What Do the Proposed Carbon Pollution Standards Mean for Pennsylvania?

Many Pennsylvanians, my neighbors and friends included, are wondering just what the Environmental Protection Agency’s landmark proposed carbon pollution standards for our existing coal-fired power plants will mean for us.

Here’s the good news: Done right, by 2020 alone, according to NRDC modeling, the proposed guidelines announced Monday can create more than 5,100 new jobs in the Keystone State, contribute $456 million in energy savings to Pennsylvania families and businesses, and significantly cut pollution in ways that will help prevent thousands of asthma attacks, heart attacks, lung cancer diagnoses and other illnesses.

And by cutting the carbon emissions that are turbocharging our weather, these standards will be a step toward moderating a trend of increasingly extreme weather events such as floods, heat waves, and wildfires. These events not only disrupt our daily lives, but result in huge costs to our economy—in 2012 alone, extreme weather cost our country more than $140 billion, and taxpayers picked up nearly $100 billion of the cost of cleanup, according to an NRDC analysis.

How Pennsylvania’s target was set

To know what these standards will mean, you first have to understand how they work. In putting them together, the EPA conducted extensive “bottom up” analyses that took into account the unique starting points, energy mixes and resource opportunities in each state, and utilized the results to establish state-by-state emissions targets.

As my colleague David Hawkins explains, and is spelled out in more detail in this fact sheet, EPA has taken into consideration the carbon pollution reductions we can make in four areas or “building blocks”: 1) improved coal-plant efficiency (getting more electricity out a ton of coal); 2) using existing (and already in the works) underutilized gas plants more effectively ; 3) growing renewable energy like wind and solar under existing state policies—in this case, Pennsylvania’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS), and retaining 6% of existing nuclear generation; and, 4) ramping up the energy efficiency savings from utility programs such as weatherization and upgraded appliance rebates that help families, businesses and industry save energy and the money they spend on it.

Based on this formula, Pennsylvania has a carbon intensity reduction target of 32% in 2030 from 2012 levels.  (Carbon intensity is a measure of the amount of carbon pollution produced per unit of electricity generated.)

The starting point is based on an “adjusted” 2012 rate of 1,540 pounds per megawatt hour (lbs/MWh) declining to 1,052 lbs/MWh in 2030. There’s also a 2020 “interim” target of 1,179 lbs/MWh to be sure we are on the necessary declining glide path to hit our final goal.  A megawatt hour, by the way, is equal to 1,000 kilowatts of electricity used continuously for one hour – about the amount of electricity used by about 330 homes during one hour.

Under the rule, once EPA sets the final target, the states themselves are in the driver’s seat to chase it—each one will need to submit a state plan that includes a recipe for what volume of reductions they will deliver from each block. EPA also leaves it up to states whether to enter into regional agreements for compliance, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative model.

Where we are now

Here in Pennsylvania, we’ve got some good models going that will help us on our way to the EPA’s target. In fact, since EPA used conservative assumptions to generate their estimates for our renewable energy and energy efficiency potential, Pennsylvania could harvest significantly greater volumes of cost-effective reductions as part of a well-designed plan.

Pennsylvania Act 129, the state’s energy efficiency law enacted in 2008, has already delivered huge cash and energy savings to customers and is set to deliver much more. PECO customers—PECO is the state’s largest distribution utility—have saved roughly $331 million and PPL customers have saved at least $428 million. “For every $1 customers pay to support the program,” explains Christina Simeone, director of the PennFuture Energy Center, “they receive almost $3 back in benefits.” She notes that the state’s own analysis shows Pennsylvania can cost-effectively cut more than 27% of its forecasted energy use over the next 10 years, using currently available technology (in contrast, for purposes of setting our target EPA assumes cumulative energy savings in 2029 of just over 11% ).

On the renewable energy front, while the state’s AEPS definitely needs to be strengthened, Pennsylvania is well-positioned to ramp up.  Even in its relatively modest form, it’s already driven the installation of more than 1,300 megawatts of wind power—Pennsylvania has 25 wind farms—providing 1.5% of the state’s energy in 2013 and powering the equivalent of 300,000 homes. (According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, fully exploiting Pennsylvania’s wind resources could provide over 6% of the state’s current electric needs.)

A solid solar power foundation has been established as well. There are more than 440 solar companies in our state, employing 2,900 workers, and our installed solar capacity is 11th in the nation. There’s solar (and wind power) at the Philadelphia Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field, solar on the roof of the Acutran transformer plant in Zelienople, north of Pittsburgh. There's even solar at the Pocono Raceway, in Long Pond. All together there’s enough solar power now to provide electricity to more than 28,000 homes.

Much more is possible

We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the Keystone State’s vast, untapped energy efficiency and renewable energy potential. Why simply meet the proposed standard, when exceeding it will bring Pennsylvania more jobs, more energy savings, a more stable climate, and healthier families?

EPA’s proposed rule is an important step forward for the nation on climate change. We must now work to build on this proposal and adopt an even stronger final rule next year to benefit Pennsylvanians and our economy. In the meantime, Pennsylvania can get busy now crafting a smart compliance plan that will make the state a national leader on clean energy.

The foundation has been laid. Now let’s go build it.