Saturday, March 05, 2016

Utilities Cut Coal Use Amid Clean Power Plan Fight

Solar power is growing faster in the U.S. than natural gas and wind in 2016. (Credit: Sandia Labs/flickr) Click to Enlarge.
Critics of the Obama administration’s most sweeping climate policy hailed the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in February to temporarily block it, saying the ruling on the Clean Power Plan could breathe new life into the flagging coal industry.

But even as those critics await further rulings on whether the plan is constitutional, utilities are already looking far beyond coal — the nation’s largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change — and pressing ahead with investments in cleaner forms of energy, including renewable, natural gas and even nuclear power.

“You don’t simply put the genie back in the bottle when it comes to major strategic investments that the captains of industry are making,” Quin Shea, vice president of environment for the utility trade group Edison Electric Institute, said after the court’s decision.  Any potential legal reprieve for coal will have no bearing on the industry’s long-term goal to reduce carbon emissions in the electric power sector, he said.

No new coal-fired power plants are planned for the near future in the U.S.  That’s because before the Clean Power Plan took effect last year, aiming to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power, natural gas prices fell, encouraging utilities to focus on building new natural gas-fired power plants.

Many states also had their own emissions goals and renewables standards encouraging utilities to look beyond coal, said Jackson Morris, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s eastern energy program and a former director of the Pace University Energy and Climate Center. Oregon, for example, passed a bill this week that would eliminate the state’s use of coal for electricity by 2030.

“You also had utilities seeing the writing on the wall and making decisions in the best interest of their shareholders.  They’re not going to change because the stay was issued,” Morris said of the court’s ruling.  “The Clean Power Plan is really locking in a transformation that’s already in motion.”

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