The Clean Power Plan: A Climate Game Changer

A historic opportunity to reduce carbon pollution from the single largest source of U.S. global warming emissions

Power plants account for nearly 40 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. That's more than every car, truck, and plane in the U.S. combined. Photo: alohaspirit/iStock

Today power plants are allowed to dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the atmosphere — there are no rules in effect that limit their emissions of carbon dioxide, the primary driver of global warming.

Now, for the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is developing new rules, or standards, that will reduce carbon emissions from power plants. These standards, known as the Clean Power Plan, are being developed under the Clean Air Act, an act of Congress that requires the EPA to take steps to reduce air pollution that harms the public's health.

These historic standards are a centerpiece of the president's Climate Action Plan and represent the most significant opportunity in years to help curb the growing consequences of climate change.

The basics of the Clean Power Plan

Photo: acilo/iStock

The draft Clean Power Plan, released in June 2014, establishes state-by-state carbon emissions rate reduction targets, and it offers a flexible framework under which states may meet those targets. It would reduce national electricity sector emissions by an estimated 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The plan provides for a number of options to cut carbon emissions—called “building blocks”—and determines state emissions rate targets by estimating the extent to which states can take advantage of each of them.

Renewable energy resources account for one of the building blocks, alongside nuclear power, efficiency improvements at individual fossil fuel plants, shifting generation from coal to natural gas, and greater energy efficiency in buildings and industries.

Targets differ across states because of each state’s unique mix of electricity-generation resources—and also because of technological feasibilities, costs, and emissions reduction potentials of each building block, all of which vary across the country. States are free to combine any of these building blocks in a flexible manner to meet their targets. Additionally, states can also join together in multi-state or regional compacts to find the lowest cost options for reducing their carbon emissions.

The EPA accepted public comments on the draft Clean Power Plan until December 1, 2014. The standards are scheduled to be finalized in mid-summer, 2015.

An unprecedented opportunity to accelerate the growth of renewable energy

Most states are already experiencing the economic and health benefits of renewable energy. Accelerating the growth of zero-emissions energy resources like wind and solar energy and energy efficiency will both amplify these benefits as well as help avoid the climate risks associated with a large-scale shift toward natural gas.

Investing in renewable energy is a smart and cost-effective solution for delivering sharp reductions in carbon emissions. Yet, while the Clean Power Plan allows states to use renewable energy to meet their emissions reduction targets, it significantly underestimates the role of renewable energy in setting these targets.

UCS has identified a better way to make the most of renewable energy in the Clean Power Plan. Using our recommended modifications, the EPA could nearly double the amount of cost-effective renewable energy in their state targets—from 12 percent of total 2030 U.S. electric sales to 23 percent.

If states met these stronger targets, total CO2 emissions reductions achieved by the Clean Power Plan would increase from 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 to approximately 40 percent.

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An affordable solution with substantial benefits for our economy, our health, and our children's future

Coal-fired power plants produce the vast majority of carbon emissions from the electricity sector, along with significant and harmful levels of pollutants that adversely impact our health.

Many coal plants are already economically uncompetitive with more affordable energy sources, such as natural gas and wind and solar energy. What's more, 37 states are net importers of coal, sending billions of dollars to other states and nations for coal — money that could have instead been used to support local economies and jobs.

The Clean Power Plan provides a historic opportunity to map out a cleaner, safer energy future — and help move America toward successful climate solutions that protect our planet for future generations. 

Our analysis, Climate Game Changer: How a carbon standard can cut power plant emissions in half by 2030

Historic carbon standard could cut power plant emissions in half

This May 2014 UCS analysis examines opportunities in the U.S. electricity sector for reducing carbon emissions. The analysis is not an assessment of the draft EPA standards but rather examines the potential for deep emissions reductions that the standard provides.

A scenario that combines a carbon standard with strengthened renewable energy and energy efficiency policies indicates that the U.S. can cut electricity sector emissions by 40 percent from current levels by 2020 and 54 percent from current levels by 2030 while affordably meeting U.S. electricity demand using a diversified generation mix that includes currently available renewable energy technologies in combination with energy efficiency.

The analysis shows that the overall benefits of making this transition to cleaner energy far outweight the costs (by a factor of more than 3:1 in 2020 and 17:1 in 2030), and that the impact on electricity bills will be modest.

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