The Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement that power plants are going to have to cut carbon dioxide emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 has sparked cries that it’s a recipe for economic woe. Small government advocacy group Americans for Prosperity says the proposed standards hit Americans in the pocketbook through their electric bill and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity called them “misguided.” But Colorado is being held up as evidence that the path to reduced carbon dioxide emissions is survivable. The EPA even turned to Colorado to inform the carbon dioxide mitigation measures outlined in these proposed guidelines.
Colorado’s Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act, passed in 2010, called for investorowned utilities — Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy — to reduce emissions by 30 percent by 2020. Xcel Energy, the state’s leading electricity provider and the 15th largest electricity producer in the nation in 2012, is already on track to reduce total emissions of carbon dioxide in Colorado by 35 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, a full decade before the EPA’s deadline. Nationally, the company is set to reduce emissions by 31 percent in that same time frame.
These efforts to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change don’t seem to have cued an economic Armageddon.
“Colorado proves that by working together and pursuing innovative cost effective solutions we can reduce our impact on climate change and keep our economy strong while preserving our unique Colorado quality of life,” Carrie Curtiss, deputy director of Conservation Colorado, said at a teleconference.
But the progress of Colorado’s legislation, which has put the state ahead of national work to reduce carbon emissions, raises the question — how will Colorado see benefit from EPA regulations that call for slower progress than the state has already outlined and allow leniency for natural gas even as conservationists increasingly criticize that “bridge fuel” for its methane emissions?
“I think a lot of that is being figured out — figuring out what a lot of our utilities, and some of the plans that they have in place, how that’s going to fit in with these new standards,” says Chris Arend, strategic communications director for Conservation Colorado. The public has 120 days to comment on the proposed rules, and in that time, he says, a much clearer picture of where Colorado stands should emerge.
For now, Arend says, “We feel like the steps that Colorado has taken leave us as a state and as residents well-positioned to meet these new carbon pollution standards.”
In 2004, Colorado became the first state to have a voter-approved renewable energy standard, calling for 10 percent renewable power by 2015. State legislators expanded that in 2007 to call for 20 percent renewable energy by 2020, a target increased to 50 percent by legislation signed by Governor Bill Ritter in 2010.
The Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act led to plans to decommission coal-fired power plants around the state, including Xcel’s Valmont Station in Boulder. In Colorado, coal accounts for 56 percent of Xcel’s energy supply, natural gas is 21.6 percent, wind is 19.3 percent, and hydro and solar power are 1.9 percent and 1.1 percent, respectively.
State legislation also requires that rural power co-ops reduce emissions by 10 to 20 percent, depending on the number of meters served. Legal challenges to Colorado’s renewable energy legislation were recently dismissed in federal court.
“Colorado has demonstrated its intent to be a leader in reducing carbon, and while we are ahead of schedule compared to other states in retiring dirty coal plants and reducing overall carbon emissions from those existing power plants, to remain a leader I think we should take a more aggressive stance and goals than just the federal minimum standards that are being set by this new carbon rule,” says Roger Singer, regional conservation department manager for the Boulder chapter of the Sierra Club. “The carbon rule is a great statement for all of us nationally to be working together to address climate change and we applaud President Obama and his administration for putting that standard forward. ... While Colorado has already met many of those goals, we should work harder to continue to remove dirty coal from our list of energy options and be able to focus more directly on wind and solar, because unfortunately, despite some significant gains, we still see coal providing two-thirds of the power here in Colorado, which is too much to be able to realistically say that we have completed our goals of moving to clean and renewable energy.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council, using EPA data, still ranks Colorado 10th in the nation for carbon emissions pollution.
The electric power sector produced 32 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. in 2012, making fossil-fueled power plants the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the country.
Before the June 2 proposed standards for carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants were announced by the EPA, the agency had issued no national limits on carbon pollution levels from power plants.
Only the level of arsenic, mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particle pollutions they can emit have been limited.
