standards. And the cost effectiveness of installing new controls is really going to depend on how long a coal plant might continue to operate. So in light of those dynamics, EPA is proposing an emission limit based on 90 percent CCS for coal plants that are going to keep operating from 2040 and beyond. And that goes into effect starting in 2030.

Then there's less stringent limits for units that commit to retire before 2040. All of this sounds really complex. There's a lot of details, but when it comes down to it, what EPA is doing is giving fossil plant owners and operators a lot of options for how to bring down CO2 emissions from coal and gas plants. The standards themselves have to be based on that technology, but there's no mandate to use any specific technology.

So companies and states will have the flexibility to choose what works for them, and that includes to retire plants and replace them with clean energy, which in a lot of cases will be the most economically attractive option given those clean energy tax credits. So in our view, this is a really solid framework in this proposal. We will, of course, be looking to strengthen those elements of it, in particular, including more of the existing gas fleet and tightening up some of those compliance timelines, but this is a really excellent start and provides a really good opportunity to build on.

Moffitt: How these entities decide to comply is going to involve a lot of choices. And from the context that we talked about at the beginning, clean energy increasingly looks really attractive as it gets cheaper and cheaper. And while the standards don't require any specific technologies to comply, some may use CCS or hydrogen co-firing to comply with the standard. I want to recognize that there is a lot of opposition to those technologies and concerns from communities, while at the same time, we are hearing a lot of communities say, “Regulate these plants. Do something to limit this pollution.” And EPA has acted within the constraints put on them by the Supreme Court, but we also want to make sure that we are doing everything we can do to truly hold polluters accountable, make sure that they are really reducing pollution, and as they comply, doing so in a way that factors community input and that is really strong.

 

3. How could these standards be strengthened?

Gov. Inslee: This might be considered the first draft of a strong provision, and I think it's up to us to nudge and encourage an even stronger rule at a more rapid pace. And I do think there's room for improvement that is logistically possible, scientifically possible, and environmentally absolutely necessary to reduce the emissions from the power sector at the pace that we have to go. I do believe picking up the pace of the rule is important, but the thrust of the rule is spot on and absolutely necessary.

We are hopeful that the final rule will be more inclusive of the number of gas plants that are involved in the bill. I think this is one place where we could use some improvements. Right now, only about 30 percent of gas plants would be under the protection of the rule. I think that needs to be expanded, and the pace can be picked up as well. 

We can go a lot faster on this transition than we are right now. We built 3,000 airplanes in 1939, and five years later we built 300,000 airplanes. We should have more confidence about how rapidly this transition can be made. So, let's stand strong with the president on this. Let's encourage him. Let's appreciate his tremendous leadership, and let's go faster.

Dr. Stokes: There are two things that can be done to improve these rules, like the governor said. First, those timelines—they need to be sooner. We can't be waiting till the 2030s or even 2040 to be doing something about coal plants. 

And just a little history here—the Clean Air Act dates back decades, and the legal ruling through the Supreme Court that says we have to do something about this carbon pollution problem under the Clean Air Act goes back to 2007. You may note, it is now 2023. We've already been waiting decades to do something. So the concept that we would punt it out into the future—that you could still build a new gas plant and not do anything till 2035, that you don't really have to do anything about a coal plant until the mid 2030s or 2040—that’s not good enough. 

And the second thing I'll say is that the size of the plants that are covered are really big plants on the gas side: 300 megawatts. What does that mean? Just think of a big  gas plant. But there are lots of smaller gas plants that often operate within cities, for example, in somewhere like New York City. Those plants under the current proposal aren't covered for the existing gas leak. That could have problems where basically some of these big plants will start operating less and some of the smaller plants will start operating more, and that could actually push pollution into communities. So we got to see some strengthening here.

 

4. How can we ensure EPA finalizes the strongest possible rules?

Dr. Stokes: It's a proposed rule, as we've all been saying. What does that mean? It means that there's going to be time for public comment.

So I would encourage folks to sign up with Evergreen Action. They're going to be able to plug you in and help you figure out how to make a comment, what that even involves, and where you go. I don't think it's open quite yet, but when it's open, they're going to have a way for you to submit a comment. That’s an amazing action you can take, and we're going to need all of our voices, because Lord knows, the industry is already yelling quite loudly in the pages of The New York Times and the Washington Post. So we have to yell in the public comment box instead.

Moffitt: It will be critical for the advocacy community to stay engaged to work with EPA to strengthen those key pieces, to ensure more plants are covered more quickly, again, and to deliver benefits as fast as we can to our climate and to our communities. 

The beautiful thing about working in climate action is that we know what we need to do. It can feel complex, but we actually know that the solutions are there. But getting those solutions and achieving the outcomes that we all know are possible takes all of us working together.