Achieving Clean Power Plan targets well ahead of schedule

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The United States is racing toward achieving the goals of the Clean Power Plan (CPP), even as the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia raises the prospect of a deadlocked Supreme Court ruling. Achieving CPP carbon-dioxide emissions targets 14 years ahead of schedule is now likely thanks to a remarkable confluence of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies each achieving affordability after decades of developments.

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Technologies from LED lights to electric cars to heat pumps are leaping past their less-efficient successors and are poised for mass adoption. Meanwhile, plunging prices push wind turbines and now solar panels into pole position for least-cost new electric capacity. Together, the technological innovations and market shifts are drastically reducing our nation's need for coal for electric generation, and is even slicing into natural gas demand as well.

The Clean Power Plan requires a 32 percent reduction in power sector carbon-dioxide emissions by 2030 from 2005 levels. As of 2014, the latest year available, emissions had fallen 15 percent. U.S. power plant consumption of coal, the leading source of carbon dioxide targeted by the CPP, fell an additional 12 percent in 2015.

Oddly, the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts power plant coal consumption to stabilize through 2017. However, those forecasts are unreliable since EIA has long forecast renewable energy costs to be a factor of three or more higher than utilities actually pay for wind or solar.

The EIA's inexplicably high forecasts of coal use also appear to neglect the five-year extension by Congress in December 2015 of tax credits for renewable energy. That extension likely will shift all new generation to renewables for years to come, with sharp declines in coal and even natural gas.

So far in 2016, year-to-date coal production is down 32 percent from 2015, more than enough to meet the CPP limit in 2030. Since most coal is used for electricity, and since wind and solar rather than natural gas are dominating new electric generation capacity, the plunge in coal production in 2015 accelerating into 2016 is almost certainly sufficient to achieve the EPA's 2030 target this year.

Achieving CPP emissions goals 14 years ahead of schedule needed no "energy miracle." Instead, a broad array of emerging and cheapening technologies is empowering these transformations in power markets.

Simply put, efficient and renewable technologies now are ready for prime-time. Taking center stage, then cleaning the whole stage are now more matters of marketing and financial engineering than electrical engineering moonshots. Waiting any longer would be like ET waiting for an iPhone to phone home.

Prices of wind, solar energy and storage technology are plummeting. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory reports that wind power cost just 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour (c/kWh) in 2014, with prices plunging further each year. Austin Energy inked a then-record low sub-4 c/kWh price for solar power last June, and Houston agreed to pay 4.8 c/kWh. EIA energy outlooks have missed these plunging prices even as other sections of the Department of Energy and the private sector report them. However, common sense can recognize that coal-laden trains from Wyoming, or even gas fracked from shale fields, will struggle to compete with direct-delivered breezes and sunshine as renewable technologies cheapen.

While Big Power pursues public-pays payouts in Ohio and anti-competitive solar penalties in Arizona and Nevada, such efforts find few fans in can-do, free market America. The American can-do spirit likewise has little time for needless fears of intermittent power. A host of storage and smart grid technologies, together with efficient lights, smart thermostats, demand response technology, and dispatchable green (geothermal, hydropower) and speckled beige (natural gas, biomass) power sources are more than sufficient to achieve balance. If countries from Costa Rica and Nicaragua to Scotland and Norway can surpass 50 percent renewable electricity, it sounds downright un-American to say "no, we can't."

The transportation sector is also set for change. Competitively priced, 200-plus mile range electric vehicles (EVs) are coming soon. Tesla is building a lithium battery Gigafactory in Nevada and promises the Model 3 for around $25,000 (post-tax credit) soon. Faraday Futures is building its own massive electric car factory nearby. The Chevy Bolt, expected to appear this year, will compete with the Volt and Prius. Plug-in hybrid Ford and Mitsubishi models will compete too for a soon-to-be-crowded electric car marketplace.

The heating and cooling industry has developed transformative technology as well. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has an energy-right heat pump plan that finances the installation of high efficiency heat pumps in homes and small businesses. Cold climate air-source heat pumps are now available and Green Mountain Power, a utility in Vermont, is selling and financing heat pumps, solar panels and energy storage units and saving their customers money.

An investment can be private and does not need to come from the federal government. The resources currently allocated toward fossil fuels are poised, instead, to be invested in the development of a 21st-century energy infrastructure run on renewable energy and balanced with digital technology and storage.

Disruptive technologies inevitably bring job losses in the disrupted industry. That's been true from buggy-whip crafters to typewriter manufacturers to coal miners. Tough as change can be, at least the shift to renewable energy will likely brighten overall employment outlooks. Nationally, solar has been adding more jobs than the oil and gas extraction and pipeline companies combined, as rooftop-by-rooftop progress takes far more labor than Earth-moving equipment. However, the geographic distribution of disruptions from distributed generation is by no means uniform; fossil-heavy states like Texas, Wyoming and North Dakota could struggle most in navigating this final fossil bust.

Just as no typewriter sale could win back a MacBook owner, the fossil industry will find itself increasingly unable to compete with renewables that now make sense for the wallet, not just for the water and air. Houston already tops all U.S. cities in green power consumption with its 75 percent green power agreement for 2016.

The utility industry, private businesses, politicians and consumers can benefit from the opportunity that this energy transformation will provide. It is an exciting prospect when realized that a renewable energy infrastructure, using existing technology, is doable today. The ongoing and unstoppable (r)evolution toward efficient and renewable energy will bring more stable and affordable prices than previous sources of energy.

Disruptive technologies disrupt. Fortunately for us, the green energy disruptions can bring about a brighter, cleaner, more affordable energy and environment, even as employment shifts toward new alternatives.

Cohan is associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. Parks is co-author of "All-Electric America: A Climate Solution and the Hopeful Future" and associate editor of ElectricityPolicy.com and Electricity Daily.

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