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US Power Sector is Changing -- Even Without a Climate Bill

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Now that the climate bill is in hibernation, it would be easy to despair that the US power sector will resume its tradition of burning high-polluting coal to sell increasing amounts of electricity.

The Washington Post opted for such a conclusion in an Aug. 23 article, "Proliferation of old-style coal plants increases despite public outcry." The article noted that "dozens" of old-style coal plants -- 32, to be exact -- have been built since 2008 or are under construction. But there was an important context missing: The article failed to note that wind power production was the largest source of new electricity in the US last year and that for every new coal plant built in the US in recent years, four proposed coal plants have been canceled or delayed.

The reality is the US power sector is undergoing a dramatic transformation to decarbonize its energy offerings and sell less, not more, electricity.

Examples of this shift were aplenty during the hot sweaty last days of August:

This shift has little to do with altruism and lots to do with long-term economics.

Even without climate legislation, other market forces are compelling the industry to change. Wind and other forms of renewable energy are becoming more cost-competitive with fossil-fuel based generation, and states are setting aggressive renewable energy targets while the federal government provides financial incentives. Energy efficiency is gaining regulatory support as the lowest-cost option for meeting energy demand. Environmental rules for limiting mercury, SO2 and other air pollutants are getting tighter. And with climate legislation stalled, EPA greenhouse gas regulations are looming.

Add these trends together, and it's easy to see why the traditional business model of building large fossil fuel-fired power plants to sell more electricity is becoming outdated.

Among those embracing a cleaner future is Exelon CEO John Rowe, whose company has set a goal to cut its carbon emissions by 15 million tons per year by 2020, which is equivalent to taking nearly three million cars off our roads.

"Whether harmful (CO2) emissions are priced or regulated, our combined capacity of nearly 19,000 megawatts of zero-emission wind, solar, hydro, landfill gas and nuclear power remains a clear competitive advantage that will only become more powerful," Rowe told the New York Times last week.

Power giant Tennessee Valley Authority, whose 15,000-megawatt coal plant fleet is among the nation's largest, is also lowering its carbon exposure. Last month, TVA announced plans to ramp up energy efficiency and demand response efforts by 1,900 megawatts and idle 1,100 megawatts of coal capacity by 2015.

Use of coal is already declining in the U.S., reaching its lowest level in 15 years in 2009. Bernstein Research recently forecast the retirement of about 20 percent of the nation's coal-fired capacity by 2015.

But whether such forecasts become reality is difficult to know.

Even without climate legislation, coal-based power production is being held somewhat in check by low prices for natural gas, a cleaner fossil fuel that emits roughly half the CO2 as coal when it is burned. But this is a temporary solution and pollution reduction gains could easily be eclipsed if gas prices rise again.

What's required now is continued support that accelerates the development of renewable energy and new EPA pollution rules that spur innovation in the power sector.

The long-term solution, however, is in the hands of Congress. The longer it delays passing national legislation to reduce carbon emissions and provide clarity for the industry, the greater the temptation for utilities to cling to the past with old dirty technologies -- stalling the promising paradigm shift now sweeping the industry.

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