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Tuesday, 3 June 2014

This Is Big: US To Cut Carbon From Coal Plants. Uptake In Nuclear Likely

Source: Wikimedia
In what it calls a “commonsense plan”, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US has proposed legislation to reduce carbon from existing coal-fired power plants.  Driven by President Obama, the Clean Power Plan, part of the June 2013 Climate Action Plan, may be the single most significant climate policy proposal to come out of the United States government to date.  

The legislation aims to cut carbon emissions from the power sector by 30% in 2030, compared to 2005 levels.  EPA estimates a resulting 25% cut in particulate pollution, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide (NOx and SOx).  So far, so good… and yet, it does seem like the proposal is paving the way for a major uptake in nuclear power.  

Implementation will be done at state level, with each state having a specific target (although they are not expressed as percentages) and the freedom to choose how it meets that goal.  The cuts should be achieved through a combination of measures, including changing the energy mix, energy efficiency and demand-side management.  Emissions trading schemes are also allowed.  By June 2016, states have to inform EPA on how they plan to meet the targets.  

Nuclear is seen as a “technically viable approach” so for me, the scary version is a major increase in nuclear capacity in the US, rather than promoting renewables and energy efficiency.  Old nuclear plants due to be retired might also be kept operational.  EPA says there are at least five nuclear plants that might be kept open past planned retirement.  

In terms of nuclear waste, EPA “recognises that nuclear generation poses unique waste disposal issues”.  However, it says “we do not consider that potential disadvantage of nuclear generation relative to fossil fuel-fired generation as outweighing nuclear generation’s other advantages." 

Renewable targets are set but in some cases are lower than the existing level of renewable generation, e.g. in the case of Iowa which has 25% of renewables today and a 2020 target of 15%.  Forestry-based biomass-derived fuels get a mention as a way to sequester carbon.  CCS makes an appearance and is described as “technically feasible… at costs that are not unreasonable” although EPA says a CCS requirement would be “difficult to implement in the short term”.

How does the US 30% by 2030 target measure up to other regions?  The EU has a 20% by 2020 target, based on 1990 levels and has proposed a 40% reduction by 2030.  China today announced that it will cap absolute carbon emissions from 2016, building on a 2009 emissions intensity target of 40-45% by 2020.  They have not put a figure on the absolute cap yet.

CO2 makes up 82% of US greenhouse gas emissions.  And America loves coal.  So how feasible is a 30% carbon reduction by 2030?  In ‘The Nine Things You Need To Know About Obama’s New Climate Rules’, environmental news website Grist says the proposed regulation is “good for natural gas” as it only focusses on coal-fired plants.  In fact, it could be argued that the legislation is both pro-fracking and pro-nuclear.  Grist also says that legal challenges are expected and opponents may just try to “run out the clock, since a Republican could take office in January 2017."

The EPA’s proposal shows clear political will from the Obama administration.  Recent research by Gallup showed that 39% of Americans are “concerned believers” in global warming.  Yet, this number has been fairly stable since 2001 so we cannot really conclude that public opinion is pushing for political change.  

The Obama administration has been brave in proposing emissions reductions legislation particularly as the number of what Gallup calls “cool skeptics” - those who worry a little or not at all about global warming, who think media reports are exaggerated and who attribute it to “natural changes in the environment" - has doubled from 12% in 2001 to 25% in 2014.

The Clean Power Plan is a meaningful step towards mitigating climate change.  Kudos to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy who is quoted as saying, "We don't have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment.”  And yet, it remains to be seen whether this proposal will lead to more fracking, more nuclear and less renewable energy and energy efficiency.  As such, I can’t help feeling concerned about what should be a good news story for public health and the environment.

Consultation is open for 120 days and there will be four public hearings in the week of 28 July.

Blog by Kathryn Sheridan, Sustainability Consult CEO and 1% for the Planet Ambassador.  Kathryn is a former energy and environment reporter


  1. Thanks for this great analysis. It really brings up major concerns.

    However, I have mixed feelings on the use of nuclear power plants. Won't a prolonged use of such structures (that are already in place) theoretically reduce their impact? And won't it help decreasing the costs of green-house emissions reduction? What are your thoughts on this?

    Still, I agree that there should be stronger directives on the use of renewable energies.


  2. Hi Ana,

    Thanks for your comment. Nuclear is a controversial issue and the point you raise is like asking if it's better to drive an old, more polluting car than a new more efficient one.

    My goal with the post was for people to see beyond the 'War on Coal' media coverage to see that policy is never as black and white as the press release would have us believe.



  3. Hi Kathryn,

    When comparing the US' effort with the EU's, you have to make adjustments for the different baselines, i.e. 2005 vs 1990, as this makes a massive difference.

    For 2020, the US has a target of reducing emissions by 17% from 2005 levels, which would translate into a cut of only 3.5% from 1990 levels. This compares to the EU's 20% target by 2020 (from 1990).

    I am not saying that this is not a substantial step considering the total inertia the US have displayed in the past, but we need to compare like with like. Many countries are already on track to making far bigger cuts than what the US is proposing.

    See also: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/06/01/us-usa-climatechange-world-idUSKBN0EC1DO20140601


    1. Thanks Angelika for the comment,

      I agree on the question of baselines. It's not something I got into but I was aware that it would represent a substantial difference. As you say, it's a substantial step but more is still needed, from all regions.



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