Missteps in achieving effective Clean Energy Standards
We have used the atmosphere as a dumping ground for waste emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels for more than a century and a half. Now we need to both urgently stop adding more waste emissions and begin to reduce the amount that is already up there, trapping heat and impacting climate. California’s first efforts to address emissions from energy, the Renewable Portfolio Standard, did not succeed in reducing emissions for the state. Its historic environmental leadership may well have led 30 states, Germany, Japan and other nations astray in their efforts to reduce emissions. In the years since California implemented AB32, its landmark Global Warming Solutions Act, deployment of renewables has resulted in a boom in natural gas use around the world and reductions in nuclear power. Fortunately, the evidence of this misstep has mounted and most groups are now moving away from the “means” focused RPS to an “ends” focused Clean Energy Standard. This is a small victory in the climate fight, even though globally, we have failed to reduce total emissions ever. This failure means that we are in as deep a hole on climate as ever before, which each year adding substantially to our emissions deficit.
While solar and wind in themselves are zero-emission technologies, their dilute energy and intermittent generation have made them porous to penetration by gas. What is needed are energy policies that support renewables without allowing gas to be the fuel that sops up the excess demand within the interstices of the highly occasional generation. This could be hydro, nuclear, geothermal, batteries, fossil fuels with carbon capture or other new technologies but we can no longer afford it to be an free ride for increasing gas burning.
Fortunately, California as well as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Washington and a range of other states including Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Arizona are starting to move away from the defective RPS to a Clean Energy Standard that targets getting to zero emissions by a set date. These states have wisely changed their focus to value emission-free generation rather than just adding more renewable capacity. In this context, Nuclear plants, which have long plant lives and fixed operating costs and are being valued for their clean energy generation (and the fact that they alone of all energy technologies cover the cost of managing all of their waste). Even in the tragic absence of federal leadership on valuing the externalized waste of fossil fuels, these states have recognized the enormous social costs of cheap, dirty energy that still dumps its waste into the atmosphere for free. To prevent clean nuclear power from being unfairly treated, New York, New Jersey and Illinois have placed a value on the delivery of emission-free energy called a “Zero Emission Credit.” This enables utilities to buy existing generation from nuclear power and get a tax break that makes up the difference between that fixed cost clean energy and the super-low dirty energy coming from gas plants. This is a good trend and it will help preserve most of our existing nuclear power plants and their clean energy, while also requiring that utilities cut back on burning fossil fuels but there are still plenty of fossil fuel and environmental advocates gunning to close nuclear power—our most powerful sources of clean energy—for the wrong reasons.
Politics, fossil fuel lobbying, misplaced confidence on renewables and antinuclear prejudice have all gotten in the way of achieving significant reductions in emissions but, after decades of missteps, we are finally beginning to move in the right direction. We urge everyone who is concerned about climate to demand 100% clean energy—however we can get there—and avoid saying “100% renewables,” as this counterfeit focus does not achieve the goals that we need. We believe the following energy policies are needed to help drive emissions down to zero as quickly as possible.
Driving electric grid emissions down to zero
The following are energy policy changes that will help states achieve true emissions reductions:
1. Change Renewable Portfolio Standards to Clean Energy Standards, which is inclusive of all zero-emission energies sources, and refocus state goals on achieving milestones towards zero net emissions, even if it means providing “zero-emission credits” to sources of clean generation, as New York State has done.
2. For existing Renewable Portfolio generation, require that all back-up generation also be provided by sources of reliable clean energy that also does not emit carbon or methane emissions.
3. Implement a Carbon Tax on all emissions, especially utility generation, so that utilities pay a penalty out of profits for the amount of carbon emissions and methane leaks released over specific limits set, so they are highly motivated to curb excess carbon emissions.
4. Restructure utility financial incentives to reward their success in meeting the zero net emissions goal as quickly as possible and remove compensation based upon any use or further build-outs of dirty energy.
5. Pass a Carbon Tax and use the proceeds to fund clean tech innovation to improve all forms of clean energy and clean technologies, help create clean jobs and bolster the U.S.’s competitive position in the global markets for advanced energy and grid security.
6. Hold fossil fuel companies to the same standard as Nuclear power and require them to cover the costs of storing and damage from their waste. Since there has been more than a century without them being financially responsible for the CO2 emissions, consider assessing penalties from excess profits, to begin to accrue a fund that can cover the costs of removal of CO2 from the ocean and atmosphere.
7. Plan for the full phase out of fossil fuels entirely by implementing a future ban with progressive penalties on utilities that continue emitting CO2 after a reasonable transition period.