Dizzying Renewable Energy Price Declines Can Help States Meet Ambitious Carbon Targets Under The EPA's Clean Power Plan

Here’s some exciting news from the number crunchers here at NRDC:

Thanks especially to the plummeting costs of solar and wind power, states can cost-effectively cut much more carbon than the EPA originally proposed this June. As we wrote in comments submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency this week on its plan to cut carbon pollution from the country’s existing power plants, wind and solar costs are now a mind-blowing 46 percent lower than the EPA estimated in its draft proposal this summer. As a result, our updated modeling shows that the Clean Power Plan can easily and cost-effectively spur the development of an additional 143 terawatt-hours of renewable energy in 2030, compared to EPA’s June estimate. That’s enough electricity to power an additional 14 million-plus homes.

Though EPA’s draft Clean Power Plan proposal promises important carbon pollution cuts of 26 percent by 2020 and 30 percent by 2030, pollution-free power from the sun and the wind can help us deliver much healthier ones—36 percent by 2020 and a sizeable 44 percent by 2030, giving states more options as they design their compliance plans. All of this makes the EPA’s Clean Power Plan the most important potential driver of renewable energy development being debated in the country today. (And, note: our calculations don’t factor in continuing price drops or future technological improvements that may make renewable energy even cheaper and more popular still.)

As a parent who worries about my kids’ futures—both their safety in an unstable climate and their adult job prospects—here’s what I think: EPA, as you fine-tune the CPP, think big and remember what clean energy can do.

If you last tuned in in June, you might wonder how these new and much more impressive pollution numbers have emerged. The answer is simple. Though we used the same computer model as EPA, we inserted updated and far more accurate pricing data for solar and wind power. The EPA’s numbers weren’t wrong so much as out of date. When its staff did its original calculations, in 2013, it used price data from 2012 some of which was based on contracts signed in 2008. But since then, much as they have over the last decade, those prices have continued to nosedive. (Why? Government incentives have spurred renewable-energy demand, thereby speeding economies of scale and driving both investment in technology and competition in the marketplace.) As a result, the cost data EPA used for wind and solar power from 2012 is a walloping 46 percent above current averages.

The difference is astounding. While states don’t have to choose renewables, when we modeled the most cost-effective compliance options for states, we found that the CPP, as originally proposed, would likely have driven 326 terawatt-hours of wind and solar power generation in 2030. But just using the updated cost figures, we found it could spur the development of 469 terawatt-hours in that same year. (A terawatt-hour is equal to one million megawatt-hours, about the amount of energy consumed in a year by 100,000 American homes. In other words, a whole lot of renewable energy.)

Plus, when we fixed these cost numbers and made other important changes, we found that EPA can increase the renewable energy contribution to the overall state targets by a whopping 86 percent. These advances in renewable energy leave EPA plenty of room to strengthen the CPP.

And our economy. Designing, developing, installing and maintaining wind farms and solar arrays will create tens of thousands of new jobs. It will also save consumers money on energy, make the air our kids and our seniors breathe cleaner, and give consumers choices about the sources of electricity they use. Really, what’s not to like about this?

And these aren’t the only positive results. Our new findings mean states will have much more flexibility in designing their CPP compliance plans. In windy states, especially those from Montana south to Texas and across the Midwest, an increased reliance on wind power might make more cost-effective sense than, say, switching coal-burning power plants to natural gas. In the Southeast, with its great solar resources, the sun’s rays can cut carbon as they put people back to work.

All this means that in revising the CPP, the EPA can and should raise its sights and set stronger targets for states. As a parent, I’m thrilled NRDC’s modeling shows the EPA can help the country make the ambitious pollution cuts scientists tell us we need to avoid climate change’s worst impacts, with renewable energy helping lead the way.