Inside Obama’s Climate Change Plan

Today President Obama spoke at Georgetown University about his plans to broadly address climate change. Ahead of his actual talk, the White House released the gist of what he would propose.

  • The EPA, working with states, industry, and other stakeholders, will establish new carbon pollution standards. “Tough new rules” will be established similar to those that exist for toxins like mercury and arsenic. These new rules, as anticipated, will target existing power plants as well as new ones.

  • The federal government will make available up to $8 billion in loan guarantees for “advanced fossil energy” and efficiency projects — broadly defining upgrades that improve power system efficiency, CO2 capture, and plant availability; examples include “clean coal,” synthetic gas, better high-temperature materials, and improved turbine designs.

  • The Department of the Interior (DOI) will be pressed to permit enough renewables projects (e.g. wind and solar) on public lands by 2020 to power 6 million homes. The DOI also will designate the first-ever hydropower project for priority permitting, and establish a new goal of 100 MW of renewables on federally assisted housing by 2020 (while maintaining a commitment to deploy renewables on military installations).

    The DOI has already been moving forward on the renewables-on-public-lands front. Last summer it broadly designated 285,000 acres of public land for solar development in six Western states, potentially home to more than 23 GW of development — enough to power 7 million American homes. And three weeks ago it approved three renewable energy projects in the southwest U.S.: the 350-megawatt Midland Solar Energy Project and the 70-MW New York Canyon Geothermal Project in Nevada, and the 100-MW Quartzsite concentrated solar energy (CSP) project in Arizona, collectively representing up to 520 MW, enough to power nearly 200,000 homes.

    (Note, however, that these household-serving numbers aren’t so easily interpreted — it’s unclear whether it represents the delivery from peak generation of solar and/or wind combined (or either), or whether and how that’s in combination with whatever other generation is required to join them. Obama’s pre-released statement doesn’t clarify if or how other energy sources will be incorporated into that directive.)

Other directives on Obama’s speaking agenda today include making commercial, industrial, and multifamily buildings at least 20 percent more efficient by 2020; and reducing carbon pollution by at least 3 billion metric tons cumulatively by 2030 — more than half the annual carbon pollution from the U.S. energy sector — through efficiency standards for appliances & federal buildings.

That’s one-third of Obama’s Climate Action Plan. Another part is more related to infrastructure than energy, and deals with mitigation rather than prevention: directing agencies to better support local climate-resilient investments, strengthen communities against future extreme weather and climate impacts (using Hurricane Sandy’s impact as a touchstone), create sustainable and resilient hospitals, better educate farmers, ranchers, and landowners in “agricultural productivity,” and launch a National Drought Resilience Partnership to minimize vulnerability to catastrophic fire.

Yet another thrust of Obama’s plan looks beyond our borders: committing to expanding new and existing international initiatives, including bilateral initiatives with China, India, and other major emitting countries; a call for an end to U.S. government support for public financing of new coal-fired powers plants overseas (with a few exceptions for efficiency in poor countries, and facilities with carbon capture and sequestration); and expanding government and local community planning and response capacities.

We’ll be updating this story throughout the day (and days ahead) with analysis of the President’s plan, and most importantly what happens next — how it will eventually translate into action and legislation, and what might that journey entail.


Reactions: From the Renewables Corner

Biomass Power Association:

“With the Administration’s support, the biomass industry can make a lasting contribution to the nation’s energy portfolio while helping reduce the harmful emissions that contribute to climate change,” stated Bob Cleaves, president and CEO of the Biomass Power Association. As a baseload renewable energy source, biomass can and should play a crucial role in generating reliable electricity from organic materials that would otherwise remain unused.” Specifically referencing the thrust for renewable energy on federally owned lands and for military use, Cleaves noted ReEnergy Holdings’ recently coal-to-biomass conversion of a 60-MW project in Black River, NY, roughly enough to power the Fort Drum U.S. Army installation.

