EPA Carbon Rule for Existing Power Plants in OMB’s Hands

Last week, several news reports noted the EPA sent a draft rule for carbon emission standards for existing power plants to the “White House.” What does that mean exactly? It’s not as if the rule is sitting on President Obama’s desk ready to be stamped with approval. Actually, the rule is now in the hands of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and specifically the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). OIRA reviews rulemakings to determine whether EPA has satisfied the requirements of coordinating between federal agencies and considered various regulatory options. The review process is dictated by Executive Orders 12866 and 13563. The review process goes something like this:


OMB is supposed to review a rule within 90 days, although that can be extended by 30 days by the director of OMB. The average time for OIRA to complete reviews in 2012 was 79 days. However, there have been instances of a rule languishing in interagency review for considerable time, particularly in 2013. There have also been times where OIRA’s review resulted in the agency making changes to the draft rule before issuing it for public comment. The Obama administration has been pushing for a draft rule on existing power plants to be completed by June 1st, with a final rule in June 2015.

There is much speculation as to what the draft rule looks like, which was supposed to give states control over how carbon emissions standards are met. One intriguing idea is from the Brookings Institute speculating that a carbon excise tax could be used by states to limit greenhouse gas emissions. An excise tax would be consistent with the law and would discourage the use of an energy source in proportion to it’s carbon burden. Notably, this type of approach would NOT mandate a particular technology (i.e. CCS for coal-fired plants) nor a strict carbon emissions limit for individual sources.






Legal Hurdles, Political Battles Ahead for EPA Carbon Rules

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a fight ahead over proposed and pending greenhouse gas regulations for power plants. The agency published proposed carbon emissions standards for new power plants on January 8, with comments due March 10. Those standards, which would preclude new coal-fired power plants without carbon capture and storage (CCS) quickly drew criticism from the electric power industry and legislators from states that rely heavily on coal. The latest in the political fight is the resolution of disapproval filed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Under the Congressional Review Act “major” federal regulations can be overruled using an expedited procedure in the Senate, requiring only 51 votes to pass. Of course, the resolution of disapproval must be either signed by the President or passed by two-thirds of Congress. This resolution has an infinitesimal chance of being passed. Of note – since its creation in 1996, 43 resolutions have been introduced in the Senate or House. Only two have passed one house of Congress, and only one (1!) regulation (rule on ergonomics) has been disapproved by Congress. The resolution is thus largely symbolic (and political). In other Congressional moves, a coalition in the House has introduced a bill that would require EPA to make public all its research before implementing a new environmental policy. The prognosis for passage of this bill is equally poor.

On the legal front, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the coming week challenging EPA’s carbon standards. 74 state and business groups across the U.S. argue that the regulations will have severe economic consequences. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) has urged the Obama administration to withdraw the rule after an official from the Department of Energy testified during a Congressional hearing that requiring CCS would result in an increase of 70 to 80 percent in the price of electricity from coal plants. In the meantime, the EPA may be having difficulty writing a rule on existing power plants that could withstand legal challenges. EPA seems to be trying to do their homework on this rule, meeting with state officials, environmental groups and utilities. President Obama has directed the EPA to issue a draft rule by June 1st.

It is important to note that despite numerous media reports of reduced coal dependence in the U.S., generation from coal-fired power plants increased in 2013 to 39% due to a four-year high for natural gas prices. Natural gas-fired generation was 27.5% in 2013. While coal’s share of electric generation is down from 50% (in 2005), it is projected to have a bigger share than natural gas in 2014, according to projections by the Energy Information Administration (EIA). The impact of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) which will be implemented next year will force many older coal units without pollution controls to retire. EIA projects 60 GW of coal-fired power to retire by 2020 as a result of MATS, drawing more criticism for EPA rules that predominately affect coal.



Congressional Challenge to EPA Climate Rules

To start off the new year, EPA’s proposed rule on carbon emissions from new power plants was published in the Federal Register, with comments due by March 10, 2014. Congressional leaders from coal states wasted no time in challenging the new rules, with proposed legislation to limit EPA from issuing carbon standards based on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) as the “best system of emission reduction (BSER)” which is “adequately demonstrated.” Coal proponents and many energy experts point out that CCS has not been demonstrated at commercial scale for power plants. Currently, only one plant with CCS capability is under construction in the United States (Kemper County IGCC) and one in Canada (Boundary Dam). For a good overview of CCS projects worldwide, including planned and active projects for various industries, check out the Global CCS Institute’s handy mapping tool. The legal justification for EPA to use CCS as BSER for setting emission standards is sure to be challenged in court. But the proposed carbon rule has other far-reaching regulatory implications – including standards for new sources not already regulated.

