In early 2012 the EPA introduced a rule to regulate the CO2 output of new power plants constructed in the United States.
Power plants account for 40% of CO2 emissions in the US. This graph illustrates the large role coal plays in overall power production, as well as the disproportionately large stake it has in carbon emissions.
For the past 10 years coal power has been on the downswing, partly due to decreases in the price of natural gas. Utilities are shutting down coal plants and replacing them with more efficient gas or non-fossil-fuel systems. The proposed limit of 1,000 lbs of carbon per kilowatt hour (kwh) is pertinent mostly to the construction of new coal-powered plants, since on average new natural gas facilities already fall below the limit. There are approximately 25 coal plants in the early stages of development – a relatively small area of concern compared to the 600 or so currently in operation.
Environmentalists are critical of the EPA for not doing more to curb inefficiency in existing coal power plants (many of which emit upwards of 2,000 lbs per kwh), and for allowing a handful of partially-constructed plants to continue development without being subject to the new regulation. Some journalists also point out that the changes the rule purports to require are already taking place for economic reasons. Josh Galperin, a blogger for cleanenergy.org, states that “the age of coal is coming to an end because of market forces, not regulations. What this rule can do is make sure that if market forces change, power companies will not try to revive coal.”
That coal was ever a “cheap” option for power generation reflects one basic marketplace flaw: that industry has never properly accounted for its external costs.
In an article titled “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal,” researchers at Queen’s University in Canada have tried to calculate the true price of coal power. The estimate includes “the impacts of climate, air quality, mercury damages, coal transport deaths, public health issues, subsidies for extraction, and the loss of value of the abandoned land. At the low end, their estimates suggest that coal's additional costs run about 9.4 cents a kilowatt-hour (¢/kwhr) in the US. Even that compares unfavorably with the typical cost of power in the US, which is about 9.7¢/kwhr. And that's the low estimate. Their best estimate places the additional costs at 17.8¢/kwhr on its own, that's more than the typical cost of existing wind power (14.9¢/kwhr). The worst case is a staggering 26.9¢/kwhr.” –John Timmer for Ars Technica
While opponents of the EPA’s rule cite its potential to damage the economy and destroy jobs, they ignore the effects of coal on the health - and lives - of miners and other workers. Meanwhile, alternative energy companies of all sorts are claiming that they have the potential to create many more jobs - and certainly safer jobs - than coal mining.
Of course, no-one is rushing to re-train those who make their living from coal. And the externalities of natural gas are not considered in its price either. Still, it’s hard to deny the immense impact that cleaner energy generation would have on the environment, public health, and public funds. And if the US wants to see a steady, long-term reduction in CO2, as well as in the “hidden” costs not shouldered by mining companies, refineries, and coal-based power plants, then further regulation seems safer than trusting the energy market…especially with powerful lobbying groups pushing for further development of domestic fossil fuel sources.
The EPA is accepting comments on their proposed rule until June 25, 2012. Click here for more information.