Obama’s climate push includes power plant controls

06/26/2013 7:17 AM

06/26/2013 7:17 AM

The Obama administration’s newly aggressive push to curb heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere looks to alter how the the country generates electricity and likely will alter its bills.

Environmental groups and utilities said President Obama’s plan to increase regulation of carbon dioxide emissions could rattle the electric industry in ways that will be neither easy nor cheap.

The linchpin of Obama’s plan is controls on new and existing power plants. Forty percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, and one-third of greenhouse gases overall, come from electric power plants.

Coal-fired power plants like those that supply much of the power to light up Kansas and Missouri could become more expensive to operate, they said, or become economically obsolete.

Some could be supplemented with the greater use of wind turbines or the burning of farm products. But fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, with their sizable carbon footprints, will remain the foundation of steady, reliable electricity.

“Renewables aren’t a good source of the base load,” said Katie McDonald, a spokeswoman for Kansas City Power & Light.

Yet some of the move away from older, smaller coal plants that have the highest carbon dioxide emission rates is already in motion, triggered by earlier federal rulings aimed at lowering the amounts of mercury they cough into the air.

Added regulation on carbon dioxide emissions – the predominant greenhouse gas linked to global climate change – could speed that trend. Doing so can be costly. It means shutting down some plants as well as shifting energy production to wind turbines and other renewable sources that tend to be more expensive.

Already, Wyandotte County’s Board of Public Utilities is geared to switch its Quindaro plant from coal to natural gas in 2015.

“We’re going to work with federal and state regulators to comply with all the applicable rules,” said David Mehlhaff, a BPU spokesman. “They all come with a cost, and those ultimately get passed on to the consumer.”

And the crackdown on carbon levels accelerates the trend toward the use of natural gas to power some plants currently burning coal. Lower natural-gas prices make that a less painful shift, but it’s unclear how long natural-gas surpluses will keep those costs down.

“There’s no silver bullet,” said Greg Greenwood, the senior vice president of strategy for Westar Energy.

Coal plants can be modified to reduce conventional forms of pollution, a now decades-long trend. But reducing carbon dioxide emissions by sequestering them underground or through other methods involves experimental and expensive technology.

Debate is obsolete

Announcing a wide-ranging plan to tackle pollution and prepare communities for global warming, Obama declared the debate over climate change and its causes obsolete Tuesday.

“As a president, as a father and as an American,” Obama said, “I’m here to say we need to act.”

Obama announced he was directing his administration to launch the first federal regulations on greenhouse gases from new and existing power plants – “to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution.”

Other aspects of the plan will boost renewable energy production on federal lands, increase efficiency standards and prepare communities to deal with higher temperatures.

Obama also offered insight into his administration’s deliberations on Keystone XL, an oil pipeline whose potential approval has sparked an intense fight between environmental activists and energy producers.

“Our national interest would be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution,” Obama said.

Rep. Mike Pompeo of Wichita responded by saying the Keystone XL pipeline would create “affordable, abundant energy” and jobs.

Encourage renewables

By expanding permitting for renewable energy projects on public lands, Obama hopes to generate enough electricity from wind and solar sources to power the equivalent of 6 million homes by 2020.

The Sierra Club applauded the president’s remarks, even as its leaders awaited specifics about what requirements the administration would impose and what deadlines would accompany them.

Bill Griffith, the energy chairman of the Kansas Sierra Club, conceded the cost of avoiding carbon emissions but said such change “is way past due.”

He said electric rates today are as low as they’ve been in 25 years. And he said some of the cost of more expensive energy can be offset by new efficiencies – better refrigerators or LED light bulbs that a year ago cost $60 now going for roughly $10.

“Those are real savings,” he said.

Republicans criticized the president’s speech, suggesting he’s abandoned an all-of-the-above approach to meeting the country’s energy needs.

“Americans need a fair energy policy that doesn’t allow the president and those that share his political agenda to stop growth by hiking energy costs for American families, shutting down power plants and giving an unfair advantage to politically connected ‘green energy’ companies,” Pompeo said.

Contributing: Associated Press

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