A Diverse Option for America’s Energy Future

By Scott Gates

Congress has been debating climate change legislation for months. Now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has begun gearing up for its own possible set of regulations to slash emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide blamed for contributing to global warming. With more than 70 percent of our nation’s electricity coming from greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, the question becomes: how to reduce emissions while still making enough electricity available?

For the past several years, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) has been hard at work coming up with an answer. The research group, which includes electric cooperatives as members, recently released an updated set of possible remedies that could meet our energy needs while dramatically reigning in carbon dioxide emissions over coming decades.

Called the EPRI Prism after the broad spectrum of solutions described (and resulting colorful graphics tracking emissions cuts associated with each), the proposal consists of a set of recommendations in eight technology areas that, if adopted nationally, would allow electric utilities to slow, halt, and eventually decrease carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 while still supplying safe, affordable, and reliable electricity.

The eight components are: boosting end-use energy efficiency; making transmission and distribution system lines more efficient; improving the operating efficiency of fossil fuel-fired power plants; investing in renewable energy; expanding nuclear power capacity; capturing and storing carbon dioxide produced by coal-fired power plants; deploying electrotechnologies, like arc furnaces, for industrial and commercial use; and putting plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on the road.

The key involves utilizing all technologies together, with each doing its part to reduce emissions. Failure to maximize any of the eight technologies in the “full portfolio” will dramatically jack up the cost of achieving climate change goals, according to EPRI.

“There just isn’t going to be a free lunch,” remarks Revis James, director of EPRI’s Energy Technology Assessment Center. “If this type of policy is actually implemented, it’s going to cost money, even in an efficient scenario.”

Assuming the full range of carbon-curbing technologies are up and running by 2050 (the target date being discussed in congressional climate change legislative proposals), EPRI pegs the real wholesale cost of electricity to increase 80 percent. But continuing business as usual under tightening carbon dioxide emissions restrictions would spike wholesale power costs more than 210 percent.

Diversifying the nation’s generation fuel mix could lead to major savings down the road. Employing the full EPRI Prism, as opposed to relying on a few, less technologically advanced resources, will slash the impact on the nation’s economy by more than $1 trillion.

“Policymakers need to be made aware that the full portfolio carries a lower cost overall to the economy than a more limited approach,” James stresses. “Heading in that direction clearly is in our national interest.”

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