Biomass also can play a significant role in the forestation part of Obama’s Climate Change Plan, Cleaves added. “America’s forests remove nearly 12 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions each year. Biomass contributes to keeping forests healthy by providing an outlet for brush, forest trimmings and other materials that can inhibit forest growth and contribute to costly wildfires. Without biomass, these materials would end up in landfills, or worse, be burned openly — in both cases, releasing the harmful methane gas that is captured and contained at a biomass facility.”

Solar Energy Industries Association:

There are more than 30 utility-scale solar projects under construction in the U.S. right now, noted Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the SEIA. The U.S. already exceeds 8.5 GW of cumulative installed solar electric capacity, and solar accounted for almost half of all new electric capacity installed in the U.S in 1Q13. Additionally, solar heating and cooling systems offer another avenue for cost-effectively and efficiently meeting energy needs. “America’s solar energy industry stands ready to do our part to help fight climate change and usher in a new era of clean energy in America and around the world. Despite what some critics say, this isn’t a choice between clean energy and a robust economy. We can have both, and solar is showing how to make that possible.”

American Wind Energy Association:

“Since wind energy is the leading solution to power-sector carbon emissions, we’re ready to do our part to help America address global warming, especially in the early years of the climate protection effort when few other solutions are as readily deployable and scalable,” offered AWEA CEO Tom Kiernan. AWEA in particular calls out directives to double the nation’s use of renewables by 2020, including more to be used by the federal government whose agencies are among the biggest electricity users, support transmission infrastructure initiatives, and accelerate development of offshore wind energy projects.


Reactions: From the Power Providers

Edison Electric Institute:

Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, which represents U.S. shareholder-owned electric companies and the majority of U.S. electric power industry, urges that any new policies or regulations targeting existing power plants “contain achievable compliance limits and deadlines, minimize costs to customers, and are consistent with the industry’s ongoing investments to transition to a cleaner generating fleet and enhanced electric grid,” stated Kuhn. “It is also critical that fuel diversity and support for clean energy technologies be maintained, not hindered.”

America’s Natural Gas Alliance:

EPA regulations are ineffective in addressing concerns about climate change, while pushing the need to recover costs and criticizing the potential elimination of the natural gas sector’s ability to deduct “intangible drilling costs,” claimed Marty Durbin, president and CEO of the Natural Gas Alliance. Nevertheless, if the EPA moves ahead with regulations, he urges them to be based on “Adequately demonstrated technology” and within “an achievable timeframe” that supports further advance of clean-coal technologies. “If the government creates standards that are not practical, they risk not just shutting down existing plants but also halting the development of additional clean coal technology facilities. Taking America’s most significant source of electricity offline would have disastrous consequences for our nation’s economy.”

American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity:

Not surprisingly, the coal industry, which is squarely in the crosshairs of any new carbon emissions targets, has responded with a flurry of criticism. In various missives, ACCCE president and CEO Mike Duncan sharply criticized the administration’s overall proposal, which he predicts will hike energy costs, cost jobs, and shatter the economy. He also points to the tens of billions of dollars the coal sector has poured into upgrades and “clean coal technologies” and how newer plants are more efficient and with lower emissions. And he laments how EPA regulations have already “played a major role” in announced closures this year of 288 coal plants in 32 states, which he equates to the entire electrical supply for New York State. “Americans understand that coal must be a part of America’s clean energy future, and it can be if the federal government doesn’t stop us in our tracks.”

Nuclear Energy Institute:

If carbon-free and reduced GHGs are the goal, then nuclear also has to be part of the conversation, offered NEI president/CEO Marvin Fertel. “There is no debating this fact: Nuclear energy produces nearly two-thirds of America’s carbon-free electricity. As a nation, we cannot reach our energy and climate goals without the reliable, carbon-free electricity that nuclear power plants generate to power our homes, businesses and infrastructure.”


Reactions: From the Advocates’ Corner

Union of Concerned Scientists:

UCS senior energy analyst Mike Jacobs, a former staffer for state and federal energy agencies, suggests ramping the federal government’s electricity to be sourced 20 percent from renewable energy by 20 percent “should be no problem” as many states are already well on their way to that number (and many far exceed it). In fact, he points out, NREL has a path to get the nation getting 80 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.

