Clean Energy Will Be Key to a Robust Climate and Public Health Plan

A years-long struggle to clean up the nation’s power grid remains unsettled

By Jonathan Hahn

January 30, 2021


Photo by Ralf Geithe/iStock

In his first seven days after taking office, President Joe Biden issued a sweeping series of executive actions to take on the climate crisis, and to center equity and environmental justice in that effort. The actions—which include suspending oil and gas leasing on public lands, ordering a new National Intelligence Estimate on climate change, and creating a White House interagency council on environmental justice—amount to an unprecedented mobilization of all branches of the federal government to arrest the greenhouse gas emissions now threatening our planet.

Biden’s executive orders on climate set aggressive deadlines for federal agencies to initiate rulemaking and develop detailed plans for achieving those goals. One of the strongest challenges Biden’s climate action plan is likely to face will come from the nation’s utility sector, which has been fighting a years-long tug-of-war with environmental organizations and state and federal policymakers. 

On January 19, the last day of Donald Trump’s presidency, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit tossed out one of the most egregious environmental rollbacks proposed by Trump’s EPA: the so-called Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule. The EPA proposed the ACE rule to replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, the nation’s first-ever rule for drawing down greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s power industry.  

The Clean Power Plan, if it had been enacted, would have established for the first time state-by-state targets for reducing CO2 emissions from the nation’s power industry by 2030, and boasted the co-benefit of saving lives. A peer-reviewed study published in Nature Climate Change in 2015, the year the Clean Power Plan was finalized, found that it would reduce power plant emissions enough to prevent more than 3,000 premature deaths each year associated with pollution-related health problems such as heart attacks and respiratory illnesses. Before the Clean Power Plan was introduced, there were no federal regulations in place that limited carbon pollution from the nation’s aging fossil-fuel-fired power plants. 

But it went nowhere. Coal companies, some utilities, and their allies in 28 states sued, and the Clean Power Plan has been tied up in litigation ever since. If Trump’s replacement ACE rule had been enacted, it would have actually increased carbon pollution from the nation’s power sector, increased consumer costs, and made air quality worse, leading to more premature deaths, not fewer, according to the EPA’s own analysis. 

The DC Circuit court found that with the ACE rule, the EPA artificially restricted the measures it could consider for establishing the best system for emissions reductions at power plants. The agency, under the Trump administration, had claimed that it was limited by the Clean Air Act to only establish standards for control technologies that can be installed directly at a power plant site. 

That interpretation of the statute would nullify a holistic system of pollution controls for the grid nationwide, according to Joanne Spaulding, the chief climate counsel for the Sierra Club's Environmental Law Program. 

“The way the sector operates is that the whole grid is connected and acts together,” Spaulding says. “The easiest way to reduce pollution, in particular greenhouse gas pollution from the electric sector, and the way that utilities actually accomplish that, is by shifting generation from high-polluting sources like coal plants to low- or zero-polluting sources like wind. If you can’t consider how the industry actually reduces their greenhouse gas emissions, then you’re stuck with measures that are either very expensive or not technologically feasible.”

In its ruling to vacate the ACE rule, the DC Circuit stated that the goal of the EPA in advancing the rule had been “to slow the process for reduction of emissions.”

The decision brings to a close the latest chapter in the story over whether, and how, the nation will finally regulate C02 from its aging power sector. Carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels to generate electricity accounts for a third of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions, second only to the transportation sector. To achieve his ambitious climate goals, and to meet the targets established by the Paris climate accord, Biden will have to advance, and this time successfully enact, the nation’s first-ever rule for drawing down fossil fuel emissions from the nation’s electricity grid.

A kick-start to that process arrived this week in Biden’s executive order: It includes a provision that reiterates his campaign pledge of achieving 100 percent clean energy and commits to pursuing “a carbon-pollution-free power sector by 2035.” But that doesn’t mean a return to the original Clean Power Plan, or even a souped-up Clean Power Plan 2.0. Too much has changed since the original rule was introduced. 

