Why Energy Efficiency Deserves a Key Role in EPA Carbon Limits
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has embarked on a vital effort—accompanied by extensive outreach to states, power companies, environmental organizations and other stakeholders, including you—to establish the nation’s first limits on carbon pollution from fossil fuel-fired power plants.
The EPA was directed to take this critical step for public health and the environment in the president’s Climate Action Plan that was released last summer. Protective and well-designed Carbon Pollution Standards will provide important benefits for all Americans.
Fossil fuel-fired power plants emit 40 percent of the nation’s carbon pollution, as well as significant amounts of mercury, acid gases, and pollutants that contribute to smog and particulates.
That’s why it is critical to get these rules right, and to mobilize common sense solutions proven in red and blue states alike in reducing carbon pollution from the power sector.
Of all the available ways to reduce carbon pollution, one of the most cost-effective and time-tested approaches is to reduce demand for fossil fuel electricity through end-use energy efficiency (EE).
EE measures encompass countless improvements, large and small, in the ways we use electricity in our offices, factories, and homes. All of those improvements can add up to big savings, not only in our monthly energy bills but in the total amount of fossil generation needed to power our society.
Dozens of states and power companies are already investing heavily in EE, and have built up decades of experience in measuring and verifying the many benefits it can yield for consumers and for the environment.
Incredible Potential to Cut Emissions and Save Money by Reducing Wasted Electricity
States and power companies around the country have been implementing EE programs for decades, and have increased their efforts in recent years as experience with the benefits of EE has grown.
Twenty-six states in diverse regions of the country, from Arizona and Colorado in the Southwest, to industrial Midwest states like Ohio and Illinois, now have “energy efficiency resource standards” or similar policies that require utilities to achieve a certain amount of energy savings each year.
State spending on EE programs increased by 28 percent between 2010 and 2012.
As EE policies and investments have grown, so have energy savings.
In 2011, state EE programs saved a total of 22.9 million megawatt-hours—roughly equivalent to the entire annual output of seven 500 megawatt coal-fired power plants.
These savings increased 22 percent since 2010 and, importantly, count only those savings achieved in the first year these EE measures are in place.
Because most EE measures continue to yield energy savings years or even decades after they are installed, the cumulative savings from these state EE programs are much larger.
A recent study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy found that EE programs and policies are a key reason why residential and commercial electricity demand has remained stable since 2007.
As impressive as these developments are, they only scratch the surface of what could be achieved if we were to fully unlock the potential for EE to save energy and reduce emissions.
An exhaustive 2009 analysis by McKinsey & Company, for example, found that rigorous investment in cost-effective EE could reduce the country’s total energy consumption by 23 percent in 2020.
Energy savings on this scale would yield massive emission reductions—about 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxidein 2020 alone (more than 30 percent of power sector emissions today) – and at a cost per kilowatt-hour saved that is about 85 percent less than the average retail price of electricity.
The report also estimated that realizing these energy savings would create about 600,000 to 900,000 jobs through 2020.
In 2012, for example, the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP) issued a report focusing on the potential benefits of scaling-up EE programs in six Southwestern states (Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming).
Based on the track record of “best practice” EE programs around the country, SWEEP found that these six states could reduce their electricity demand in 2020 by more than 20 percent while achieving net benefits of about $20 billion—amounting to $2,650 for every household in the region (largely in the form of lower energy bills).
Investments in EE at this scale would also create about 30,000 additional jobs in the region by 2020, and increase wages and salaries by more than $1 billion.
At the same time, these EE measures would reduce carbon pollution by more than 30 million metric tons in 2020, (a 16 percent reduction relative to expected emissions in 2020), while also reducing thousands of tons of pollutants that contribute to smog, acid rain, and harmful particulate pollution.
EE and the Carbon Pollution Standards
If you’ve read my colleague Megan Ceronsky’s earlier blog, you’ve already heard about section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act.
That section provides bedrock authority for EPA to issue Carbon Pollution Standards for existing power plants. It also provides a broad, flexible framework for states and companies to deploy EE and other flexible approaches to reducing carbon pollution from the power sector.
Under section 111(d), EPA and the states will work together to reduce emissions from existing power plants. EPA will issue “emission guidelines” that identify the “best system of emission reduction” for carbon pollution from existing power plants and the emission reductions achievable using that system. The states then have the responsibility to develop plans that implement standards consistent with those guidelines.
