Think-tanks call for states to adopt Clean Energy Standards

06 July 2018

US states could set far more ambitious decarbonisation targets by replacing Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) with Clean Energy Standards (CES) encompassing all clean energy sources including nuclear, according to a new joint report by the Breakthrough Institute and Third Way think-tanks.

Twenty-seven US states, plus the District of Columbia, currently have in place binding RPS, which are most commonly used to promote renewable electricity sources like solar, wind, hydropower, and geothermal, the report notes. These on average mandate a generation share of 26% renewables with an average target year of 2022. Collectively, this would result in at least 16% of total US electricity supply from carbon-free renewable resources in the coming years. Such policies are a "good step in the right direction", but states could cut their emissions more affordably, rapidly and reliably if their policies extended to a wider set of carbon-free resources, the report says.

Including all zero-carbon resources in a portfolio standard could encourage a state to "stretch farther" and enable higher targets - within "striking distance" of the ultimate goal of full decarbonisation - the report finds.

Despite "aggressive policy support" from federal and state governments, the contribution of renewables to decarbonisation has been undercut by recent nuclear plant closures, the Breakthrough Institute said. "When nuclear plants retire, they have often been replaced by new fossil fuel infrastructure (mostly gas) that will last for decades. Clean Energy Standards prevent this backsliding by creating a policy incentive to keep nuclear plants open - and even if nuclear plants retire, utilities must replace nuclear entirely with clean generation," it said.

"In the last few years we've seen more and more support for saving America's existing nuclear plants. But much of the action has been in the form of one-off, plant-by-plant bailouts or proposals to subsidise coal along with nuclear at the federal level. Clean Energy Standards could ensure that economic support for nuclear derives from its climate benefits, not tenuous arguments about reliability or national security, and provide a coherent and holistic framework for doing so," the Institute said.

"Because all clean sources count towards the [CES] mandate, innovative technologies like carbon capture, waste-to-energy, and advanced nuclear will receive support as well," it added. "Long-term policies should recognise the long-term shifts in energy technology that are likely to occur in electricity decarbonisation. For example, in states with significant recent investment in gas generation, carbon capture could be the cheapest decarbonisation pathway over the course of the next few decades. Waste-to-energy, meanwhile, is net carbon negative when compared to uncontrolled landfills, and should be compensated for its climate benefits within a CES on a prorated basis."

Several states have already taken legislative action to recognise nuclear energy for its environmental attributes and its contribution to fuel diversity. The states of New York and Illinois have launched zero-emissions credit programmes, while Connecticut has passed legislation enabling the Millstone nuclear power plant to enter into a competitive procurement process alongside other zero-carbon energy sources.

With most state RPS set to expire over the next three to five years, the report urges states to consider adopting a CES instead, which the Breakthrough Institute described as the simplest baseline policies for power-sector decarbonisation. "They will - and should - never be the only climate policies. But through their simplicity and inclusivity, they could be politically viable in more states, and they provide the maximum amount of flexibility for clean energy deployment and innovation over the long term," it said.

The report, Clean Energy Standards: How more states can become climate leaders, is authored by Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jameson McBride, Jessica Lovering, Josh Freed and Ted Nordhaus, and was published on 27 June.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News