Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013 | 2 a.m.
The Environmental Protection Agency regulations released last week make one thing clear: Nevada was rather prescient to begin steering its energy economy away from traditional coal.
But whether the Silver State will inspire other states to follow its example isn’t a sure thing.
“Nevada is ahead of the game because it is already phasing out its dirtiest, oldest power plants; it will have a competitive advantage against a state that avoided doing so,” said Daniel Weiss, Center for American Progress energy expert. “But the idea that this kills coal is a joke…. It’ll be up to other states to figure out how to curb their emissions standards.”
The EPA’s regulations — limiting emissions from new-construction coal-fired power plants to 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour and new-construction natural gas plants to 1,000 pounds per megawatt hour — are the first in a series of expected steps that the agency will take to curb carbon emissions. Further regulations will come in June 2014.
But already, certain political voices are proclaiming the administration has struck a death-blow to coal.
“This effectively bans the construction of new coal-fired power plants countrywide,” said Nicolas Loris, Heritage Foundation energy expert. “We’re energy-source neutral, whatever provides energy and electricity to consumers more affordably and reliably should be allowed…but these regulations are unfairly targeting coal.”
The claim is based on numbers: A power plant fueled by natural gas emits about 800 to 850 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour, lower than the EPA-imposed ceiling. But the average coal-fired power plant emits closer to 1,800 pounds per megawatt hour, significantly higher than the new ceiling on coal-based emissions.
In light of those numbers, Nevada’s decision to decommission its coal-powered plants appears to be the only way to avoid the new caps.
But there’s another potential solution keeping states from following Nevada’s lead: Clean coal.
Clean coal entrepreneurs have been boasting that their technology — converting the carbon dioxide byproducts of energy production to a storable liquid — can reduce emissions by up to 90 percent, which is significantly less than the administration’s new emissions threshold.
But it's never really been proven it can be done on a commercial scale.
The EPA regulations have thrown a curveball into the ongoing argument over the feasibility of clean coal: Many clean-energy enthusiasts who initially derided it now point to the technology as proof that the EPA regulations didn’t unfairly single out coal, while many of those who trumpeted clean coal as the wave of the future are now calling it economically impractical.
“Not only are there technical challenges to carbon capture and storage but there’s a huge economic cost that comes with it,” Loris argued. “Plus, you have to store all that liquid CO2…and you run into a whole lot of ‘not in my backyard’ problems.”
The inverted debate sets up an interesting break point for traditional energy production technology.
“Even though it may not be the intent of the EPA’s regulations, this is kind of a ‘put up or shut up’ point for clean coal,” said Stephen Brown, an energy economist and director of the UNLV Center for Business and Economic Research. “If the technology exists, you’re going to have to use it, otherwise you’re going to have to get off of coal.”
But because existing power plants aren’t affected by these regulations — and won’t be affected by any regulations for a while — there’s little immediate incentive for other states to take a note from Nevada and change their entire energy portfolio.
“It’s not clear yet what the new standards will be for existing power plants," Weiss said. "That’s going to be a very different question. "Most states have not even begun to start figuring that out.”
There is still time for many things to change.
The EPA’s calendar spans the next several years: Emissions regulations for existing power production are expected next year but won’t be finalized until 2015; final implementation of state plans to comply with the regulations won’t be expected until 2017.
Nevada’s plans to abandon its coal-fired plants follow roughly the same schedule: Three of the four plants in operation are expected to be decommissioned by 2014; the fourth is scheduled to come off-line in 2017.
The EPA is adopting the new regulations in light of a recent Supreme Court decision that determined that carbon emissions could be regulated under the Clean Air Act.
It’s still an option, however, for Congress to step in — and in the several days since the EPA’s regulations on new plants were announced, many lawmakers, especially Republicans, have indicated they are eager to step up and pre-empt the EPA.
“The president is leading a war on coal and what that really means … is a war on jobs,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement. “The announcement by the EPA is another back-door attempt by President Obama to fulfill his long-term commitment to shut down our nation’s coal mines.”
Representatives such as McConnell are not likely to urge their states to begin dismantling traditional coal-fired plants, while there is still time to fight against the regulations.
“My preference is to have these states fight these regulations … and prevent them from implementing these regulations in the first place,” Loris said. “Then we don’t have them and we don’t have to make the tough choice of sacrifice economic gain for a little environmental gain.”
That is another argument of the pro-coal set: That if the rest of the industrialized world, namely China and India, do not take steps to limit their domestic carbon emissions as well, any U.S. effort is an economic boondoggle for naught.
But not all economists agree.
“There’s already a lot of resistance to coal, even without the EPA,” Brown said. “Not only are people concerned about greenhouse gas emissions from coal, but there’s concern about coal creating local pollution. When NV Energy indicated that it was going to get off of coal, that was viewed as something that was good for the environment here in Nevada.”
Competitively low prices for cleaner-burning natural gas, discovered in droves in the United States, also made the transition attractive.
Hence it may be simple economics, and not Nevada’s example, that spreads the Silver State approach to energy production nationwide.
“Most of the utilities who are looking a little bit farther down the road were recognizing that with all of the environmental concerns, building new coal plants wasn’t really a good investment decisions,” Brown said. “I think NV energy is ahead on this issue. They’re not unique in being ahead of this issue. Other electric power companies are going to be making similar decisions in the next ten years.”