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Kudos to Bipartisan Ideas for the Clean Power Plan

Michael Tubman's picture
Center for Climate and Energy Solutions
  • Member since 2018
  • 4 items added with 2,467 views
  • Jun 5, 2015

clean power plan and politics

Debate over the proposed Clean Power Plan has been, not surprisingly, contentious and, unfortunately, partisan. On one end, some Republicans are promoting a just-say-no approach, discouraging states from developing plans to cut carbon emissions from their power plants, as the proposed rule would require. On the other end, some Democrats are refusing to acknowledge the genuine challenges the proposal presents to states and the power sector.

With all the partisan rancor surrounding the plan, it was refreshing to see a bipartisan group of senators take a different approach. Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Tom Carper (D-DE) came together last week to offer constructive comments on the proposal in a letter to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy.

The letter specifically focuses on the treatment of nuclear power in the Clean Power Plan. As we wrote in Climate Solutions: The Role of Nuclear Power, nuclear energy  is a reliable, carbon-free component of our electricity portfolio. It currently contributes 60 percent of all low-carbon generation in the United States – more than four times the amount of solar and wind power combined.

But depressed power prices, higher operating costs, and power market design challenges threaten early retirement of nuclear power plants. Our report warns that nuclear plants that close are likely to be replaced by natural gas units, which will result in higher emissions.

The Clean Power Plan recognizes that nuclear power has a role to play in meeting U.S. greenhouse gas reduction targets. As such, it marks the first time EPA has officially considered nuclear power as a means of complying with emissions regulations of any type.

In their letter, however, the senators recommend tweaking EPA’s proposal to more effectively leverage nuclear power’s potential contribution. They argue that compliance calculations should consider the full capacity of existing nuclear units, instead of just the 6 percent of capacity that EPA now considers to be “at-risk” of shutdown. This change would treat nuclear power the same as other carbon-free generating sources, like wind and solar.

The senators also argue for full credit in compliance calculations for nuclear units currently under construction in Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia. And they note that new nuclear takes a long time to license, so EPA should consider ways to incentivize new nuclear generation, even if it takes more than a decade to come online.

These constructive comments mirror suggestions from other experts from industry and the environmental community, including C2ES. It is encouraging to see a group of senators rise above the partisan fray on an important issue and offer substantive solutions. We hope this portends future cooperation on other approaches to the climate challenge.

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Joe Schiewe's picture
Joe Schiewe on Jun 5, 2015

I agree with treating nuclear the same as solar and wind in the CPP.  Both nuclear and hydro are treated so poorly in the CPP compliance calculations that a utility or state can replace them with natural gas power plants and actually come out ahead with the CPP.  Hopefully, both nuclear and hydro power plant compliance calculation formulas will be changed so that they are treated the same as wind and solar.  The goal should be to clean the air – not to encourage states and utilities to eliminate clean hydro and nuclear.

Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on Jun 5, 2015

Unfortunately the statistics have been rigged for fossil fuels.  They do front end CPP analysis with initial build outs and nuclear and hydro look really bad initally from an emissions perspective because they require so much concrete.  Obviously on the back end they come out way ahead, but investors don’t care about that, all they want is a nice fast ROI then move on, screw society, I GOT MINE.

Everyone wanted pure laissez-faire captalism apparently, well we’re in it now.  Corporate profit now ranks above all else, even human life.

Joe Schiewe's picture
Joe Schiewe on Jun 5, 2015

I agree the CPP analysis favors wind, solar and natural gas but I am not sure what you mean by “so much concrete” for nuclear and hydro.  It is my understanding that for both nuclear and hydro per MWh produced require far less tonnage materials than solar or wind.  It is hard for me to believe that the EPA wasn’t simply favoring renewables and thier intermittancy balancing natural gas partners.  

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Jun 6, 2015

There is, however, a difference in the lumpiness of the investment. In any systen with ongoing crediting and charging, the charge for new nuclear and hydro is spread across a construction period in which there is nothing to credit, and then once the project begins generating the crediting spread over the life of the project, whereas with wind and solar rolling out incrementally and beginning to generate early in the roll-out period, the periods of up front charge from wind and solar are offset more rapidly.

How much tonnage of material is required for solar or wind per kWh over its lifetime is sensitive to assumed plant life … much retirement of wind plant to date has been economic retirement due to better economics for improved technology replacements rather than end of life retirement, and degradation of solar PV of current technology might not be as great as assumed, both of which might modify the tonnage required for solar or wind (offsetting that, solar and wind to date has been primarily rolled out optimizing for cost per kWh rather than optimizing for cost for Capacity Factor, so some tonnage of material reduction from the current vintage of existing plant having longer economic lives may be offset by some increase in material per kWh produced due to Capacity Factor increasing designs).

If you start from a premise that emissions reductions compared to the status quo should be credited and emissions under the status quo should not gain credit, then a bias against nuclear and hydro is built in, since they are the bulk of the existing low carbon generation.

So asking for all existing nuclear and hydro to be credited seems like it is asking for a fundamental change in the premise of the regulation. However, it may be that this is an ambit claim, and the real target is gaining full credit for all new nuclear and hydro builds. 


Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Jun 10, 2015

I really couldn’t speculate about the particular spins of the handle in the Washington DC policy sausage machine. And more often than not the answer is ambiguous since a lot of pieces of a policy are overdetermined … that is, there are multiple forces lining up behind each of the different compromises that make up the policy.


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