On the emissions side, to meet or even exceed Obama’s original 2009 goal of a 17 reduction from 2005 emissions levels by 2020, “power plant carbon standards will be job one and he’ll need to make sure they’re finalized well before his administration ends,” stated Alden Meyer, UCS’ strategy and policy director. Additional policies will be needed to specifically address emissions reductions in the electricity sector. “State policies such as renewable electricity standards and carbon caps in California and the Northeast will give him a boost.” Meyer points out that “other countries will be watching closely to see how he follows through, especially on power plant carbon standards.”

Rachel Cleetus, UCS’ senior climate economist on climate and energy, notes that there isn’t really any clarity on how the EPA is supposed to address the goals of emissions reductions for both new and, now, existing power plants — a draft was already in the works, but conceivably be pulled back and a new, combined proposal pushed forward in its place — and might be an easier task than trying to orchestrate two separate debates through Congress. “But the standard for new power plants must remain as strong as originally proposed, and in particular the EPA should keep the standard the same for all fossil-fired power plants. Creating separate categories for coal and natural gas-fired power plants could significantly weaken the standards. The EPA must also move quickly to finalize the standards for both new and existing power plants as soon as possible.” Cleetus also lays out what a potential framework for existing-plant emissions rules could look like.

Sierra Club:

The Sierra Club takes a local perspective, noting how Puget Sound Energy (PSE), owner of the Coltrip coal-fired plant in Montana, “the largest climate polluter in the Northwest,” doesn’t account for carbon in its recently released 20-year energy plan. “We call on PSE to re-consider the economic risks associated with continuing to rely on its dirty and increasingly expensive coal plant,” stated Doug Howell, director of Washington’s Coal-Free PSE campaign.


“President Obama’s plan won’t reduce US carbon pollution as much as scientists or equity say is needed,” notedSamantha Smith, Leader of WWF’s Global Climate and Energy Initiative, but nonetheless its sends a strong political message, and a global one that “should be a powerful spur to other developed countries that have used US inaction as an excuse for their own failure to act.” Tightening emissions restrictions and eliminating subsidies for fossil fuel companies will not only help the US but such steps “are needed in many countries, both developed and developing, if we are to reach a cleaner, renewable future.”

Lou Leonard, WWF’s US vice president for climate change, pushes for an actual timeline to get things done. “What we need next is a strategy that identifies our destination and how fast we will move to get there. We have the technology and the business case to meet science-based climate goals by the end of this decade, get off dirty fuels and move to 100% renewable energy today.”

National Rural Electric Cooperative Association:

Less enthusiastic of the Climate Change Plan was Jo Ann Emerson, CEO of the NRECA, which represents private not-for-profit consumer-owned electric cooperatives, arguing the emissions rules would “disproportionately penalize” her constituents. “Folks in rural communities and those with low or fixed incomes already spend more of their household budget on energy; this proposal would increase their burden. The President’s proposal would be, in effect, a regressive new climate tax on America’s most economically vulnerable citizens,” she stated — and vowed to “fight this proposal at the agency level and in the courts if necessary.”

Independent Women’s Forum:

And from the Independent Women’s Forum, policy analyst Emily Wismer slammed the President for bypassing Congress to pursue stricter regulations on power plants, saying new rules’ effects “will be catastrophic,” burdening the economy and manufacturers with rising energy costs, handing out unfair competitive advantages to unsustainable, unreliable energy sources as well as “his friends and campaign contributors,” while “making it much harder for traditional, affordable energy producers to do business.” At least she supported an end to subsidies for both traditional and renewable sources.

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Jim is Contributing Editor for, covering the solar and wind beats. He previously was associate editor for Solid State Technology and Photovoltaics World, and has covered semiconductor manufacturing and related industries, renewable energy and industrial lasers since 2003. His work has earned both internal awards and an Azbee Award from the American Society of Business Press Editors. Jim has 17 years of experience in producing websites and e-Newsletters in various technology markets.

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