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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed new Clean Air Act standards for natural gas and coal-fired power plants in an effort to curb carbon pollution. This proposal applies only to new plants.

According to the EPA, power plants are the largest concentrated source of emissions in the U.S., accounting for roughly one-third of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions. The agency says the proposal achieves the first milestone outlined in President Obama's June 25 memorandum to the EPA on "Power Sector Carbon Pollution Standards," a major part of the president's Climate Action Plan.

Under the proposal, new large natural gas-fired turbines would need to meet a limit of 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour, while new small natural gas-fired turbines would need to meet a limit of 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour. New coal-fired units would need to meet a limit of 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour and would have the option to meet a somewhat tighter limit if they choose to average emissions over multiple years, giving those units additional operational flexibility.

The EPA says these proposed standards will ensure that new power plants are built with available clean technology to limit carbon pollution, a requirement that is in line with investments in clean energy technologies that are already being made in the power industry. Additionally, the EPA notes that these standards provide flexibility by allowing sources to phase in the use of some of these technologies, and they ensure that the power plants of the future use cleaner energy technologies, such as efficient natural gas, advanced coal technology, nuclear power, and renewable energy like wind and solar.

Reactions to the EPA proposal have been mixed among the utility industry.

The Edison Electric Institute (EEI), which represents investor-owned electric companies, notes that the proposal is consistent with the recommendations it made to the EPA last year.

"EEI continues to support an explicit exemption for combustion turbines, which are not efficient or economic to operate, except when needed," comments EEI President Tom Kuhn. "We will closely evaluate the proposal, its potential impact and the steps that EPA has taken to ensure natural gas combined-cycle plants can comply."

However, Kuhn also voices some concern.

"The new proposal sets a separate standard for coal-based units and requires the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which is neither adequately demonstrated nor economically feasible," adds Kuhn. "As proposed, this rule would hinder efforts to develop cost-effective CCS - a critical technology for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions going forward - because it effectively prevents the building of new clean coal plants. We cannot afford to take generation sources out of the mix, as fuel diversity guards against potential supply disruptions and is key to affordable and reliable electricity."

Kuhn also states that the EEI will continue working with the EPA. He concludes that carbon pollution standards should "contain achievable compliance limits, minimize costs to customers and are consistent with the electric power industry's investment and transition to a cleaner generation fleet and enhanced electric grid over the next decade."

Meanwhile, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) - representing the nation's private, not-for-profit, consumer-owned electric cooperatives - is explicit in its displeasure with the proposal.

"NRECA and its member co-ops are disappointed to learn that the administration has abandoned its 'all of the above' energy strategy and embraced an 'all but one' approach that restricts the future use of coal to generate affordable electricity," says Jo Ann Emerson, CEO of the NRECA.

"NRECA urges the administration to reconsider this proposal and focus on working with co-ops as we continue to reduce power plant emissions, increase efficiency and develop affordable new technologies," Emerson adds.

The EPA says it is seeking comment and information on the proposal, including holding a public hearing, and will take that input fully into account as it completes the rulemaking process. The comment period will be open for 60 days following publication in the Federal Register.

Separately, in accordance with the June 25 presidential memorandum, the EPA will issue proposed standards for existing power plants by June 1, 2014.


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