About the SA Blog Network



Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American
Observations HomeAboutContact

Obama’s Clean Power Plan Means More Gas to Fight Global Warming [Video]

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

400 PPM: What’s Next for a Warming Planet
Concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached this level for the first time in millions of years. What does this portend? »


The CO2 capture unit on the grounds of the Mountaineer power plant. Courtesy of AEP

If the power plant goes away, so do the jobs, and then the town. That’s the fear in New Haven, West Virginia, home to the hulking Mountaineer coal-fired power plant conveniently located next to a coal mine. And that’s why, back in 2009, the power plant’s owner American Electric Power went to the trouble and expense of installing a giant chemistry set to capture 20 percent of the carbon dioxide pollution from burning coal.

But that experiment came to an end in 2011, stopped by state officials who proved unwilling to pay to continue the experiment and the lack of any federal program to impose a cost on spewing CO2. That calculus could change in the wake of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new clean power plan unveiled on June 2.

The question EPA set out to answer is how to combat climate change and improve public health while providing flexibility for individual states—ranging from West Virginia, which gets almost all of its electricity from coal, to Vermont which hosts no coal-fired power plants—to meet new CO2 pollution standards. The answer to that all-of-the-above style question is not the kind of carbon capture and storage once employed by Mountaineer but instead is mostly to burn more natural gas.

That’s because the new rules focus on the rate of CO2—more specifically, the number of pounds of global warming pollution emitted per megawatt-hour of electricity generated in a given state. The EPA noted the rate at which the nation’s roughly 1,000 coal-fired power plants belched CO2 in 2012 and then set a goal for 2030, similar to rate-based programs that already exist in California, New York, Oregon and Washington State.


Courtesy of Center for Climate and Energy Solutions

This is also how the other pollution standards developed over the last 40 years under the Clean Air Act work, combating things like smog-forming nitrogen oxides or acid-rain causing sulfur dioxides that also come from burning coal.

The new goals range from a more than 60 percent drop in Washington State (predicated in part on the fact that a big coal-fired power plant there is already scheduled to retire before 2030) to no goal at all for Vermont.

How did the Green Mountain State escape regulation? Simple: it is home to zero fossil fuel burning power plants. Instead, it hosts the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant capable of producing nearly 400,000 MWh of no-carbon electricity each year. As it stands, nuclear power provides roughly 70 percent of the zero-CO2 electricity currently generated in the U.S. (and because Georgia and South Carolina are building new reactors, they receive relatively big emission cuts under this new EPA plan.)

But Vermont Yankee has had its troubles and its owner—utility Entergy—plans to shut the old boiling water reactor down at the end of this year. Other aging nuclear reactors forced to compete with newly cheap natural gas are shutting down as well. This will make it even more difficult for some states to meet their new targets and, if power plants that burn natural gas are built instead, may increase CO2 pollution. So the EPA has judged the subsidy required to keep those nuclear power plants open in California, Florida, Wisconsin and New Jersey as a “reasonable cost” (up to $6 per MWh) and therefore required the pollution avoided by those nuclear plants to remain in those states goals.

Once the EPA rule is in place in 2015—lawsuits will begin as soon as the rule is in force that likely will delay implementation further and political foes have already vowed legislative action—states will have a variety of options like subsidizing old nuclear power plants to meet their goals. Each state will have a unique goal (dubbed a “best system of emission reduction” in agency-ese) based on its current mix of energy supply and will have to submit a plan by June 30, 2016 to meet it. Energy efficiency and a switch to renewables (other members of the EPA’s set of four “building blocks” for such a system) will likely play a role in most states, especially since the rates are in part predicated on targets for renewable energy (in some cases set at levels below those already achieved in 2012, such as in Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, and South Dakota.)

States can even band together, much as states in the northeastern U.S., including Vermont, joined to create the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade market started in 2009 and covering nine states that allows the buying and selling of CO2 permits to meet an overall ceiling on such pollution.

“If we do nothing, in our grandkids’ lifetimes, temperatures could rise 10 degrees [Fahrenheit] and seas could rise four feet,” noted EPA administrator Gina McCarthy when announcing the rules to a gathering at the agency’s headquarters on June 2. “The most costly thing we can do, is to do nothing.”

The folks at EPA treated McCarthy like a rock star as she strode out to announce the new clean power plan, cheering, whistling and clapping for the historic day. “As a bonus, we’ll cut the pollution that causes smog and soot by 25 percent more than if we didn’t have this rule in place,” McCarthy added. “Now that’s a great added bonus.”

