US electric co-ops oppose proposed power plant rule

NRECA says the plan, which aims for net zero power sector emissions by 2035, will lead to ‘more blackouts, higher costs, and greater uncertainty for Americans’

Electric co-op members have submitted almost 47,000 comments to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protest its proposed rule for the country’s coal and natural gas power plants. 

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) platform, Voices for Cooperative Power,  co-ordinated the action following NRECA’s submission of a letter opposing the rule on 8 August.

The EPA rule, part of the Biden administration’s goal for net-zero power sector emissions by 2035, was released in draft form on 23 May. It sets emission limits on power plants based on the use of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology, or ‘co-firing’ coal plants with natural gas, or natural gas plants with clean hydrogen.

Coal-fired plants planning to operate beyond 2039 would be required to install CCS to capture 90% of their CO2 emissions, and large natural gas plants will have to install CCS that removes 90% of their carbon emissions by 2035, or instead co-fire with 30% hydrogen by 2032 and 96% hydrogen by 2038.

The EPA says the plans reflect current trends in the power sector away from fossil fuels, would avoid more than 600 million metric tons of CO2 pollution, and prevent 300,000 asthma attacks and 1,300 premature deaths in 2030 alone.

NRECA, which represents around 900 local electric co-ops, has urged EPA to withdraw its proposal in its entirety, stating that it relies on widespread adoption of technologies that are “promising, but not ready for prime time”, as well as proposing “unrealistic and unachievable” timelines. NRECA also asserts that the rule would violate the law, exceeding EPA’s authority.

NRECA points to rolling blackouts experienced in nine US states last winter, with CEO Jim Matheson warning that “the energy future outlined by the EPA will result in more blackouts, higher costs, and greater uncertainty for Americans”, for an already stressed electricity grid.

The plans have also received criticism from outside of the co-op movement. America’s Power, a group representing utilities that use coal, pointed to legal questions around the proposal relating to EPA’s authority to “force the use of technologies that are not economically or technically feasible for widespread use.”

However, the proposed rule has also been praised by environmental groups such as the Clean Air Task Force (CATF).

“CATF welcomes these proposed rules with open arms,” said Armond Cohen, CATF’s executive director. “We have the technology to drive those emissions to near zero, and EPA’s proposed rule will set us on the path to get there.”

NRECA’s political affairs director, Patrick Ahearn, said: “This is an issue that every co-op and consumer-member has a stake in, because it affects the reliability and affordability of their electricity.”

In a recent interview for NRECA’s podcast Along Those Lines, NRECA’s vice president for regulatory affairs Ashley Slater highlighted other government actions that have been welcomed by energy co-ops, such as voluntary clean energy incentives.

“This is not about just saying no. We say yes to a lot of things and we are innovating and transforming our systems as individual communities,” she said, adding, “this is about saying no to a proposed mandate that is unworkable…when there are opportunities to say yes and use our advocacy tools to give our members the ability to do what makes sense for their systems, we do that.”

EPA is now reviewing the comments made in response to its proposal and is expected to publish the final rule in the spring of 2024.