As States Lead the Way to a Clean Energy Future, Federal Policies Remain Stuck in the Past

Across the nation, states and local governments are leading the way toward a clean, safe and renewable energy system – 100 percent electric and powered by solar and wind, coupled with battery storage and energy efficiency. Meanwhile, the federal government is stuck in the past, propping up last-century energy sources that are disastrous for the climate and public health.

With policies like renewable energy standards, net metering, tax incentives and commitments to achieve 100 percent clean energy, states and local governments have made wind and solar ascendant in the American energy economy, and their policies continue to drive down the costs of renewables. Coal, natural gas and nuclear power are rapidly being made obsolete by economics and technological advances. But you wouldn’t know it from two recent federal policy developments:

  • In December, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued an order to the U.S.’ largest regional energy grid that protects high-cost coal and natural gas plants at the expense of new wind and solar investments. Dissenting FERC Commissioner Richard Glick says it’s a direct attack on state renewable energy goals – “illegal, illogical, and truly bad public policy” that will “slow – or maybe even stop – the transition to a clean energy future.” State regulators, clean energy advocates and the regional grid operator itself are demanding that FERC reconsider the order.
  • Earlier this month, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce released framework climate change legislation promising “a 100 percent clean economy by 2050.” The proposed legislation has many laudable goals. But it also would keep nuclear power in the energy mix, and leaves the door open for natural gas and coal plants well into the future. 

The House proposal presupposes that natural gas and coal plants can capture their carbon emissions, preventing them from polluting the air and trapping heat in the atmosphere. But the prospects for this are dim. A New Mexico utility found the cost of implementing carbon capture was over $1 billion more than closing the plant and switching to renewables and would increase water usage at the plant by half or more. One-third of the plant’s power would be diverted to run the capture equipment, making the plant highly inefficient. A recent analysis from Stanford University found that replacing coal-fired power with renewables would be cheaper and far less environmentally harmful than using carbon capture.

Solar plus battery storage can compete now with many natural gas plants in most regions of the country, according to an analysis by the Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business. A recent Rocky Mountain Institute report predicts more than $100 billion in stranded costs if the boom in natural gas plants continues. S&P Global says utilities are hearing this same message from Wall Street analysts, lawmakers, state regulators and academics.

As for new nuclear designs, the National Academy of Sciences says they’re unlikely to be economically feasible until after 2050 – and given the record at nuclear plants of construction cost overruns requiring billions in government bailouts, “economically feasible” should be taken with extreme skepticism. Besides being expensive to operate, aging plants are more susceptible to a catastrophic accident. Nonetheless, nuke operators are seeking approval to extend the lives of existing plants to 80 years, well beyond the period they were licensed to safely operate. And nuclear plants are vulnerable to climate change, which drives more severe storms, flooding and drought, potentially causing damage or extended shutdowns.  

Coal is on its deathbed. Despite President Trump’s support and promises, coal plants are shutting down at near-record rates. The Energy Information Administration projects that power from renewables will overtake coal next year. Analysts at Morgan Stanley expect up to 80 percent of the remaining coal fleet to be financially at risk from renewable energy investments through 2030, on top of the plants already slated for closure. And a report by Unfriend Coal shows that insurance companies are withdrawing from the coal-fired power sector due to climate change risks. 

A 100 percent renewable electric sector is well within our grasp. A recent report by researchers at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley estimates that such a transition in 143 countries would save $11 trillion annually in reduced energy needs and avoided health and climate costs. To reach this goal, we’ll need longer-term battery and other storage options to compensate for periods when solar and wind generation is low. Rocky Mountain Institute expects battery technology to advance much more quickly than anticipated and radically change the transportation and electric sectors within a decade.

What the nation needs are federal policies that prefer non-carbon-emitting technologies to address climate change that do not risk a catastrophic accident or accelerate climate change and are not now or soon to be priced out of the market. This means an energy policy that doesn’t prop up coal, natural gas or nuclear power.

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