Q&A: What the Clean Power Plan will mean for Minnesota

Christopher James is a principal at the Regulatory Assistance Project.

Christopher James is a busy consultant these days. He just got back from China, where he worked with government officials on clean air legislation based largely on the approached used in the United States.

Lately he and his colleagues at the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP) have been meeting with regulators and serving on panels across the country to speak about meeting Clean Power Plan requirements.

James will participate in a free panel discussion in Minneapolis tonight, sponsored by the Center for Energy and the Environment, on how Minnesota will meet the requirements of the Clean Power Plan.

Part of the conversation will be about the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP)” that can earn extra credit from the EPA. The event will features speakers from state agencies, the ACEEE, the National Association of State Energy Officials and RAP.

James worked for more than 30 years as an air quality regulator in Connecticut and for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle. Today the Washington state-based expert consults with private industry and with government officials.

One interesting aspect of the Clean Power Plan “is if you wipe away the slate and assume there’s no Clean Power Plan you find the overall trends in the United States are already flowing in the direction that is more environmentally friendly,” he said.

He spoke to Midwest Energy News about the federal legislation and its impact on the region.

Midwest Energy News: How is the plan progressing?

James: Forty-seven states have announced they will be preparing plans. I say 47 because Vermont doesn’t have to do a plan, and Alaska and Hawaii are being treated separately for the time being. States have to file by the September 2016 deadline or file for a two-year extension. I expect most states to file an extension request.

What about the politics of the plan?

You have a dual track system going on where at the political level you have governors and/or their attorneys general announcing that they are suing the EPA. The legal actions are going to be churning their way through the American court system the next few years.

And utilities?

You have a similar bifurcation. A number of utilities have announced they will be working with their states on a plan and have joined with attorneys general to get the plan overturned or significantly changed. They’re covering their bases.

Still, it sounds like the states are on board, whatever happens.

Every state knows it’s in their best interest to prepare a plan. I haven’t heard of any state that has said they want EPA’s plan. The EPA has a one-size-fits-all plan that doesn’t allow for much flexibility.

What’s your sense of the Midwest’s response?

I’m seeing a similar bifurcation – political versus institutional level. Even in Michigan Gov. (Rick) Snyder is directing the state agencies to prepare a plan [while] his attorney general is joining other attorneys general in suing the EPA. Michigan is preparing a plan, as is Illinois, Minnesota and even the Dakotas, who have been vociferous about their opposition.

How is Minnesota positioned?

Minnesota has a lot of good attributes already that make it straightforward to move ahead with a state Clean Power Plan. It has a renewable portfolio standard, an excellent efficiency standard and a tracking system that tracks energy savings and renewable energy generated that is considered a model of what states should be doing. Minnesota has an excellent basket of policies that can lend themselves quite nicely into the Clean Power Plan.

Would a regional plan for the Midwest work?

Many states are considering a Clean Power Plan that encompasses more than one state or has coordination on elements of the plan, such as renewables and energy efficiency, that would cover more than one state.

That’s as true in the Midwest as anywhere else, and the EPA recognized this in its final rule, which reflects regional rather than state specific emission rates because power generation and transmission does not respect state borders any more than pollution respects state borders.

Is there a model?

You have the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the Northeast, which I was involved in when I lived in Connecticut. Those states are looking at how that might work into the Clean Power Plan. California is working with western states on a plan.

The program addresses energy efficiency. How important is that to reaching the plan’s goals?

It was not included in the final EPA rule but it encourages states to include their energy efficiency programs as part of the compliance mechanism. The EPA believes states can achieve a significant portion of these greenhouse gas emission requirements through efficiency, and Minnesota is in good shape on that because of its excellent efficiency program.

What is the Clean Energy Incentive Program?

It’s a special set-aside of allowances for states to use for renewables and for low-income energy efficiency projects. What Minnesota would need to do is tell the EPA in its plan if it will participate in the CEIP. It doesn’t need a plan at that point.

Will the renewable energy component have to connect to low-income communities?

No. It’s really two programs. On the renewable side the EPA and states will give allowances based on a megawatt per hour of energy produced from renewables. On the energy efficiency assistance for each megawatt per hour of savings the state and EPA would donate allowances.

What is the thinking behind the energy efficiency part of the program?

There’s a lot of concern among environmental justice advocates that people who live in these low-income areas have borne a disproportionate burden of the pollution generated from fossil fuel plants. The idea is by improving low income apartments and homes that these communities will save money and get sick less because studies show insulation improves indoor air quality.

We’ve been speaking a lot about the Clean Power Plan but what do you see as the impact of the COP 21 Summit climate accord?

I look at this the same way we look at RGGI in the Northeast in 2005. At the time it was the first such program in the United States and it was criticized for being weak. What we see now 10 years on is that RGGI showed a path to how greenhouse gas reductions could be achieved cost effectively.

What’s important in Paris is you have 200 nations saying they will do something about global warming and agreeing to binding commitments. We’ll look back on December 12 and say this was the first step we made globally that we needed to take towards a decades-long trajectory toward to a low-carbon future.

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