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EPA Carbon Regs Won’t Help Advance Technology

Because they won’t promote technological development, proposed carbon regs will have little impact.
September 19, 2013

In some cases regulations can prompt the development—or at least the deployment—of new technologies, as has been the case with more efficient refrigerators and light bulbs. But the proposed regulations the U.S. EPA plans to unveil this week for limiting carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants look likely to have little or no impact on technology, and that will limit their impact on climate change.

Although final details aren’t yet available, it’s clear from several reports that the proposed limits on carbon dioxide emissions would require new coal fired power plants to be equipped with technology for capturing carbon dioxide and permanently storing it (CCS). At first blush, that seems like a good thing for the development of CCS technology, which is likely to be a critical part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The problem is that no one is going to build a coal power plant with CCS. The EPA limits can be met by ordinary natural gas plants. As long as they build natural gas plants and not coal plants, utilities don’t need to use any new technology.

The regulations could be altered to give a boost to carbon capture technology—that would require setting emissions limits that would require CCS on natural gas plants, too.

“As long as the gas price is low and CCS in not required on gas plants, utilities will build gas rather than coal with CCS.  Therefore, they have no incentive to develop CCS,” says Howard Herzog, a senior research engineer at MIT. “If the regulations require CCS on gas as well as coal, then I believe there would be incentive to develop CCS.”

There is one scenario in which the regulations might prompt CCS development—if natural gas prices go up, making coal plants look more attractive, says John Thompson, director of the Fossil Transition Project at the Clean Air Task Force. But Herzog notes that many experts think gas will stay cheap for some time.

Requiring carbon capture for natural gas plants would lead to higher electricity prices by making them more expensive. And there remain questions about whether the technology, which has not been demonstrated at a large scale at power plants, will work.

The regulations as they’re currently conceived will do little to reduce emissions. The shift from coal to lower carbon natural gas is happening even without them because of the low price of natural gas. Requiring the use of CCS—if it survived inevitable legal challenges–might have allowed them to make a bigger, long-term impact.

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