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Cutting Carbon: States Can Use What they’ve Already Got to Whittle Power Plant Emissions

As the Environmental Protection Agency gets ready to release proposed greenhouse gas standards for existing power plants on June 2, state officials around the United States are weighing options on the best ways to cut carbon dioxide emissions. WRI has shown how some states may be able to comply with these standards.

Some states have been reducing their power sector emissions for years. Yet our analysis found most states we profiled can achieve deep emissions reductions by better utilizing existing infrastructure and continuing to comply with clean energy policies already on the books. In other words, complying with new power plant emissions standards won’t be a huge lift for many states.

The Forthcoming Power Plant Emissions Standards

On June 25, 2013, President Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue proposed carbon pollution standards for power plants this June. After a public comment period, EPA will finalize the standards in June 2015. States will then have just over a year to submit plans to EPA, detailing the measures they will take to meet the emissions-reduction targets set out in the rules.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has assured states that they will have broad flexibility in how they can comply with the forthcoming standards—allowing for emissions cuts to happen throughout the power sector rather than at each individual power plant. Though we don’t yet have specifics, we anticipate a wide array of tools could be at states’ disposal – from efficiency measures that reduce electricity demand, to switching from coal to natural gas, to increasing deployment of renewable energy sources, to regional approaches like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

States Can Use Existing Tools to Cut Emissions

WRI set out to examine what states would need to do to comply with moderate to ambitious power plant standards. For this analysis, we chose a diverse set of states—to date, we have looked at Ohio, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Tennessee—including some that are not typically thought of as leaders in cutting greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation. Some, like Ohio, rely heavily on coal for their power; others, like Michigan, depend on electricity-hungry manufacturing to drive their economies. We also prioritized geographical diversity, including states from the Southeast to the Mountain West. But however diverse these states might be, they are all well-positioned to comply with moderate to ambitious federal carbon pollution standards.

In each of these states, we examined opportunities to cut emissions using existing infrastructure. This includes steps like using more natural gas, installing more combined heat and power (CHP) at large facilities like universities and hospitals and making on-site efficiency improvements at coal plants. In states that had them, we also looked at the impact of simply complying with existing energy efficiency and renewable energy standards; for states with no clean energy policies, we examined what such policies could realistically achieve. Each state in our analysis has a range of ways to comply with flexible carbon pollution standards.

Plus, because supply- and demand-side efficiency save energy, these measures are cost-effective and could lower electric bills. Many states found that increasing their use of renewables saved customers money.

Where Do States Go from Here?

States have many effective, proven policies they can put in place to complement power plant standards and encourage investment in low- or zero-carbon generation technologies. While some states are considering rolling back or eliminating existing clean energy policies, our analysis shows that would be shortsighted. Extending and expanding these measures to get more energy savings and renewable generation potential will enhance states’ options for complying with EPA standards. And states without clean energy policies can learn from those that have demonstrated that these are cost-effective ways to create jobs and cut carbon pollution from the power sector. Because the electric grid crosses state lines, neighboring states should also think about working together for the most cost-effective reductions.

Investment in cutting power sector emissions will not only produce a cleaner power system with climate and health benefits, but also benefit the economy for years to come.

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