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Does the EPA’s Carbon Plan Short-Change Renewables? New Report Suggests Yes

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Wind turbines and power lines in Livermore, California. A new analysis says that the EPA underestimates how much renewable energy can help cut emissions from the power sector. (Photograph by Henrik Johansson/Flickr)

Detractors have called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed limits on power plant emissions onerous and unachievable, but the Union of Concerned Scientists is out with a report that does more than fend off those claims. The group says the Clean Power Plan could go much further than it does in cutting carbon, simply by properly accounting for the demonstrated growth potential of renewable energy.

UCS says “states have the technological and economic potential to raise their renewable energy use to much higher levels than what the EPA is proposing in the Clean Power Plan.” As a result, a 40 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2030 from 2005 levels – instead of the targeted 30 percent – is well within reach, UCS says.

In an eight-page “policy brief,” UCS notes that despite the hue and cry over the proposed rule – hundreds of thousands of comments flooded into the agency within weeks of its unveiling – the plan actually makes modest assumptions about the nation’s ability to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. In 2013, non-hydropower renewables were responsible for about 6 percent of U.S. electricity generation, according to the government; under the EPA’s targets, that proportion would rise to just 7 percent by 2020, and then 12 percent by 2030.

In a blog post that accompanied release of the report, UCS President Ken Kimmell called the EPA’s expectations for renewables “bearish” and recommended a modified proposal that was “both more ambitious and more realistic.”

In the EPA plan, renewable energy is one of four “building blocks” – along with demand-side efficiency, plant efficiency improvements, and more use of nuclear power and natural gas instead of coal – which states can use to formulate a plan to meet their emissions reductions targets. “Assumptions made by the EPA about the emissions reduction potential of each building block in a state directly affect its overall target,” UCS says, and the group sees all kinds of problems with the EPA’s assumptions on renewable energy.

The EPA doesn’t even begin to expect increases in renewable energy use until 2017, UCS says, and from there it assumes a growth rate of 0.65 percent per year, well below the 1-plus percent growth rate of the past five years.

“In seven states, actual renewable energy generation levels in 2013 exceed the EPA’s renewable energy targets in 2030,” the report says. It notes, too, that 17 of 29 states with renewable electricity standards (RES) “have lower targets under the EPA approach than what is already required under their respective state laws.”

Among its modifications, UCS recommends: using recent growth rates to dictate future growth projections; assuming states will meet their renewable standards; and acknowledging growth that will occur between 2013 and 2017. Do this, and renewable energy’s share of electrical generation would rise to 23 percent in 2030, instead of the EPA’s 12 percent.

“By increasing state renewable energy targets to these levels, UCS analysis shows that total CO2 reductions achieved by the Clean Power Plan could increase from 30 percent below 2005 levels to nearly 40 percent, assuming that the additional renewable energy generation displaced mostly natural gas,” the group says. “If more coal were displaced, total emissions reductions could increase above these levels.”