Cutting carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector by 30 percent nationwide below the 2005 level would be an amount equal to emissions from half the homes in the U.S. in one year, according to the EPA. The reductions are expected to have corresponding benefits in reducing particle pollution, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, avoiding as many as 6,600 premature deaths and up to 150,000 asthma attacks in children and 490,000 missed work or school days and cutting electricity bills by 8 percent, all while continuing to allow coal and natural gas to be the leading sources of electricity generation in the U.S.
“EPA’s proposed greenhouse gas rule has potential to significantly change how we produce and consume electricity in this country. Xcel Energy has taken steps over the past decade to reduce emissions at a reasonable cost to customers, and these steps should help us respond to this rule,” Ben Fowke, chairman, president and CEO of Xcel Energy, said in a statement.
The EPA’s proposed guidelines “build on trends already underway in states and the power sector” to cut those emissions and allow states flexibility to meet carbon pollution limits that were individually set based on the electricity production facilities that exist in the state and their options to diversify — with the potential to trade credits on a carbon market amongst themselves.
Colorado’s proposed goal is to reduce average pounds of carbon dioxide per new megawatt hour from all affected fossil fuel-fired electric generating units to 1,159 from 2020-2029 and 1,108 for a final goal achieved by 2030.
Liz Purchia, press secretary for the EPA, said via email that the EPA did not specifically factor in existing carbon dioxide reduction programs when setting those targets, but “rather used a consistent set of rules based on the state’s actual generation mix. ... Colorado will be able to use many of the things included in their existing strategy such as renewable nergy and energy efficiency programs to help comply with the new proposed requirements.”
“We are hopeful this will help set the stage for the creation of a regional coalition of partners who can focus on reducing emissions together,” said Heather Bailey, Boulder’s executive director of Energy Strategy and Electric Utility Development, in a statement.
But there’s concern that switching to natural gas-generated power is on the list of measures states can add to their plans as they craft individual strategies to meet the EPA-set goals.
“I think unfortunately there is an increasing trend to use natural gas and to produce natural gas here in Colorado, and I think we need to take a step back from moving in that direction and recommit ourselves to production of wind and solar in this state,” Singer says. “Colorado is so well poised to provide the kinds of jobs and infrastructure and health benefits that go along with renewable energy that, given this new national standard, it really allows us the opportunity to look at the crossroads that Colorado is facing for its energy future. It would be a huge mistake at this point to commit too many investments in infrastructure to natural gas that still, at this point, provides a significant amount of methane pollution, which is even worse than carbon dioxide being burned at the plant affecting climate change, and not to mention the air and water quality impacts that come from fracking and drilling.”
The promise of climate change to bring more heat and drought, both threats to the Colorado River and water supplies throughout the Southwest, isn’t greatly diminished by the EPA’s proposed standards, according to Gary Wockner, campaign coordinator for the Save the Colorado River Campaign. While the proposed standards could significantly cut pollution, making a real difference in climate change will require switching to renewable energy, not replacing coal with another fossil fuel that could actually increase climate change pollution.
“Switching from coal to gas to fight climate change is like switching to low tar cigarettes to fight lung cancer — too little, too late. We need wind and solar, now,” Wockner says.
“While it may burn cleaner at the power plant itself, there’s still significant risk and harm that comes from this surge in natural gas production from fracking and from methane leaks during distribution, so we do not support natural gas as a bridge fuel or as a solution to addressing climate change,” Singer says. “We have to focus much more aggressively on increasing the amount of energy that’s produced from wind and solar, otherwise, we’re just not going to move fast enough to address this climate change issue at a national level.”
The carbon pollution standards for existing plants are expected to be finalized by June 2015 and states have until June 30, 2016 to submit proposed plans for meeting those emissions goals. The EPA is accepting comments on the proposal for 120 days and holding four public hearings on the proposed standards, one of which will be in Denver on July 29 from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the EPA’s Region 8 Building, 1595 Wynkoop St. Individuals interested in speaking at the hearing must register in advance by July 25 through the EPA’s website.