By EPA’s own admission in the rule, the emission standards for new generating facilities will have negligible effect on carbon emissions. With natural gas prices low, and the flexibility of natural gas power plants, there are few plans to build new coal units anyway. EPA is pursuing the rule as written to establish their regulatory authority for electric generating units and use of CCS as BSER, with the idea to follow up with a rule on existing sources. Coal-state Congressional representatives (from both parties) see this writing on the wall, and through legislation are attempting to preempt EPA’s ability to set such standards. Congressman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) is hosting a lively discussion about the legislation over at OurEnergyPolicy.org. Tau Technical will be monitoring the unfolding developments on EPA’s carbon regulations and the political and legal battles that follow, and posting updates with analysis, so stay tuned!

Microgrids: Motivation and Markets

What are the factors driving the development of microgrids worldwide and how large is the market expected to grow? The Australian Broadcasting Corp recently aired a Radio National Future Tense program exploring the economic, technical, and policy issues of microgrid adoption. Microgrids: hyper-distributed power features Dawn Santoianni discussing microgrids in the U.S.

To read more about microgrids, check out Dawn’s Scientific American blog post from December 2012.

Five Reasons to Read What You Retweet

All too often I see retweets that make me question whether the person who retweeted actually read the content or clicked on the link. While I know it was probably the result of automation or trusting content from normally reliable and accurate sources, it can still waste my time. Twitter clients that help you automate and schedule tweets are great time savers, but must be used with caution. Anyone that has been on Twitter for awhile probably has had one of the following happen:

  • Send out a tweet with misspellings
  • Send out a tweet with a broken link
  • Retweet poorly written content.

After all, humans make mistakes and automation isn’t as smart as you are. Analysis of Twitter retweets shows that users don’t always click on the links they retweet – in fact, almost one in five tweets generates more retweets than clicks. That means whether through automation or because of not taking the time to read, many people will retweet a link without even checking it out first!

Despite the “Retweets ≠ endorsements” disclaimer that many folks put on their Twitter profile, bad retweets DO reflect poorly on you, your company, and your brand. Here’s why:

RTs with broken links = I don’t care enough to check content or read what I tweet

This applies not only to broken links, but also poorly written content, hard to read content, or inappropriate content. I recently clicked a link in a RT that came with a bunch of obnoxious autoplay (and loud) video ads on the sidebar. It irritated me and I didn’t bother to read the article. By retweeting, you are saying that this is interesting or worth looking at. If you didn’t read it, why should anyone else? Don’t sacrifice your reputation on bad content.

Retweets often result in engagement

A lot of what I retweet results in interactions with the person/account that originated the content or others who find it informative. And engagement is exactly the point of Twitter. If you don’t read content you retweet and someone responds to you, then you have that uh-oh moment. Yes, you can go back at that point and read it, but the time delay (or worse, faking that you read it) may cause you to miss an opportunity to engage with customers, new clients, and new connections.

Unwittingly passing along spam or malicious links

Yes – it happens and too often. Protect yourself and your connections by checking links before retweeting.

Headlines can be misleading: retweeting content that doesn’t align with your company’s values

There is a difference between passing along an article that may be informative even if you don’t particularly agree with all the statements or conclusions, versus retweeting content that is blatantly false and paints your company or industry in a bad light. Particularly damaging are satire videos/posts that people can mistakenly think are real.

The tweet that goes nowhere

I also see a lot of retweets with links that go nowhere – to someone’s blog that has a partial version or commentary on a news story, or requires registration to read (which I personally despise). If you do retweet subscription material, make sure you denote that in your retweet. If you don’t click on it, how do you know it takes readers to the original news story or that they can even view it?

Do yourself and your followers a favor, and click on links and read before you retweet. Shortcuts are not worth your reputation.


