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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.

20140602proposal Cleanpowerplan (PDF)

20140602proposal Cleanpowerplan (Text)

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.


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

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