Just a few weeks ago, Kate Konschnik, Policy Director of the Environmental Law Program at Harvard Law School, released a report that makes a strong legal case for considering EE as part of the “best system of emission reduction” that underpins EPA’s emission guidelines.
As Konschnik argues, the Clean Air Act grants EPA broad authority to consider flexible measures such as EE as a part of the best system of emission reduction for carbon pollution, "because it is adequately demonstrated and cost-effective, imposes minimal environmental costs, and reduces overall energy requirements."
Moreover, as Konschnik points out, methods for quantifying and verifying EE-related energy savings and emission reductions are well-developed.
Over the last two decades, at least 35 states and two regional transmission organizations have adopted protocols for measuring and verifying energy savings from EE projects. These savings are now widely used as the basis for critical regulatory proceedings and market functions, including establishing utility rates, compensating EE in regional capacity markets, and carrying out long-term regional resource planning.
In addition, EPA has already allowed several states to credit emission reductions resulting from EE and renewable energy towards compliance with national air quality standards. EPA has also issued detailed guidance to the states on analytical approaches and tools that could be used for future programs.
Ensuring Smooth Implementation of EE in the Carbon Pollution Standards
Under traditional emissions trading programs such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) or California’s cap-and-trade system, the emission reduction benefits of EE are readily observed as emissions from power plants drop.
Under these programs, no separate system for tracking emission reductions from EE is necessary. As a recent report by RGGI confirms, these programs are also funding significant investments in EE programs that have already helped 815,000 families.
However, some states may choose to directly incentivize EE through policies that credit individual projects and programs for their impacts on energy savings and emissions.
For this reason, EDF has worked with experts in the field to study how measurement and verification for such EE crediting systems could work in a way that is environmentally rigorous and administratively streamlined, and that builds on extensive state and regional experience with existing EE programs.
We recently submitted a report to EPA, developed by the Analysis Group, that lays out one possible framework for ensuring both desirable outcomes:
- Rigorous measurement and verification of EE projects, and
- Consistent methods for determining emission reductions that are attributable to EE projects
This framework recognizes the diverse approaches to measurement and verification of EE that are in use around the country. But in developing this framework, we were also struck by the significant progress that a number of organizations have made in developing best practices and consensus protocols for evaluating EE projects.
One example is the Department of Energy’s Uniform Methods Project (UMP), which has organized a multi-stakeholder process to develop rigorous yet streamlined measurement and verification protocols for different types of EE projects.
To date, UMP has released protocols addressing seven major EE project types and five “cross-cutting” evaluation issues. Eight more protocols are expected to be finalized in the coming months.
Other notable efforts to develop and encourage best practices in the field include:
- The International Performance Measurement and Verification Protocol, which lays out four broadly accepted approaches to measurement and verification of EE projects and has been adopted or recognized by various states and regional transmission organizations
- Regional technical initiatives such as the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnership and Pacific Northwest Regional Technical Forum, which work to develop regional databases on the performance of EE programs
- The evaluation guides and studies produced by the State and Local Energy Efficiency Action Network, which brings together diverse stakeholders to promote timely, cost-effective, and accurate measurement and verification practices
EE: Ready for Prime Time
EE represents a historic opportunity to achieve extensive reductions in emissions of carbon pollution and other power sector pollutants that directly harm public health and the environment.
In many cases, EE measures will actually save families and businesses money over time and help strengthen the economy.
Decades of state and utility experience in designing and implementing EE programs have demonstrated that the benefits of EE are real, and that the policies and tools needed to incentivize EE and measure its effects are available.
EPA should fully mobilize the potential of EE by exercising its authority to consider EE in the design of the Carbon Pollution Standards, and by providing guidance to the states to facilitate the inclusion of EE in state plans implementing those standards.
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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Towards the end of the final presidential debate of the 2020 election season, the moderator asked both candidates how they would address both the climate crisis and job growth, leading to a nearly 12-minute discussion where Donald Trump did not acknowledge that the climate is changing and Joe Biden called the climate crisis an existential threat.
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By Zheng Chen and Darren H. S. Tan
As concern mounts over the impacts of climate change, many experts are calling for greater use of electricity as a substitute for fossil fuels. Powered by advancements in battery technology, the number of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles on U.S. roads is increasing. And utilities are generating a growing share of their power from renewable fuels, supported by large-scale battery storage systems.