That bonus comes as a result of the most likely actions on the power plant side: improving the efficiency with which the heat from burning coal is used to create steam that spins a turbine to generate electricity (known to industry as a “heat rate improvement” if you want to keep up with your jargon).

Much of the rest will be the continuation of a trend to shut down coal-fired power plants and fire up natural gas generators instead, a shift that, paired with the Great Recession, has already helped drop U.S. emissions from power plants from roughly 2,400 teragrams of CO2 in 2005 to roughly 2,000 Tg of CO2 in 2012.

Simply put, existing natural gas-fired power plants will be run more often and new ones will be built. Burning natural gas instead of coal emits 40 percent less CO2, the bulk of the CO2 savings assumed under this plan.

That comes at a cost: communities around those natural gas-fired power plants now running more often could expect more frequent episodes of high local concentrations of soot and smog.

The EPA also tried to predict the future. By 2030, the agency’s crystal ball foresees a country that gets 9 percent of its electricity from the sun, wind and heat underground. “Coal and natural gas would remain the two leading sources of electricity generation in the U.S., with each providing more than 30 percent of the projected generation,” the proposed rule reads. As a result of all this, the CO2 intensity of power production will have dropped across the 50 states by 30 percent in 2030 compared to 2005 levels.

Of course, natural gas is mostly methane. And methane is an even more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, which means if the power plants—or the pipelines and wells that supply them—are leaky the climate may not be helped as much.

And the U.S. in 2030 will still be contributing a hefty chunk of global warming pollution. If followed, the plan would drop pollution to roughly the same amount spewed in 1990. That leaves the U.S. still well short of its goal of an 80 percent drop by 2050. The thick sheaf of 645 papers McCarthy signed on June 2 may be a complicated extension of the Clean Air Act, dwelling significantly on state implementation, accounting, enforcement and costs versus benefits, but it is just the beginning of a bid to combat climate change.

Concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere have already reached new highs—sitting above 400 parts-per-million across the Northern hemisphere for the month of April and much of May—a concentration never before breathed by our species. By 2016, on present trends, 400 ppm and beyond will become the annual averages. “The answer is quite simple and plain: the reason is the unabated emissions from fossil fuel burning and from changes in land,” says Martin Heimann, a biogeochmeist at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Germany. As it stands, concentrations tick up by roughly 2 ppm per year.


Courtesy of EPA

The clean power rule will not slow that rise much, restraining total global CO2 emissions by roughly 2 percent, at best. “Yes, our climate crisis is a global problem that demands a global solution, and there’s no Hail Mary play we can call to reverse its effects,” McCarthy said, and there is some hope that at least the world’s largest polluter—China—will also cut CO2, if only to get that bonus of also cutting down on the other forms of choking air pollution that comes with it.

The EPA’s clean power plan is another step taken on the long road to the end of an atmosphere that no longer serves as an open sewer. But to burn coal or even natural gas without exacerbating global warming requires CO2 capture and storage whether in India or Indiana, like the project demonstrated at Mountaineer in West Virginia. The EPA, because of the cost of such CCS technology, will not go that far.


David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 8 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. phalaris 8:30 am 06/4/2014

    Just testing. Is this going to be another newspiece or blog which strangely enough gets closed for comments just after Sault18 has said his piece? At :
    Or have I been blacklisted?
    A casual visitor to the SciAm blogs might not realise that Sault18′s challenge in that piece :”Many EU countries are NOT experiencing “massive cost issues for alternatives[sic] Please provide the hard evidence ” has been met many times. His weasely worded sentence includes of course the EU countries which have a low penetration of renewables. Those with the highest penetration, Germany and Denmark, have the highest electricity costs.
    Spain is experiencing right now a crisis with solar:
    Spain’s solar plants are located at by-far-and-away the most favourable location in the whole of Europe.
    All this is not really so off-topic: it’s just to make it clear that nuclear is the only real option : above natural gas as well. As David Biello points out natural gas would require CCS. But that would reduce its efficacy over coal because of the extra energy for the capture process.

    Link to this
  2. 2. g-minor 5:01 pm 06/5/2014

    You acknowledge that methane is a greenhouse gas much worse than CO2 yet you think that the problem is solved by saying the companies need to be careful. First of all, they won’t be, they are not now, the regulators are almost non-existent and the amount of methane now leaking is already catastrophic. It is well established that the methane leaked at every stage of extraction and transportation far exceeds the supposed benefit of burning gas rather than coal.

