As part of his recently released Climate Action Plan, President Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set carbon pollution standards for existing power plants. While these federal standards are a critical component of the U.S. plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb climate change, the responsibility to actually implement them will fall to individual states.

The good news for many states is that they can greatly reduce their power sector emissions through existing policies and infrastructure, such as by meeting state standards for renewables and efficiency and increasing the use of existing natural gas power plants. These measures will ease the path for those states to meet future EPA power plant emissions standards and combat climate change.

WRI recently analyzed the existing tools Ohio can use to reduce its power sector emissions and help meet future EPA emissions standards. Over the coming months, we’ll release a series of fact sheets that outline the steps several other states can take.

Carbon Pollution Standards for Power Plants Are in the Works

The EPA is moving forward with rules to limit carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants, sending a revised proposal to the White House at the beginning of July that is expected be finalized in September. More importantly, President Obama directed EPA to also finalize carbon dioxide pollution standards for existing power plants by June 1, 2015. States would then need to submit their proposed implementation plans by June 30, 2016. (EPA is required by law to enact standards for harmful carbon dioxide pollution, following a 2007 Supreme Court decision.)

All eyes are now on EPA to see if their proposed standards for new and existing power plants will achieve the deep reductions in GHG emissions required to avoid the worst effects of climate change. It’s not too early for states to start thinking about how they’re going to comply with these new regulations.

States Have Many Pathways to Reduce their Power Sector Emissions

Depending on the details of EPA’s future standards, states could have considerable flexibility in how they comply. States could be allowed to pursue a range of options for reducing their power sector emissions, including fuel switching, dispatch of existing low-carbon power plants, increased generation by renewable sources, state or regional cap-and-trade programs, and energy efficiency, among other strategies.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recently put forward a proposal for existing power plant standards that illustrates how a flexible compliance model could work. If the EPA’s standards follow a similar approach, states could use many of the mechanisms described above and would reduce U.S. CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel burning power plants by 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. NRDC found that this approach would lead to annual costs of approximately $4 billion in 2020, but would yield economic benefits of $25 billion to $60 billion from saving lives and reducing the risk of climate change impacts.

In light of the flexible compliance options available to states, WRI is currently analyzing the emissions reductions that many states have already made through existing initiatives like renewable portfolio standards, energy efficiency standards, and other policies. We’re also evaluating what further emissions reductions can be achieved through the continued implementation of these policies and existing tools, such as greater efficiency at coal plants, increased use of combined heat and power, and fuller utilization of existing natural gas plants. For example, our analysis shows that Ohio could reduce its carbon pollution by 27 percent below 2011 levels by 2020 by meeting the state’s existing renewable and efficiency standards, making more use of its natural gas power plants, taking advantage of opportunities to use combined heat and power, and improving efficiency at coal power plants.

States Can Build on Progress They’ve Already Made

States are already on the front lines in dealing with sea level rise, drought, and other impacts of climate change. Soon, they will have the opportunity to craft their own strategy for how to lessen their contribution to those impacts.

If stringent enough, EPA’s emissions standards for new and existing power plants can help set the United States on course to meet its target of reducing emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. By allowing flexibility in these standards, states would not have to start from scratch, but would be able to build on the progress they’re already making toward reducing power sector emissions.

  • LEARN MORE: We’ll be watching closely to see if EPA comes out with standards that are strong enough to confront the climate challenge before us. In the meantime, WRI will continue to evaluate state-level opportunities to reduce power sector emissions through a series of fact sheets. Check out our Ohio installment here.