Boost for US solar as Obama pledges to cut emissions

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US president Barack Obama has announced new regulations to cut carbon emissions from power plants.

The move, which would be a big boost to clean energy technologies such as solar, would see power plant emissions cut by 30% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.

The Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA) unveiled its ‘Clean Power Plan’ today, to serve as guidelines for cutting power plant carbon emissions. The guidelines are a legal extension of the federal Clean Air Act (1970), after 'cap and trade' carbon legislation failed to pass through Congress.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy followed Obama’s announcement, stating the plan sets out achievable state goals as “no one size fits all”.

“By leveraging cleaner energy sources and cutting energy waste, this plan will clean the air we breathe while helping slow climate change,” said McCarthy.

The EPA’s published preliminary guidelines will be subject to public commentary for the next six months, and debated in four public hearings across the US to engage feedback on the proposed legislature.

The draft states that technological advancement in energy efficiency, solar and wind power generation “provide the opportunity to address CO2 emission levels at affected power plants while at the same time improving the overall power system” of the country, lowering the carbon pollution and ensuring “reliable supply of power at a reasonable cost”.

Acknowledging difficulties in intermittency, the Clean Power Plan says renewable generation has grown quickly and that the EPA has seen “no evidence that operators will be less able to cope with future growth than they have with rapid past growth [of renewables]”.

The US solar trade body, Solar Energy Industry Association, (SEIA) said: “Today is a defining moment in American history. As a nation, we're poised to finally turn the page from sooty smokestacks to sunnier skies.”

The “common sense and flexible” regulations could serve as “a roadmap for future renewable energy policy in America”, said the SEIA, with solar acting as “a real game-changer for regulators looking to meet the changing needs of their state.”

The SEIA is urging state regulators and legislators to aggressively increase renewables mandates, net metering, solar farm permits and third-party ownership of solar systems as some of the ways that state regulators can “create more balanced energy portfolios, reduce pollution, protect public health and meet new clean air standards.”

It is hoped the announcement will help solar bridge on other debates, such as net metering and utility-scale permits and connection priority. “The proposed EPA plan gives more incentive for utilities to use solar in intelligent ways, in concert with energy efficiency and demand response,” said Julia Hamm, president and CEO of the Solar Electric Power Association. “US utilities are steadily gaining more experience with and confidence in solar as an option to meet customer demand. Solar should become a top choice as an option in meeting the new EPA rule.”

The EPA plan will also be cutting electricity bills by 8%, avoiding health risks and premature deaths, reducing other pollutants leading to smog and soot by 25%.

Obama announced the regulation in his weekly presidential address from the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C, which has asthma patients with aggravated systems due to air pollution.

“One of the best things we can do for our economy, our health, and our environment is to lead the world in producing cleaner, safer energy – and we’re already generating more clean energy than ever before,” he said.

Obama highlighted the deployment of solar in the US, pointing out that electricity generation from the sun has “increased more than tenfold” in the US. “Every four minutes, another American home or business goes solar – and every panel is pounded into place by a worker whose job cannot be shipped overseas,” he said.

Currently 40% of America’s carbon pollution comes from power plants, with zero regulation for dumping carbon pollution.

In response to claims environmental regulations will hurt businesses, predominantly coal mining, Obama said: “When we ask our workers and businesses to innovate, they do. When we raise the bar, they meet it.”

McCarthy said in a Google plus hangout with grist.com, just prior to the EPA announcement, that the move to regulate carbon pollution, as part of the president’s Climate Action Plan, “is acknowledging that there is really a moral obligation to address this challenge and take action now”.

On the same video, energy secretary Ernest Moniz said: “A great story that we have seen is the cost reduction, particularly in renewables, in solar, and in LEDs, with these costs coming down, we believe that we are in the revolution, we are not just waiting for the revolution to happen.”

The US Senator of Massachusetts, Ed Markey, a well-known advocate of climate change legislation, said on the EPA move: “This is the beginning of the end of America’s long, dirty power plant era. These new carbon-cutting targets will shift the American clean energy revolution that has already started into overdrive, creating jobs and cutting the pollution that threatens our health, our environment, and our future.”

In response to reports the EPA has already seen the beginnings of a backlash from coal interests, mainly from states who rely heavily on the coal industry, Markey said: “Coal companies, the Koch brothers, and other allies of polluting special interests may fight this proposal, but scientific facts, economic opportunity, and history aren’t on their side. This is our chance to engage in a new era of cleaner energy job creation that will benefit all of creation.”

Markey also reinforced the Clean Power Plan’s endorsement of state initiatives to support energy storage to increase grid level deployment of renewables and cut carbon emissions.

The new guidelines are a result of input from business, state and local government across the US who helped to build the legislation.

Moniz said the government’s next challenge is looking at how to build the infrastructure required for a clean energy future, with 15 regional meetings across the US.     

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