Duke Energy's Asheville plant. Archive photograph by Micah Wilkins/Carolina Public Press

This story originally appeared here and is published by Carolina Public Press through a content-sharing agreement with The Charlotte Observer.

By Bruce Henderson

The Obama administration’s plan to slash the carbon dioxide billowing from power plants relies more on operating efficiencies and low-polluting technologies than on shuttering coal-fired plants.

The nation’s first limits on carbon dioxide, announced Monday, would reduce carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030, compared with 2005. Much of the reduction would begin in 2020. The proposal would let states decide how to reach state-by-state targets.

Charlotte-based Duke Energy, the nation’s biggest electric utility and second-largest carbon emitter, said it was reviewing the 645-page proposal and has not yet assessed impacts to its operations or costs to its 7.2 million customers in six states.

Environmentalists hailed the plan as an overdue step to slow climate change. Skeptics called it a job-killing scheme that will cost consumers billions.

“Today is a momentous day, when the government is finally saying what it needed to say” about climate change, said Robert Bruck, an N.C. State University environmental scientist.

House Speaker John Boehner predicted the plan would cost consumers an extra $17 billion a year and kill 224,000 jobs annually.

“It’s a sucker punch for families everywhere paying more for just about everything in the president’s fragile economy,” Boehner said.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates annual costs of the plan at $7.3 billion to $8.8 billion and public health and climate benefits of $55 billion to $93 billion a year by 2030.

North Carolina’s power plants will be expected to reduce their carbon emission rates 40 percent by 2030, according to EPA figures.

The outlook in NC

Emission rates show how efficiently power plants operate. The rates are calculated by dividing their emissions by the amount of electricity the plants generate.

EPA set North Carolina’s 2030 target at 992 pounds of carbon dioxide for every megawatt-hour generated. The rate in 2012 was 1,646 pounds. The state’s power plants released 53 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2012, the agency said.

The targets reflect what the states have achieved so far in reducing emissions and what EPA believes is attainable.

“A state that has a lot of renewables or is far ahead on energy efficiency, for instance, will not have as far to go and will be credited with their work in those areas,” a senior agency official said Monday.

North Carolina, like 37 other states, has a renewable-energy standard that has boosted solar power. The state also cracked down in 2002 on power-plant releases of pollutants that form soot and smog, placing it ahead of neighboring states.

Duke, meanwhile, has shut down half of its 14 North Carolina coal-fired power plants rather than install state-of-the-art pollution controls required by existing or impending federal laws. Power plants account for about one-third of U.S. carbon releases.

Federal projections show North Carolina headed to an 18 percent drop in carbon emissions by 2020, compared with 2005, said Jonas Monast, director of the climate and energy program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

“North Carolina is going to see continued growth in renewable energy, energy efficiency and natural gas,” Monast said. “The plan gives North Carolina the flexibility to take credit for all those trends that are going to take place anyway.”

As part of that mix, Monast said, newer coal-fired plants with up-to-date pollution controls should be able to continue operating.

Pushback expected

Duke says its carbon emissions are nearly 20 percent lower than in 2005. It’s spent $7.5 billion to update its coal fleet.

“We plan to participate in the rule-making process,” Duke spokesman Chad Eaton said of the EPA proposal.

The trade association for electric utilities, the Edison Electric Institute, said the “EPA appears to have allowed for a range of compliance options to reflect the diversity of approaches that states and electric utilities have undertaken and may undertake to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Flexible compliance is necessary to maintain a diverse portfolio of generating sources.”

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat and green-energy advocate, said political wrangling could erupt over the state’s carbon plan.

“I think we’re going to see some resistance from the climate change deniers, but I don’t think they represent a majority of the legislature,” she said.

Donald van der Vaart, energy policy adviser for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, challenged the proposed rule in testimony before a congressional committee last November.

Van der Vaart questioned whether EPA had proposed the rule under the correct section of the Clean Air Act. He testified that carbon-capture technology for power plants was not proven, and said states, not the federal agency, have authority to develop air pollution control programs.

“One of our chief concerns is not getting too far down the road and having its legality challenged,” as happened with past federal rules, said Drew Elliot, the department’s communications director. “We’ve seen this movie before, and we don’t to be expending resources for what may be a futile effort.”

After brief discussions with EPA, state officials said Monday they’re still uncertain of crucial details such as what baseline year the carbon targets will be measured against. Depending on that year, the state might or might not get credit for renewable-energy development or pollution reductions.

The state plan is expected to be developed by the rule-making Environmental Management Commission, an appointed board, but legislators get final say over new rules.

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Angie Newsome was the executive director and editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact her at (828) 774-5290 or e-mail her at anewsome@carolinapublicpress.org.

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