Dissecting EPA Regulations

The Congressional Research Service issued a new report in mid-July that provides a comprehensive history of proposed and promulgated regulations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration. The report EPA Regulations: Too Much, Too Little, or On Track? examines 43 major regulatory actions undertaken by the EPA since January 2009 and discusses factors that affect regulatory timelines including statutory and judicial deadlines, and permitting procedures. A pertinent conclusion in the report is that “dates for proposal and promulgation of EPA standards effectively underestimate the complexities of the regulatory process and overstate the near-term impact of many of the regulatory actions.” The 33-page report is well worth a read.

Twitter Lists and Searches: Saving You From A Social Media Black Hole

Organizations and people who are just getting started on Twitter or working on a social media strategy are often overwhelmed by the sheer volume and speed of information taking place in real time. A common concern is that social media is (or will become) a black hole, where time and productivity cease to have meaning. How do you prevent yourself or your organization from getting pulled in by Twittersphere gravity, but still maintain an active social media presence? Use lists and searches!

How to Use Twitter Lists

I’ve written before about using lists and searches for research on Twitter. But they really do help you manage your time, find relevant content, and allow you to be part of conversations with people who you aren’t following or aren’t following you. Let’s start with Twitter lists. If you already understand what Twitter lists are, skip to the next paragraph. Twitter lists are people/organizations/accounts that you want to categorize. Lists help you see tweets from a specific group without having to follow those accounts or scan your timeline. You can have a maximum of 1,000 lists, with 5,000 Twitter accounts per list (this was increased in the spring of 2013). You set up Twitter lists in your Twitter account by going to your profile, clicking on “Lists” and the button “Create list.” You can have a list for anything you want: friends, technology, competitors, media contacts, etc. For example, as an energy wonk some of my lists are “Technology & Engineering,” “Sustainability” and “Electric Providers.” You name your list, give it a description (if you want) and then choose to make it public or private. My friends list is private, which means other people can’t view who is on the list, but all my other lists are public. I make my lists public because other people may find them useful and subscribe to one of my lists. You can also create lists through a Twitter app like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck, which is a must-have to keep organized (more on that in a minute…).

You can add people to your lists even if you don’t follow them. Using a Twitter interface like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite, you can search on keywords to find people and organizations to add to your list. Having a Twitter app like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck is essential to following your lists. Twitter interfaces that allow you to have columns reflecting each list helps you organize and keep up with the content feed. I hardly ever look at my home feed, as there are just too many tweets coming too fast to keep up with. But I can scroll through a column for one of my Twitter lists and see several hours or an entire days’ worth of content in only a few minutes. And, if I am extremely time pressured one day and don’t have time for a particular subject (let’s say my “Cool Science Tweeters” list), then I don’t have to even look through it. One word of caution, though: accounts that you add to a list may get a notification that you have added them (depending on how their notifications are set up), so it is probably unwise to have a “Total Jerks” or other derogatory title for a list.

Social Media Monitoring: The Power of Searches

You can do the same thing with searches, keeping them as a column within Hootsuite or other app, without even having to create an list. You can set up a list based on a keyword, hashtag, or – and here’s the beauty of it for companies – your brand! That way you see the conversation happening about your company or industry, which means you can spot potential problems, respond to negativity like a person (not a prerecorded sound bite), and above all else, provide INFORMATION. Many companies and industries feel that they will have to invest a tremendous amount of time to monitor social media. But search columns allow you to keep your pulse on what is being discussed without having to follow an unwieldy number of accounts and spend hours looking through the Twitter feed. Best of all, no one else can see your search columns, so you can make it as specific as you want. Let’s say you know of a negative hashtag for your brand or industry – you can set up a search column to look for mentions of that hashtag. That allows you to develop metrics for who is using the hashtag, how often it is being used, and the relative sentiment about your company or brand. The success of your social media strategy and resource investments can then be evaluated against improvements in those metrics.

As an engineer, I’m all about metrics so I started keeping track of my time spent on social media before and after fully utilizing lists and searches. I have reduced the amount of time spent on social media by 64 percent, just by being organized with list and search columns. And in case you are wondering…I usually am tweeting 6 days per week averaging 12 tweets per day (Twitter scheduling apps are your friend). Part of your social media strategy should identify what you monitor for, so do some searches to figure out which hashtags, accounts, and keywords to use for your list and search columns.