    Link to this
  3. 3. tubesjim 5:49 pm 06/5/2014

    “If we do nothing, in our grandkids’ lifetimes, temperatures could rise 10 degrees [Fahrenheit] and seas could rise four feet,” noted EPA administrator Gina McCarthy”

    What pile of BS. If she said 3 degrees Fahrenheit and one foot she would still off but at least it could happen if the CO2 is as evil as she says. The problem is, even if the US stopped producing CO2 it would make no difference as China and India have already filled the gap.

    Link to this
  4. 4. 13inches 7:02 pm 06/5/2014

    China is building one new coal-fired power plant PER WEEK to provide electricity to their growing population and growing middle class. All this political grandstanding from the US EPA will do NOTHING relative to stopping global CO2 emissions. Gina McCarthy and Obama seem to think China and India are located on Mars. They aren’t.

    Link to this
  5. 5. vebiltdervan 7:19 pm 06/5/2014

    g-minor wrote: “…It is well established that the methane leaked at every stage of extraction and transportation far exceeds the supposed benefit of burning gas rather than coal…”

    I’m wondering where this is “well established”, aside from within Mr. minor’s own mind.

    Do we need greater monitoring for leaks at all stages of extraction & transport? Yes. As environmentalists, we should insist that our states & our nation do that.

    But environmentalists also need to quit crying wolf about CH4. Yes, a CH4 molecule in the atmosphere has more greenhouse effect than a CO2 molecule, at any one moment in time. But their respective residence times are 12 years for CH4 & >1000 years for CO2. The CO2 is consequently a far more impactful greenhouse gas.

    If environmentalists succeed in limiting our use of natural gas, for example because we/they think that fracking is purely evil, then we pave the way for America’s CO2 emissions to shoot up, as the 100 power plants that converted from burning coal to burning natural gas all have to convert back.

    We can all agree that solar & wind are the future, but those of us who are realists know that it’s not the future yet. This country will run on fossil fuels for awhile longer. The only question is, do we want it to be 40% more CO2-producing (coal), or not (natural gas).

    Link to this
  6. 6. ochar 9:14 am 06/7/2014

    Mechanical energy in the world, roughly 85% of all energy used by man.
    Electricity, 15%.

    Eliminate the use of coal to generate electricity, only exempts to USA of being an accomplice to global warming, and not on be a leader, not even contributor, to help reduce global warming.


    Link to this
  7. 7. hcc2009 10:38 am 06/23/2014

    Obama seems to think that nuclear energy is a good solution to global warming. Could that be because he was heavily backed by the nuke company, Exelon, in his political career in Illinois (the state with the highest number of nuke power plants, per square mile, of any state in the U.S.)? Obama was involved in reducing obstacles on behalf of Exelon.

    Who amongst would choose the risks of radiation poisoning over increasingly hot weather? Maybe there are some, maybe many. But what I’m not hearing is an honest public discussion of the risks and benefits. Dinosaurs lived at a time when global temps were way higher than anything currently projected. Our ancestors in Europe just 1000 years ago lived in higher temps than those projected for the end of the 21st century. The charts never show this, but we’re at a relatively cool point right now considering the history of the planet.

    I don’t personallty have a firm position nor a horse in this race. But I’m dismayed at the polarization and inability of the scientific or public policy communities to talk straight with us about it.

    Link to this
  8. 8. famulla 10:34 am 06/29/2014

    David Cameron took Britain closer to the exit door of the European Union last night following a tumultuous EU summit at which his fellow leaders inflicted a crushing defeat on the prime minister by nominating Jean-Claude Juncker for one of the most powerful jobs in Brussels.

    In what marked a rift in the UK’s long and troubled relationship with the continent, Cameron was left isolated as 26 of 28 countries endorsed Juncker as head of the European commission for the next five years. “This is a bad day for Europe,” said the prime minister as he voiced bitterness over the nomination of Juncker. “Of course I’m disappointed.” He described the nominee disparagingly as “the career insider of Brussels” and criticised other EU national leaders who he said had “taken different views along the way”.

    Accusing the leaders of Germany, France, Italy and another 23 countries of making “a serious mistake” by abandoning an approach that could have brought consensus on an alternative to the former prime minister of Luxembourg, Cameron said: “We must accept the result … Jean-Claude Juncker is going to run the commission.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article