A pending announcement from the Biden administration will seek to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Almost all coal- and gas-fired power plants would have to cut or capture nearly all of their carbon dioxide emissions by 2040, which now account for 25% of US greenhouse gas emissions. Last year, about 60% of energy produced in the US was derived from fossil fuel sources like coal, natural gas, and petroleum.
Never before has the US federal government restricted carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants.
The regulation is proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which will adjust emissions’ targets based on the size of the plant, its intermittency, and whether it is already scheduled for retirement. Many fossil fuel-fired power plants (especially coal-fired power plants) have announced plans to retire, according to data collected by the Energy Information Administration (EIA). Some of these plants may be exempt from meeting the new standards.
Many of the proposal’s most rigorous standards would not take effect until the 2030s, giving industry years to modify their plants and processes so as to come into compliance.
The EPA reminds us on its website that burning fossil fuels at power plants creates emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, carbon dioxide, mercury, and other pollutants. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides’ emissions contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter, which can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular problems. Exposure to mercury can increase the possibility of health issues ranging from cancer to immune system damage.
“EPA cannot comment because the proposals are currently under interagency review,” agency spokesperson Maria Michalos commented in an emailed statement to the Washington Post. “But we have been clear from the start that we will use all of our legally-upheld tools, grounded in decades-old bipartisan laws, to address dangerous air pollution and protect the air our children breathe today and for generations to come.”
This is not the first Executive Office attempt to limit power plant pollution. Barack Obama attempted to enact broad limits, but they were blocked by the Supreme Court and then rolled back by President Donald J. Trump. In 2022, the Supreme Court acquiesced and said that the EPA did have the authority to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, if done in a limited way.
As expected, the fossil fuel industry and power plant operators aren’t so pleased with the idea of the new standards, which Michalos says “protect people and the planet.” Minority, low income, and indigenous populations — who tend to have less political sway — frequently bear a disproportionate burden of environmental harms and adverse health outcomes of power plant emissions.
Michalos noted that the new power plant standards will build on the momentum from the Investing in America economic agenda. A White House statement says that agenda — including historic investments from the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the American Rescue Plan — “has spurred a manufacturing and clean energy boom, strengthened supply chains at home, and has led to the strongest, fastest jobs recovery in nearly 40 years.”
Importantly, the Inflation Reduction Act includes language that classifies greenhouse gases as pollutants to be regulated by the EPA.
The Biden administration recently revealed plans to cut tailpipe emissions to accelerate the US transition to electric vehicles and to reduce methane leaks from oil and gas wells. These and other plans are part of the administration’s pledge to cut the country’s emissions roughly in half by 2030 and to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2050.
Alternatives to Current Power Plant Emissions — Greenwashing?
The result could be that the industry will attempt to capture these emissions directly from their smokestacks. It’s technology currently in use by only 20 out of 3,400 US coal- and gas-fired plants. The EPA proposal, however, does not require Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) approaches. However, fossil fuel-based CCS is not capable of operating with zero emissions, according to research done at the Tyndall Center in Manchester. They conclude that a focus on CCS will not help achieve 2030 CO2 emission reduction targets being adopted by governments, which have to be met to prevent a global climate catastrophe. A 2021 report by a group of 600 global investors, including BlackRock, State Street Global Advisors, and other top shareholders of US investor-owned utilities, also suggest staying away from CCS, indicating that the high costs of carbon capture “make it a risky and potentially expensive decarbonization strategy.”
But some people insist that conditions surrounding carbon capture technology are improving. Calpine Corporation, one of the country’s largest generators of electricity from natural gas, has partnered with Blue Planet Systems Corporation in California where operators are transforming power plant emissions into mineralized carbon dioxide building materials in the form of synthetic limestone.
Plant operators could choose other means to lower emission, such as green hydrogen, which does not emit carbon. In 2021, our CleanTechnica editor, Zachary Shahan, wrote how only 0.1% of global hydrogen production came from green hydrogen — hydrogen produced by splitting water using electricity produced by clean renewable power. Zach admonished us to remember that any funding for hydrogen needs to be focused on solutions that have a serious chance at becoming cost competitive and, thus, truly useful in the effort to decarbonize. Any coverage of green hydrogen needs contextual information that explains where 99.97% of hydrogen comes from, he noted, as well as why fossil fuel companies are so keen on hyping the hydrogen dream.
Doesn’t it just make more sense to switch power plants to wind, solar, and other clean energy sources that don’t pollute in the first place for power generation? Of course it does. The problem is that a systemic transition to renewable energy would put fossil fuel companies and their subsidiaries out of business. It’s all about profitability, stupid.
Final Thoughts About Emissions & Power Plants
“We have to do more than recognize the climate challenges we face,” President Biden told other world leaders during a virtual gathering on Thursday to discuss climate and energy. “We are determined to strengthen our ambition and our actions. And, yes, we’re willing to do the hard work to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”
Like the proposed regulations governing tailpipe emissions and methane from oil and gas facilities, the power plant rules would be subject to a public comment period and are not likely to be finalized and implemented until next year. The proposal is being reviewed by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget and could still be adjusted before the EPA completes and announces it.
The rules are being written with the constant background thought of a potential onslaught from the conservative majority Supreme Court.
Featured image: “Avedøre power plant” by Martini DK is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
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