Northwest Coal Exports and Impacts on Climate Change

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups have sued coal and rail companies in federal court over coal dust from trains heading to export terminals in the Northwest. This action is an attempt to force Clean Water Act regulations on coal transport, but the larger goal is to impede the permitting and construction of the remaining planned coal export terminals in Oregon and Washington. Plans for three export terminals have already been scrapped, which environmentalists view as a win. The export terminals are intended to transport low sulfur Power River Basin coal to Asia, where coal is high in demand and expected to increase. Environmental groups cite pollution from coal dust, diesel emissions from rail traffic and climate concerns as reasons to oppose coal export terminals.

Coal companies are increasingly looking to growing overseas markets as U.S. coal use declines. Domestically, coal demand is falling due to low natural gas prices and environmental regulations. The combined effect of commodity competition and compliance costs are causing older coal electric generating units to retire or be replaced with new natural gas-fired capacity. Currently, the largest coal export terminal in the U.S. is at Norfolk, Virgina with most shipped coal headed to Europe. In 2012, U.S. coal exports were double what was exported in 2009. Coal exports from the U.S. to UK alone jumped more than 70 percent in 2012.

Unfortunately, actions to stop coal exports or shutter U.S. coal plants do little to battle climate change. In this regard, the actions of environmental groups seem to ignore that developing countries will continue to use coal, with or without U.S. exports. Even if the U.S. could completely eliminate its dependency on coal and significantly reduce carbon emissions, those reductions are projected to be offset by increases in carbon emissions from developing countries. In countries where the population has access to (mostly) reliable electricity, it can be easy to overlook that 1.2 billion people in the world still lack access to electricity. We are are world of energy haves and energy have-nots, both in terms of resources and access. The energy source that is most available and affordable to developing countries? Coal. While the U.S. has the largest coal deposits of any country, the combined reserves in Russia, China, and Australia eclipse U.S. reserves. China’s growing demand for coal alone will drive production and use.

Energy and climate organizations including the International Energy Agency (IEA)World Resources Institute, and a coalition of environmental non-governmental organizations that includes the Clean Air Task Force, The Climate Institute and E3G have pointed to the critical role that carbon capture and storage (CCS) has in mitigating climate change. The problem is that carbon capture for existing power generating stations has been expensive and not even approached the scale needed. Sequestering carbon from exhaust gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels (post-combustion) requires cooling the flue gas, using a solvent to separate the carbon dioxide (CO2) from the other gases in the exhaust (the CO2 only makes up a small percentage of the exhaust gas), and compressing the CO2. The energy required for the process significantly decreases the plant’s power generating capacity (called the energy penalty or parasitic load), so in essence you have to burn more fossil fuels to capture carbon, thus producing more carbon emissions.

Pre-combustion technologies and research into new chemical processes to capture carbon are promising for reducing the cost and increasing the efficacy of CCS. Pre-combustion technologies include chemical looping and gasification. In chemical looping, coal is is chemically broken down rather than directly burned and produces a highly concentrated CO2 stream, enabling more economical separation and higher capture rates. In gasification, coal is thermally decomposed (not combusted) into a syngas which primarily contains hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and CO2. The CO2 is removed to produce a syngas with certain specifications. Carbon capture from gasification is a mature technoology that has been commercially used in chemical plants.

Unfortunately, “clean coal” (which I always thought was a terrible term) has been labeled as a farce, demonstration projects have experienced delays and cancellations, and the shale gas boom have combined to derail investment in CCS. Interestingly, the same groups that lambaste CCS as too expensive and say it should prove itself without government investment are proponents of investing in renewable energy…with the government’s help. Okay, what about a carbon tax to level the energy playing field? Resources for the Future Center for Climate and Electricity Policy research indicates that natural gas would be the winner with a moderate tax on carbon, and a 10 percent reduction in U.S. carbon emissions would be partially offset by a 1 to 3 percent increase elsewhere in the world.

The data suggest that the “progress” of reducing the reliance on coal in the U.S. doesn’t address the larger issue of a growing world population dependent on fossil fuels. I am reminded of a sobering article on the U.S.’s “cognitive dissonance” courtesy of the Duke Nicholas School of the Environment blog. We are neither absolved of carbon responsibility if we reduce domestic carbon emissions, nor isolated from the effects of climate change if emissions from the rest of the world continue to increase. And that is precisely why the U.S. must invest in commercializing low carbon technologies, including CCS. Until solutions for reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion (not just coal, but oil and gas too) become economical we will continue spinning our wheels on climate change.