The five years since 2015—the same year that both the Clean Power Plan was finalized and nations around the world committed to the Paris Agreement—have been the five hottest years on record. And the associated costs of that global heating—both in terms of lives lost and in treasure—are dramatically rising. According to a study published by Lancet last month, more people are dying from climate-related disasters worldwide. In 2019, according to the report, vulnerable populations were exposed to an additional 475 million heatwave events globally, leading to excess morbidity and mortality. In the United States, in 2020 alone over 20 climate-related disasters cost at least $1 billion each. Last year also had the worst fire season on record and the most active hurricane season on record. According to a report by the Environmental Defense Fund, the federal government, including FEMA and other agencies, spent at least $450 billion on weather-disaster assistance between 2005 and 2019.

The EPA’s rulemaking process for pursuing 100 percent clean energy for the nation’s power grid will have to take these new conditions into account and set far more aggressive targets than those proposed under the original Clean Power Plan. 

“The facts are quite different now from what they were when EPA adopted the Clean Power Plan,” Spaulding says, “but also, we now know that we can get much greater emissions reductions from the electricity sector than EPA considered at the time when it adopted that plan.” 

Also in contrast to 2015, market forces are now on Biden’s side. The economics driving the retirement of coal plants and the build-out of renewables versus gas has shifted decidedly in favor of clean energy, even without a federal rule like the Clean Power Plan regulating emissions. 

“Despite former President Trump’s promises to revitalize the coal industry, coal retirements continued apace,” says Dan Lashof, the director of the World Resources Institute. “In fact, electric generation from coal has declined by about half in the last decade. We need to complete that phase-out in the next decade. That’s one of the few areas where the pace of change is consistent with where we need to go.”

While the battle between the Clean Power Plan and the Affordable Clean Energy rule played out in the courts, many states and utilities went ahead with establishing their own clean energy methods anyway. Those market trends, combined with a robust federal rulemaking process for emissions reductions and other green job creation and economic stimulus programs, may finally deliver a viable path to the 100 percent clean energy grid Biden promised in his executive order.

“We need to double or triple the pace at which we’re building non-emitting generation, particularly wind and solar,” Lashof says. “That’s something a post–Clean Power Plan approach can help accomplish, but so can enhanced tax credits for clean electricity and infrastructure investments for clean transmission.”

A robust national plan for reducing air pollution from the nation’s power sector is not only critical for a climate action plan. It will also save lives. Evidence shows that for every year the federal government allows residents to be exposed to fine particulate matter found in air pollution, more people will get sick or even die as a direct result of that exposure.

Francesca Dominici is the codirector of the Data Science Initiative at Harvard University and a professor of biostatistics, population, and data science. She led a team that was the first to produce evidence that long-term exposure to fine particulate matter in air pollution increases the risk of death from COVID-19. Her lab has assembled the largest database in the United States on the link between health outcomes and exposure to air pollution, and through their data platform, has studied that link in vulnerable communities, including over 97 percent of the population older than 65 nationwide. For over 20 years, she and her team have been assessing causality between longtime exposure to fine particulate matter found in air pollution and an increased risk of death, as well as cases of people exposed to a level of fine particulate matter below the national quality standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter.

“We were able to provide rigorous evidence of a causal relationship between longtime exposure to fine particulate matter in the air and mortality, and also a causal relationship for older Americans that were exposed to a level of fine particulate matter below the national standard,” she told Sierra. “Our research showed that the current levels of fine particulate matter are not safe enough, and that we need to do the best we can to save lives by lowering those levels. And, we know that one of the major contributors of fine particulate matter is fossil fuel combustion from coal-fired power plants.” 

According to a 2018 study published in JAMA, also co-led by Dominici, Trump’s environmental policies had the potential of leading to an additional 80,000 deaths per decade. 

“The evidence of the health effect of air pollution is clear, and what is also clear is that the most toxic fine particulate matter comes from coal-fired power plants,” Dominici says. “Implementing more stringent regulations and cleaning the air will save thousands of lives, and will save even more thousands of lives now that we are dealing with the reality of a pandemic.”