Clean Power Plan carbon cuts may survive, even if Trump EPA kills rule


Photovoltaic solar power field at Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Photovoltaic solar power field at Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee

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The Clean Power Plan’s future looks uncertain at best under President Donald Trump.

The commander-in-chief appears to be urging American utility companies to pivot back towards burning coal to produce electricity.

Ending the so-called “war on coal” is intended to create jobs in the mining sector, at the expense of the environment. However, there's a problem: utility companies aren’t on board with the proposed policy change.

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Broadly speaking, utility companies in the United States began implementing a shift away from coal and towards cleaner forms of energy even before Barack Obama’s administration announced the Clean Power Plan in 2015.

Even the 32 utility companies in 26 states that sued the Obama administration in a bid to repeal the Clean Power Plan told Reuters they’re not considering returning to coal now that Trump is in the White House.

The decision is both financial and political.

Coal, by Flicker user oatsy40 (Used Under CC License)

Coal, by Flicker user oatsy40 (Used Under CC License)

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The main alternative to coal is natural gas, and advances in drilling technology have made the fuel both much cheaper and more abundant in recent years.

Simply put, utility companies will spend less to generate the same amount of electricity than they would for coal, and consequently earn more money on every watt they sell.

The cost of using wind and solar energy to generate electricity is also falling steadily, thanks in part to intermittent government subsidies, and the technology continues to improve at a rapid pace.

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Many in the energy industry suggest that the Trump administration’s attempts to bring coal back might face similar challenges to its so-far failed effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Even if national emission policy changes, several states have also passed laws to curb utility companies’ use of coal.

“I’m not going to build new coal plants in today’s environment,” explained Ben Fowke, the CEO of Xcel Energy. "And if I’m not going to build new ones, eventually there won’t be any."

Coal trains by Flickr user Kimon Berlin (Used under CC License)

Coal trains by Flickr user Kimon Berlin (Used under CC License)

Enlarge Photo

North Dakota-based Basin Electric Power Cooperative admitted it plans to extend the life of some coal-burning plants if Trump officials are successful in permanently eliminating the EPA's Clean Power Plan.

However, a spokesperson for the company also noted the risk in that plan: Trump could leave office after his first term.

Extending the life of older coal plants only pushes back the inevitable.

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The Clean Power Plan was written specifically to achieve a 30-percent reduction in the electricity sector’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

According to Trump, rolling it back is important to preserve the nation’s energy independence.

But even if the President is successful in reversing one of his predecessor’s most lauded policies, the shift away from coal is already well under way.

Sooner or later, utility companies simply won’t use it anymore—Trump or not.

— Ronan Glon

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