States can bring clean energy to 21st century

States can bring clean energy to 21st century
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Since the release of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan in June, some interests have predicted that compliance would be difficult, costly and disruptive to the electric power system. Advanced Energy Economy has a different perspective: Developing compliance plans may be complicated, but the wide range of technologies now available, along with the flexibility allowed for individual states to develop plans that make sense for them, will make the EPA’s state targets for lower greenhouse gas emissions easy to achieve — and give us an electric power system for the 21st century.

If we could take somebody from the 1970s and transport them to our homes or offices today, that person would be amazed by all the new technology — powerful laptop computers, wireless connectivity to the Internet, flat-screen TVs, smartphones, hybrid and all-electric cars. But much of the electric power system would look very familiar. We still get our electricity from power plants and a grid largely designed and built before the Apple Macintosh.

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The U.S. electric power system is facing serious challenges today, with innovations disrupting old ways of doing business, infrastructure showing its age and customers looking for new forms of service. Fortunately, we have the tools to address these challenges: demand response to maintain reliability at times of peak load; combined cycle natural gas to provide flexible electricity generation; solar power and wind power for zero emission generation with no fuel cost; more efficient lighting, appliances and industrial motors that use less energy and reduce demand; and smart meters to provide better data and more control for consumers.

In short, we have more ways to make, manage and use electricity than ever before — and many of these technologies also reduce carbon emissions.

By allowing established and market tested “beyond the fence line” advanced energy technologies and services for compliance, the EPA has given states a wide range of options for meeting emission reduction goals in ways that fit local circumstances. With such a range of options — all of them cost-saving, low-cost or rapidly declining in cost — there is every reason to believe the agency’s estimate that electricity bills will fall 8 percent as a result of meeting its carbon standards.

Once the Clean Power Plan goes into effect, states around the country will discover the benefits already documented in states that have put advanced energy to work.

In Ohio, renewable energy and energy efficiency standards have reduced electricity bills for Ohio rate-payers by 1.4 percent since their inception in 2008 while stimulating the Ohio economy by $160 million and creating more than 3,200 Ohio jobs.

In Massachusetts, the first five years of the Green Communities Act, which expanded energy efficiency and renewable energy efforts by utilities and municipalities, produced $1.2 billion in net economic benefits (including $155 million in state and local tax revenue), created 16,000 jobs and reduced carbon emissions by 31 million metric tons.

In North Carolina, investments in energy efficiency saved nearly $800 million in energy costs between 2007 and 2012, while state incentives spurred $1.4 billion in renewable energy and energy efficiency investment over the five-year period, contributing $1.7 billion to gross state product and creating or retaining more than 21,000 jobs.

There are many ways that the EPA’s Clean Power Plan can be improved before it is finalized next June. Targets based on renewable energy can be strengthened to include distributed generation such as rooftop solar — the fastest growing form of renewable energy — and to recognize the predictable growth of renewable resources between now and 2030. The EPA’s efficiency targets should recognize the $4.8 billion currently invested each year by energy service companies, which are eager to partner with utilities in this effort. New state actions to reduce emissions before 2020 should be credited, the 2020-2030 compliance period should be shortened, and the targets periodically updated to capitalize on technological progress.

But these would be improvements on a solid foundation. With the range of options explicitly approved by the agency — and others that should be approved — Advanced Energy will be able to do even more to reduce emissions and make the electric power system more efficient, more resilient and more responsive to consumer needs than the EPA has envisioned. The dividends of lower emissions will be economic: jobs, growth and a higher performing electricity system for the 21st century.  

Woolf is senior vice president for policy and government affairs at Advanced Energy Economy, a national business association.