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The Climate Post: Clean Power Plan Targets May Change

02/19/2015 02:30 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015
Jemal Countess via Getty Images

The EPA administrator this week suggested that interim goals for existing power plants to comply with the agency's proposed Clean Power Plan could be softened before the rule is finalized this summer.

The proposal unveiled last year calls for a 30-percent reduction in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 and sets state-by-state emissions targets, beginning as early as 2020. Regulators and electric utilities have complained that a lack of time could destabilize electric supplies. According to the News and World Report, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy stated that changes to the 2020 date are "very, very much on the table."

"While states can craft their own glide path, we want to make sure they hit the targets that we need and they're going to be effective strategies," McCarthy told an audience at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners' winter meeting. "We clearly need to make sure there is trajectory towards a goal that is as far away as 2030, and that there is an ability to ensure that states are actively working and on a trajectory to achieve that final goal."

New Climate Agreement Draft Long on Diversity of Views, Short on Resolutions

"[Eighty-six pages], 54000words, 1234square brackets: here's official draft of #Paris2015 #UNFCCC agreement" -- that's how Sébastien Duyck, an Arctic Centre researcher and observer at last week's climate talks in Geneva, summarized the proceedings' output on Twitter. The draft negotiated in Lima last November more than doubled in size, and the number of words, phrases, and sentences not agreed upon by all countries (the brackets referred to in Duyck's tweet) also increased, but although the new draft became more complex (not simpler, as planned), it represents progress to some participants.

"Although it has become longer, countries are now fully aware of each other's positions," said Christiana Figueres, the head of the United Nations climate change secretariat.

"After years of false starts and broken promises, restoring ownership and trust in the process is no small achievement. And I think we have come a long way toward doing that," said Ahmed Sareer, a Maldives delegate who represents an alliance of island nations.

Among the new draft's significantly varying proposals for checking climate change are a goal of zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and a peaking of emissions "as soon as possible."

In new text, developed countries, including the United States, emphasized the need for all countries to contribute to emissions-reduction efforts, and developing countries asked for financial help to deal with climate change.

The international agreement, to be reached in Paris in December, is supposed to go into effect in 2020. The next critical date is June in Bonn, where all countries are to announce their emissions-reduction plans.

Experts Debate Economic, Carbon Impacts of Biomass Conversion to Electricity

Last November the EPA issued a policy memo that appeared to promote the harvest of forests to produce power by treating bioenergy as a carbon-free energy source. But there are a couple of problems with that strategy, reports The New York Times. It ignores the opportunity cost of dedicating land to bioenergy rather than to other purposes, potentially imperiling food supplies and ecosystems -- and, according to a recent World Resources Institute report, energy from forests and fields is not carbon-neutral.

In a Feb. 9 letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy that decries the new power plant policy, 78 scientists said, "Burning biomass instead of fossil fuels does not reduce the carbon emitted by power plants." In fact, "Burning biomass, such as trees, that would otherwise continue to absorb and store carbon comes at the expense of reduced carbon storage."

In a Feb. 11 letter to McCarthy, six Massachusetts-based environmental groups also opposed the policy, stating, "We are pleased that EPA is moving forward with the Clean Power Plan. However, we write to express our deep concern at EPA's apparent decision to treat biomass power as carbon neutral for the purposes of EPA's Clean Power Plan and Prevention of Significant Deterioration permitting." They added that the decision "contradicts sound science and promotes burning forest wood for electric power production, which is exactly the wrong direction for our county's renewable energy policy."

But a just-published report in the journal Nature Climate Change argues that deploying bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS) could produce a net reduction in atmospheric carbon -- with up to a 145-percent emissions cut from 1990 levels. Moreover, according to energy expert and study co-author Daniel Kammen, BECCS may be one of the few cost-effective carbon-negative opportunities available to mitigate the worst effects of climate change and could be critical should that change be worse than anticipated or should emissions reductions in non-energy sectors prove difficult to realize.

On the basis of an analysis of various fuel scenarios using a detailed model of the American West power grid developed at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, the University of California Berkeley's report predicts that biomass conversion to electricity combined with prospective carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies could result in a carbon-negative power grid in the western United States by 2050.

"There are a lot of commercial uncertainties about carbon capture and sequestration technologies," admitted the study leader, Daniel Sanchez. "Nevertheless, we're taking this technology and showing that in the Western United States 35 years from now, BECCS doesn't merely let you reduce emissions by 80 percent -- the current 2050 goal in California -- but gets the power system to negative carbon emissions: you store more carbon than you create."

These latest contributions add to and continue what has been several years of debate on the possible benefits and drawbacks of biomass energy and how best to quantify the ultimate impact of its use.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.