EPA issues carbon standards for new power plants
Originally published September 23, 2013
The Obama administration, in its first major action to carry out the Climate Action Plan the president announced on June 25, has issued strict carbon limits for new power plants that burn fossil fuels. From now on, any utility that plans to build a power plant in the United States that burns either natural gas or coal will be required to meet separate standards for those fuels that were set by the Environmental Protection Agency in a rule issued on Sept. 20.
The EPA's new New Source Performance Standards for fossil-fueled power plants are a revised version of a rule the agency issued in the spring of 2012. Under that proposal, the agency had proposed setting a limit of 1,000 lbs. of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour for any new natural gas- or coal-fired plants. The EPA said it received more than 2 million comments on the earlier proposal, which has been rescinded.
As expected, the re-proposed rule sets separate emissions standards for coal-fired and natural gas-fired power plants. New coal-fired power plants have to meet an emissions limit of 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour, a limit that could be met only with the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. The EPA said only partial capture of carbon emissions — 30 percent to 50 percent of a plant's CO2, depending on the plant's design — would be needed.
The agency said a new coal-fired plant could choose either the limit of 1,100 lbs. of CO2 over a year-long operating period, or a limit of between 1,000 and 1,050 lbs. of CO2 over a seven-year period
Large new natural gas-fired power plants (those of over 850 mmBtu/hr.) will have to meet an emissions limit of 1,000 lbs. CO2/MWh, while smaller gas-fired plants will be held to a limit of 1,100 lbs. of CO2/MWh.
Public comments will be due 60 days from the date on which the proposal is published in the Federal Register. APPA plans to file comments.
Power plants "are the single largest source of carbon pollution" in the United States, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in Sept. 20 speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to announce the new carbon limits.
"Power plants have really long life spans" that run to 60 and sometimes 70 years, she said. "That's why standards are so important."
McCarthy described the new rules as "flexible and achievable" and said that, contrary to assertions by critics, "the economy will not crumble." She said the gasoline mileage standards the EPA established for vehicles helped, rather than hurt, the auto industry. Those fuel economy rules "will cut carbon from cars in half by 2025, and the average driver will save more than $8,000 at the pump over the life of the cars," she said.
The administrator said the EPA looks forward to receiving public comments on the power plant proposal. "We will give each and every comment our thorough consideration," she promised.
In response to a reporter's question asking whether the new EPA rules amount to a ban on new coal-fired power plants, she said no, adding that carbon capture and sequestration "is feasible today."
"I believe this proposal, rather than killing coal, sets a path forward for coal" for the next few decades, McCarthy said.
The EPA said it has started work to develop a separate set of carbon limits for existing power plants. Those rules will be issued by June 1, 2014, the agency said. McCarthy said the agency has launched a broad effort to talk with state, tribal and local governments; industry and labor leaders; and not-for-profit groups about the best way to establish carbon pollution standards for existing power plants.
In 2009, EPA determined that greenhouse gas pollution threatens Americans' health and welfare by leading to long-lasting changes in the climate that can have a range of negative effects on human health and the environment.
"We know this is not just about melting glaciers," McCarthy said in her Sept. 20 speech. "Climate change, caused by carbon pollution, is one of the most significant health threats of our time."
APPA said that while it supports some aspects of President Obama's plan to address climate change, the EPA's new rule limiting carbon emissions for new power plants is poor public policy because it relies on carbon capture and storage, which the association considers to be an unproven technology (see story, below).
Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund and World Resources Institute, applauded the EPA rule.
The EPA's Sept. 20 proposal "delivers a strong signal that the administration will use its authority to tackle climate change," said Kevin Kennedy, director of the World Resources Institute's U.S. Climate Initiative. "While the new standards are relatively stringent, they provide power plants with options for compliance, including phasing in carbon capture and storage," he said. "While not yet used on a wide scale, CCS is technically feasible and could be further deployed under the right conditions."
Market dynamics, especially the emergence of low-priced natural gas, "have been driving U.S. power suppliers away from coal production," Kennedy added. The Energy Information Administration has said that over the next three years, utilities plan to build only eight new coal-fired generators compared with 91 new gas-fired generators, he said.
A copy of the proposed rule and a fact sheets from the EPA are posted on the agency's website.
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