Power Generators Fight New Clean Air Rules Even as They Clear Their Stacks

The largest power companies in the U.S. are curbing pollution—but they still have a long way to go.

Marshall Steam Station, a coal-fired power plant owned by utility Duke Energy. (Photo: ullstein bild/Getty Images)

Jul 14, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Some of the largest power-producing companies in the United States have been fighting the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan tooth and nail.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue the final details of the plan, which aims to cut climate-altering carbon emissions from existing power plants up to 30 percent by 2030, in August. But some plant owners have already asked for a longer timeline to meet the emissions reductions.

They also have tried—and failed—to argue before a federal appeals court that the EPA doesn’t have the authority to put such tough pollution reduction standards in place.

Now a new report shows that even as some try to block the new regulations, the nation’s power generators are already on an air-pollution-reducing path. Among the top 100 largest electricity generators, carbon dioxide emissions have dropped by 12 percent from 2008 to 2013, according to the sustainability group Ceres, which collaborated with the Natural Resources Defense Council and other organizations on the study.

Electric Producers

Electric Producers. (Illustration: M.J. Bradley & Associates, LLC)

The top 100 energy companies account for about 85 percent of the country’s entire energy production and 87 percent of the industry’s air emissions.

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“The reduction suggests that the industry is already trending toward lower carbon generation even in the absence of federal carbon standards,” said Chris Van Atten, senior vice president of environmental consulting group M.J. Bradley and Associates.

So, Why Should You Care? Pollutants covered under the Clean Power Plan—including carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and mercury emissions—are linked to climate and health impacts such as sea-level rise, hotter temperatures, lung and heart disease, extreme weather, and marine and forest habitat damage. Most of the energy companies that have complained most loudly about the Clean Power Plan rely heavily on coal-fired power, one of the dirtiest ways to generate electricity.

While energy companies in most states reduced their air emissions, some states saw air pollution increase between 2008 and 2013.

Map of U.S. Emissions. (Illustration: M.J. Bradley & Associates, LLC)

“Most parts of the country are firmly on the path toward a clean energy future, but some states and utilities have a longer way to go, and overall the carbon emissions curve is still not bending fast enough,” said Ceres president Mindy Lubber. “To level the playing field for all utilities and achieve the broader CO2 emissions cuts needed to combat climate change, we need final adoption of the Clean Power Plan.”

The report also broke out the most carbon-intensive plants, finding out which produced the most carbon emissions per unit of power generated. These companies were typically smaller, regional power providers reliant on coal-fired power plants to generate electricity.

The difference in emissions between the cleanest and the dirtiest energy production companies was stark. The worst-rated was Kentucky-based Big Rivers Electric, which spews 2,264 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions into the air for every megawatt-hour of power produced.

That’s compared with companies such as nuclear power producer Exelon, the hydroelectric-centric New York Power Authority, and renewable energy leader Iberdrola—all of which emit less than 200 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per megawatt-hour of power produced.

Atten said that while the Clean Power Plan is still in progress, companies can look toward examples like Florida-based NextEra for guidance on how to keep production high and emissions low.

“Despite being one of the largest power companies, it has one of the cleanest-generating fleets,” Atten said. Among the 100 largest companies, NextEra is near the bottom of the list in terms of its CO2 emission rate (No. 83), but its electricity production has increased 108 percent since 2000.

The key is diversity, Atten said. “NextEra is a leading producer of wind and solar energy. They also rely on natural gas and nuclear power.”