US pledges power sector carbon cuts

03 June 2014

America plans to cut power plant carbon emissions by 30% on 2005 figures by 2030, according to guidelines released yesterday by the Environmental Protection Agency. The NEI said there was "no chance" of meeting the goals without nuclear.

Nuclear construction projects, like VC Summer unit 3, will help US states meet carbon reduction targets (Image: SCE&G)

It is nearly a year since President Barack Obama launched his climate action plan, seeking for the first time ever to place limits on the amount of carbon emitted by US power plants. The proposals on how to achieve that have now been announced by the EPA having been drawn up with input from the business sector as well as state and local governments.

Under the proposals, the EPA aims to cut carbon emissions from fossil fuel power plants - currently accounting for around a third of all US greenhouse gas emissions - by around 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.

However, more than half of this work has already been done: official EPA carbon dioxide inventory figures showed that US fossil fuel generation plants emitted a total of 2402.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2005; by 2012 this had already been reduced to 2022.7 million tonnes - a drop of 15.8%. Targets to achieve the EPA's hoped-for total drop of about 30% by 2030 are to be set on a state-by-state basis.

The EPA estimates that an expected 25% fall in particle pollution, nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide emissions accompanying the carbon cuts will avoid up to 6600 premature deaths as well as thousands of asthma attacks, resulting in up to $93 billion in climate and public health benefits, while efficiency improvements and demand reduction should lead to a fall of around 8% in electricity bills.

Introducing the new "commonsense guidelines" at an event at a children's hospital in Washington DC, Obama said that climate change with far-reaching costs to health, the economy and the environment was "no longer a distant threat". While measures to increase the uptake of renewables and to improve energy efficiency had been a "good start," the time had come to do more, he said.

Rather than setting out a prescriptive formula on carbon cuts, the guidelines envisage individual states identifying their own path to meet the state-specific carbon emission goals by selecting an appropriate mix of energy generation options together with energy efficiency measures and demand-side management. The emphasis is on flexibility, and states will have until June 2016 to submit their plans to the EPA.

Nuclear role

While the focus of the 645-page proposed rule is firmly on fossil fuelled plants, it recognises the role that nuclear can play by replacing fossil fuels with low-carbon generation, describing an increase in nuclear capacity as a "technically viable approach" to support a reduction in carbon emissions from the fossil sector, whether through the completion of under-construction units or the discouragement of early retirement of nuclear capacity.

US energy secretary Ernest Moniz described the EPA's proposed rules as a "critical step towards addressing climate change," highlighting the flexibility under the "all-of-the-above" range of generation choices.

Although the choice of energy generation methods is a matter for states to decide, nuclear's role in the future US energy mix will likely be key. Responding to the proposals on behalf of the US nuclear industry Richard Myers, vice president of the US Nuclear Energy Institute, noted that nuclear plants are already the largest carbon-free generation source for over half of US states. There was "no question" that nuclear's contribution must be maintained and expanded in any "serious" attempt to cut carbon emissions, he said. "With nuclear energy it is feasible to meet the administration's goals, and without it there is no chance at all," he said.

The EPA's proposal is to undergo a 120-day public comment period, with four public hearings to be held in July. Its finalised standards will be completed in June 2015 under the timeline set out in the 2013 presidential memorandum.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News