August 30, 2023

Rotten Eggs in the EPA Power Plant Rule

By Shelley Hudson Robbins

Movie buffs are accustomed to watching for small details in films called Easter eggs. These are tiny visual or verbal references that may be a nod to another movie, foreshadowing, or a hidden message. The EPA’s proposed regulation for greenhouse gases emitted by power plants contains some similar nuggets, but rather than Easter eggs, these are more like rotten eggs, and they reveal the heavy influence of the fossil fuel industry.

The most glaring evidence of fossil industry lobbying is the fact that battery storage as a tool for emissions reduction is completely omitted from consideration. The only technologies the EPA is advocating for – hydrogen co-firing and carbon capture and storage – both perpetuate fossil fuels and fossil fuel infrastructure such as pipelines and combustion turbines. The EPA is also asking for input on how to incorporate burning hydrogen in “low load combustion turbines,” sometimes called peaker plants – the plants that are most likely to be sited in low-wealth communities and communities of color. The EPA is doing this while acknowledging elsewhere in the document that burning hydrogen emits high levels of NOx, a pollutant that harms the communities that surround these plants and that cannot be captured effectively in peaker plants. The EPA is effectively asking how it can add even more pollution burden to these communities. That is the first rotten egg.

The second rotten egg is revealed in the following sentences:

“Important characteristics for low load combustion turbines include their low capital costs, their ability to start and quickly ramp to full load, and their ability to operate at partial loads while maintaining acceptable emission rates and efficiencies. The ability to start and quickly attain full load is important to maximize revenue during periods of peak electric prices.” (emphasis added)

These two sentences say the quiet part out loud – that the ability to maximize revenue for fossil peakers is far more important than acknowledging the incredible damage that peaker emissions inflict on the communities that surround them. These emissions are not “acceptable.” And power plant operator revenue desires and aspirations are not mentioned anywhere else among the more than 200,000 words that make up this proposal.

A third fossil industry rotten egg is revealed by comparing the following sections:

“The EPA is also taking comment on several underlying policy issues relevant to ensuring that hydrogen used to comply with this rule is low-GHG hydrogen.” (emphasis added)

What follows is a discussion of ways to certify that the hydrogen allowed for co-firing does not come from sources with high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

However, when it comes to battery storage:

“(T)he energy storage devices could be charged using grid supplied electricity that is generated from other types of generation. Therefore, this is not necessarily stored low-GHG electricity.” (emphasis added)

A discussion of ways to certify that battery storage is charged using low-GHG-emitting sources does not follow in this section.

The EPA is soliciting help making sure that hydrogen – an expensive gas that emits high levels of NOx and allows plants to continue co-firing with fossil gas for years – comes from low-GHG emitting sources, but it criticizes battery storage for the same grid-tied characteristic while also failing to recommend battery storage – a proven, emissions-free tool – as an additional system of emissions reduction for power plants. This incongruency further reveals a thumb on the scale tilted toward the fossil fuel industry.

Influence in the development of regulations can come in many forms. There may be direct contact between industry representatives and the agency in charge of drafting; there may be stakeholder groups with the best intentions but without genuine community representation; there may be efforts to influence the process by nonprofits that are intentionally formed to misguide the public and decision-makers. But the most likely form of influence is the fossil-industry propaganda and misinformation that has washed over this country for decades, convincing us that the industry has reliability and our best interests at heart.

Clean Energy Group’s Phase Out Peakers Project is working to challenge this legacy narrative by revealing and elevating the importance of the health damage that peaker plants cause, year after year, to the communities that surround them. These communities were not at the table while the EPA was drafting the proposed power plant rules. There are no Easter eggs revealing their presence. But there is certainly a basketful of rotten eggs.

Photo Credit


Associated CEG Initiative(s)

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