EPA's Power Plant Carbon Standards: 10 Questions & Answers

Ten questions and answers about EPA's new carbon pollution standards for America's power plants.

Cloud-like emissions are released by smokestacks at a coal-fired power plant

Emissions rise from the coal-fired Cholla Power Plant near Joseph City, Arizona.

The Biden administration issued new standards April 25 to finally cut the climate pollution from the nation’s power plants—the largest industrial source of carbon emissions.

The new rules from the Environmental Protection Agency give power companies until 2032 to cut carbon emissions by 90 percent from the biggest coal and new gas plants. As an option, companies may choose instead to run a plant less frequently, in the case of gas-fired units, or set a retirement date before 2039 for coal-fired plants.

Either way, together with ongoing industry trends and the incentives in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, these rules put the power sector, overall, on track to cut carbon emissions by 75 percent in 2035 from their peak three decades before that.

This is a huge win for the climate and for public health.

The rules will help to ensure emissions cuts in an industry that accounts for a quarter of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. In reducing that pollution, the rules will also bring down other types of air pollution that contributes to asthma, heart disease, lung troubles and even premature death. 

These standards will drive down carbon emissions and energy costs. They’ll drive up investment and good jobs in the clean energy economy of the future. That’s what beating the climate crisis demands. It’s what the law requires.

The rules will also provide the certainty industry needs to meeting growing electricity demand in the cleanest, cheapest, most reliable way possible.

The job’s not done. While these standards will help clean up power plants that burn coal and new plants that burn gas, they don’t cover existing gas-fired plants already operating around the country. 

Existing gas-fired power plants are massive carbon emitters. They kick out other dangerous pollution that most hurts low-income communities and people of color. The EPA must cut all of that pollution—and soon—in a way that confronts the climate crisis and protects frontline communities.

Here are answers to ten common questions about the E.P.A.’s new power plant standards.

What’s the purpose of these new rules and what, exactly, do they do?

These rules press the climate fight on an essential new front, by ending the age of unlimited carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants. 

That’s huge.

The standards are based on what can be achieved by capturing the carbon emitted at a plant. Now that the rules are in place, though, power companies and state regulatory agencies can figure out the best way to achieve the needed reductions. 

Some will choose to install pollution controls. Others will choose to invest in energy efficiency, clean power from the wind and sun, or some combination of all three.

This is the way EPA rules have worked for more than five decades. During that time, power companies have shown they can cut their pollution more cheaply and more easily than predicted. This time won’t be any different.

What impact will this have on climate change?

Power plants are responsible for about 25 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. We’ve got to cut this climate pollution to leave our children a livable world.

According to the EPA’s analysis, these standards will cut carbon emissions by about 1.4 billion tons over the next 23 years—more than the power sector kicks out in an entire year.

Combined with the clean energy incentives in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, these standards will cut carbon emissions from the power sector 75 percent below 2005 levels by 2035. 

How does this fit with other steps the Biden administration has taken to tackle the climate crisis?

This caps a climate action grand slam for the administration.

It has also championed the climate and clean energy incentives in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. Since Biden signed that bill into law, corporations have announced more than $120 billion in new factories to build solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles and advanced batteries, creating more than 100,000 jobs in red states and blue.

In December, the EPA finalized rules to cut methane, a climate super-polluter, from oil and gas operations.

And in March, the EPA finalized rules to cut carbon pollution from our cars and pickup trucks.

Looking at these measures in total, what’s the collective impact?

Taken together and done right, these measures, along with the new power plant rules, have positioned the country to cut greenhouse gases 42 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. With great ambition at the federal, state and corporate levels, we can cut that pollution in half by then, as the science says we must.

What’s this going to mean for costs? 

Power companies and states will find the most cost-effective way to comply. 

But many analyses make clear this can be done without raising costs to consumers. 

Here’s why: 

That’s why more than 90 percent of all new generating capacity this year will come from wind and solar power and advanced batteries to better store and distribute that power. 

This rule fits hand-in-glove with that cost-cutting shift. 

Is this rule going to be upheld in litigation? 

The Supreme Court has made clear that the EPA has a responsibility to curb this dangerous pollution, through measures at each individual power plant site. 

The incentives in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act makes it cheaper for industry to comply. The IRA also specifically instructed EPA to issue a new set of clean air standards taking those incentives into account.

These new rules have been carefully crafted to do exactly what the Court has orderedwhat the law requires—and what responsible power companies are already doing. 

Will these rules make our system less reliable, as some opponents have claimed?

These standards have multiple layers of flexibility built in to ensure reliability. 

First of all, power companies have up to eight years to comply. 

Next, compliance is based on an annual average, to accommodate short-term, temporary demand in heat waves or cold snaps. 

There are other safety valves built into the rule—for example, a year's extension if a power plant can't complete installation of pollution-fighting equipment for reasons beyond its control.

The greatest threat to reliability is coming from increasingly violent stormswildfires, heat waves, frigid cold snaps and other consequences of the climate crisis. And ironically, it's the fossil-fueled plants that are contributing to the crisis that are most prone to breaking down when the weather goes extreme. 

That’s what this rule is all about: fighting the greatest threat to a reliable power system—and to a livable future for our children. 

Can power companies still meet rising demand in light of these rules?

Rising demand makes these rules all the more essential.

We’re electrifying vehicles, homes and factories.  

That’s progress. It’s cutting emissions. It’s creating good jobs. 

It’s absolutely essential that we power this progress with clean energy. 

We can invest in efficiency, and do more with less waste. 

And we can invest in wind and solar power—the cheapest, and the cleanest, way to go. 

Power companies, though, have to look at all the options, not just reflexively build more gas plants.

Is this the end of the line for coal? 

Coal has been declining for decades as a fuel to generate electricity. 

We’re getting 16 percent of our electricity, nationally, from coal, down from 50 percent in 2005. This year, for the first time, wind and solar energy will generate more electricity than coal.

There are roughly 200 large coal-fired power plants in the country. They’re nearly 50 years old—on average. Many will be retired over the coming decade.

The incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act make it cheaper for power companies to install pollution controls on those plants, but the question is whether it makes sense to do so for equipment this old.

More and more power companies are finding that it’s a better bet, dollar for dollar, to invest in clean wind and solar energy to power the future in the most low-cost and sustainable way.

In fact, the Energy Information Administration says that 90 percent of the new electricity capacity installed this year will be solar and wind power, and advanced batteries to store that power.

The new carbon standards are part of a suite of new power plant rules the EPA released April 25 to confront the climate crisis, clean up power plant pollution and protect public health. Can you break that down?

Sure. There are four new rules and here’s what they do:

  • First, cut carbon pollution from plants that burn coal, and new plants that burn gas. That’s essential. 
  • Second, cut the mercury and other toxics from coal-fired plants that are polluting our air and contributing to asthma attacks, heart disease, lung disease and even premature death. Huge public health benefits.
  • Next, cut the toxic metals and other pollutants that coal-fired plants dump into our rivers, lakes and streams: essential protections for freshwater ecosystems and drinking water sources.
  • And, finally, new rules to require industry to do a better job controlling and cleaning up these vast coal-ash waste pits that threaten our communities, our water and our air.

These four rules are long overdue.

The EPA is stepping up to confront the climate crisis and protect clean air, safe water and public health. We’re all the better for them.

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