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Biden’s Power-Plant Pollution Rule Collides With Soaring Demand

These translations are done via Google Translate
  • Coal plants must stifle most of their carbon or close by 2039
  • Emissions cuts will start to hit new gas plants in 2032
A coal-fired electrical generation plant in Castle Dale, Utah.
A coal-fired electrical generation plant in Castle Dale, Utah.Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg


The Biden administration is cracking down on planet-warming pollution from the nation’s electricity sector, with mandates likely to encourage the closure of coal plants that advocates argue are vital to meet surging power demand.

The Environmental Protection Agency regulation being unveiled Thursday will force the nation’s current fleet of coal plants to capture nearly all of their carbon dioxide emissions — or close — by 2039. And it will compel similar pollution cuts for many of the new gas-fired plants built to replace them.

Overall, the measure could further drive the nation toward emission-free renewable power and hasten coal plant closures at a time when artificial intelligence, data centers and vehicle electrification are driving up demand. Consumption at US data centers alone is poised to triple from 2022 levels, to as much as 390 terawatt hours by the end of the decade, according to the Boston Consulting Group. The dynamic has prompted warnings that electric reliability is at stake.

The measure represents one of President Joe Biden’s biggest initiatives yet to counter climate change, building on earlier regulations that target greenhouse gas releases from passenger cars, heavy-duty trucks and oil infrastructure. Power plants account for about a third of US greenhouse gas emissions, and slashing them is essential to fulfill the country’s carbon-cutting pledge under the Paris Agreement.

“This is how we win the future,” White House National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi told reporters Wednesday. “The power sector today has more tools than ever before to reduce pollution and to modernize our grid.”

Critics, however, cast the measure as a threat to the reliability of the nation’s power grids. “We’re already in a tough spot,” given warnings that 19 states are at risk for blackouts even under normal peak demand conditions, said Jim Matheson, chief executive officer of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “It creates uncertainty about how we’re going to keep the lights on.”

The EPA’s greenhouse gas regulation is actually one of four rules being finalized Thursday that single out coal plant pollution — with the others slapping requirements on hundreds of coal ash ponds across the country and compelling reductions in wastewater, mercury and other toxic air emissions.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan told reporters the approach ensures the power sector “has the information needed to prepare for the future with confidence, enabling strong investment and planning decisions.”

Together, the rules also make clear the scale of investments required to keep operating coal-fired power plants well into the next decade. Plans have already been announced for about half of the nation’s existing coal-fired generating capacity to shutter by 2039. The new suite of rules is likely to encourage more of those closures.

The policies “rightly force the hand of all coal plants that remain: Clean up or make an exit plan,” said Julie McNamara, a deputy policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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The final rule includes new emergency protections meant to ensure the requirements don’t throttle electricity generation when demand suddenly surges. Gas plants will be allowed to operate under less-stringent emission rates under some emergency circumstances.

The foundation of Biden’s plan is the EPA’s determination that for many power plants the “best system of emission reduction” is carbon capture systems that have been available for decades but is barely in commercial use at the sites today.

The agency cited “multimillion dollar engineering evaluations of CCS technology at multiple US coal and natural gas plants” in justifying the approach. Government subsidies under the Inflation Reduction Act also are feeding wider interest in deploying carbon-capture technology.

But the EPA rule still overestimates the possible pace of carbon capture deployment, said Dan Brouillette, chief executive of the Edison Electric Institute, which represents some of the nation’s largest utilities. “CCS is not yet ready for full-scale, economy-wide deployment, nor is there sufficient time to permit, finance and build the CCS infrastructure needed for compliance by 2032,” he said.

The EPA requirements are based around expectations that carbon capture systems arrest 90% of emissions at the sites. However, power plant owners have flexibility to use other technologies to meet the new limits.

Coal plants that intend to keep operating after Jan. 1, 2039 will have to use carbon capture systems or otherwise effectively pare their emissions 90%, beginning in 2032. The EPA’s initial proposal would have set the deadline at 2040, with operations compelled two years earlier, in 2030.

No new emissions control requirements are mandated for coal plants that intend to close before 2032.

Carbon capture systems — or equivalent pollution reductions — are required for gas power plants that operate at least 40% of the time as of Jan. 1, 2032. But there are effectively no new restrictions on gas plants operating less than 20% of the time, which are often called on to help meet demand spikes.

All told, the requirements will force “better decisions” by grid operators, utility managers and power companies, said Meredith Hankins, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s trying to shift away from that default explosion of new gas and instead think about ‘Hey, maybe we should be looking at other options to generate electricity.’”

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