News Column

Greenhouse Gas Policy Is Bound to Hit Close to Home

June 26, 2013
Greenhouse Gas

The Obama administration's newly aggressive push to curb heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere looks to alter how the country generates electricity, and likely will alter its light bills.

Environmental groups and utilities in the Kansas City area said President Barack Obama's plan to increase regulation of carbon dioxide emissions could rattle the electric industry in ways that will be neither easy nor cheap.

The linchpin of Obama's plan is controls on new and existing power plants. Forty percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, and one-third of greenhouse gases overall, come from electric power plants.

Coal-fired power plants like those that supply much of the power to light up Kansas and Missouri could become more expensive to operate, they said, or become economically obsolete.

Some could be supplemented with the greater use of wind turbines or the burning of farm products. But fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, with their sizable carbon footprints, will remain the foundation of steady, reliable electricity.

"Renewables aren't a good source of the base load," said Katie McDonald, a spokeswoman for Kansas City Power & Light.

Yet some of the move away from older, smaller coal-fired power plants that have the highest carbon dioxide emission rates is already in motion, triggered by earlier federal rulings aimed at lowering the amounts of mercury they cough into the air.

Added regulation on carbon dioxide emissions -- the predominant greenhouse gas linked to global climate change -- could speed that trend. Doing so can be costly. It means shutting down some plants as well as shifting energy production to wind turbines and other renewable sources that tend to be more expensive.

Already, Wyandotte County's Board of Public Utilities is geared to switch its Quindaro plant from coal to natural gas in 2015.

"We're going to work with federal and state regulators to comply with all the applicable rules," said David Mehlhaff, a BPU spokesman. "They all come with a cost, and those ultimately get passed on to the consumer."

And the crackdown on carbon levels accelerates the trend toward the use of natural gas to power some plants currently burning coal. Lower natural-gas prices make that a less painful shift, but it's unclear how long natural-gas surpluses will keep those costs down.

"There's no silver bullet," said Greg Greenwood, the senior vice president of strategy for Westar Energy.

Coal plants can be modified to reduce conventional forms of pollution, a now decades-long trend. But reducing carbon dioxide emissions by sequestering it underground or through other methods involves experimental and expensive technology.

Announcing a wide-ranging plan to tackle pollution and prepare communities for global warming, Obama declared the debate over climate change and its causes obsolete Tuesday.

"As a president, as a father and as an American," Obama said, "I'm here to say we need to act."

Obama announced he was directing his administration to launch the first-ever federal regulations on greenhouse gases from new and existing power plants -- "to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution."

Other aspects of the plan will boost renewable energy production on federal lands, increase efficiency standards and prepare communities to deal with higher temperatures.

Obama also offered insight into his administration's deliberations on Keystone XL, an oil pipeline whose potential approval has sparked an intense fight between environmental activists and energy producers.

"Our national interest would be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution," Obama said.

By expanding permitting for renewable energy projects on public lands, Obama hopes to generate enough electricity from wind and solar sources to power the equivalent of 6 million homes by 2020.

The Sierra Club chapters for both Kansas and Missouri applauded the president's remarks, even as they awaited specifics about what requirements the administration would impose and what deadlines would accompany them.

"The president is stepping up to reduce ... climate-disrupting pollution," said Sierra Club Missouri director John Hickey.

His Kansas counterpart conceded the cost of avoiding carbon emissions, but said such change "is way past due."

Bill Griffith, the energy chairman of the Kansas Sierra Club, said electric rates today are as low as they've been in 25 years. And he said some of the cost of more expensive energy can be offset by new efficiencies -- better refrigerators or LED light bulbs that a year ago cost $60 now going for roughly $10.

"Those are real savings," he said.

Republicans criticized the president's speech, suggesting he's abandoned an all-of-the-above approach to meeting the country's energy needs.

"The Obama administration is admittedly waging a 'war on coal,' which will hurt families and job creators in states like Missouri that rely heavily on coal for accessible and affordable power," said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Source: (c)2013 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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