Despite politics, U.S. ahead of pace on Clean Power Plan goals

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The free-falling price of wind energy bodes well for its long-term growth.

Even as the Supreme Court remains deadlocked over the future of the Clean Power Plan (CPP), the U.S. appears likely to achieve the CPP goals a full 14 years ahead of schedule. That’s according to a story by Daniel S. Cohan and Leah Y. Parks in The Hill. According to the authors, this early arrival will come courtesy of a combination of energy efficiency and alternative sources of energy.

Let’s take a look at the numbers. The CPP is looking for a 32 percent reduction in electric power generated emissions, relative to 2005, by 2030. As of 2015, emissions already had dropped by 15 percent. Although we don’t have numbers yet for 2015, we do know that coal use, by far the largest emissions source, dropped by 12 percent. However, EIA has projected coal consumption to stabilize and increase slightly in 2017. The reason for this is unclear, but it’s worth noting that EIA has been fairly consistently wrong in its "long run projections." At present, coal production is down 30 percent compared to the same period last year.

If the intent of the CPP executive order could be compared to a steady process of moving material from the top of a mountain to the bottom, in this case, moving from coal and other fossil fuels to cleaner sources, market forces have produced the equivalent of an avalanche.

For one thing, it’s becoming just plain cheaper to go with renewables, with wind prices falling below 2.3 cents per kWh and solar breaking 4 cents today and projected to drop below 2 cents by 2020. And while it’s true that renewables are less dispatchable than conventional plants, recent studies show that an updated grid, capable of moving power from one region to another, will allow renewables to provide carbon reductions of close to 80 percent.

Then there are the improvements in efficiency that are also contributing. Everything from light bulbs to computers to major appliances are also far more efficient than they were a few years ago and getting better all the time. As people trade in their old devices, the overall efficiency of the demand side of the equation should improve.

Speaking of demand, as we move to a smart grid, the ability to reduce peaks in demand, sometimes called demand response, will reduce the need for inefficient "peaker plants" that are kept running to provide bursts of power at certain times of day.

There are some counter trends to watch. These changes are all positive for reducing emissions from the electric sector. However, the electric sector also will see an increasing burden from other sectors including both space and water heating, as gas-fired furnaces and water heaters are replaced with new high-efficiency electric heat pumps; and transportation, as electric vehicles continue to hit the road. This is primarily good news, as these changes do reduce emissions overall, but they will put an increasing demand on an electric sector that is transforming as it is growing. This ultimately will push the goal post further out, though, it would seem that our ability to kick the ball a long way also keeps improving.

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