Obama climate rules give utilities one more reason to switch from pollution to clean energy

by David Pomerantz

June 2, 2014

The Obama Administration today released the presidents proposal to set the first ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants. Thats important, because power plants are the biggest cause of global warming in the US, producing 40% of our carbon pollution.

The plan shows that President Obama is serious about pushing the power sector away from coal and toward renewable energy, and that commitment couldnt come any sooner.

As scientists explained a few weeks ago in the National Climate Assessment (and as shown in many other preceding reports), global warming is already affecting the lives of Americans in every single corner of our country, whether by the current drought in California or Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and things will get dramatically worse if we dont rapidly switch from coal, oil and gas to renewable energy like wind and solar power.

The new EPA carbon standards aim to cut carbon pollution from existing coal-fired power plants by 30 % by 2030 compared to a baseline of 2005. Thats a good start, though the Administration could and should strengthen those targets considerably. Greenpeaces Energy Revolution analysis, released in May, demonstrates that from a technical perspective, the US power sector could achieve almost twice the reductions proposed in the rule.

Still, the President is sending a clear signal to the utilities that operate power plants and sell us our electricity that his administration expects them to shift away from coal and toward wind, solar and more efficient energy use.

Utilities now face a choice: they can cling to the past, look backward, and fight the new carbon limits. Or they can move forward and embrace the renewable energy that many of their customers are already demanding.

We are already seeing the front groups that represent utilities – like the American Legislative Exchange Council – playing to script and offering the same old Chicken Little warnings about how clean energy will kill the economy and destroy every last American job. Coal companies and utilities made the same claims when the EPA wanted to limit pollution that causes acid rain, and they were wrong then too.

Clinging to the past means utilities will keep trying to block their customers from going solar and keep failing to invest in their own clean energy. So far, the largest utility in the country, Duke Energy, has done exactly that.

But utilities dont have to stick with their century-old business model, one that seems to be crumbling with or without new regulations as coal and gas power plants keep getting their lunch eaten by the rooftop solar energy revolution. They could try something new and use the new carbon rules as the last push they need to innovate and move forward.

Many of their biggest customers for electricity are already demanding 100% renewable energy, including economic leaders like Apple, Facebook and Google. Utilities will lose those valuable customers if they dont respond. Utilities could even partner with some of those IT companies to innovate new ways to accelerate the clean energy revolution.

Individual customers are clamoring for clean energy too. They know that its cheaper and cleaner, and theyll get it from elsewhere if power companies cant provide it. Utilities could stop blocking customers from going solar, instead embracing the rooftop revolution and figure out how to profit from it.

Greenpeace has shown that a 100% renewable energy future is not only possible in the US, but also better for our economy, in our Energy [R]evolution – A Sustainable USA Energy Outlook, released in May.

More importantly, a clean energy economy will help us prevent the worst impacts of global warming. President Obamas new rules can help put us on that pathway. The ball is now in the court of the power companies. Will they kick, scream, and sue as their business models fall apart and our climate gets more and more dangerous? Or will they adapt and embrace the future like smart businesses do? Time will tell.

David Pomerantz

By David Pomerantz

David Pomerantz is a former Senior Climate and Energy Campaigner for Greenpeace USA, based in San Francisco. He helps lead Greenpeace's campaign for an economy powered by 100% renewable energy.

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