Gina McCarthy, the Power Plant Carbon Standards, and Reducing the Risks of Power Outages

Guest Blog | July 17, 2014 | Coal, Energy Policy, Nuclear

This is a guest post by John Rogers, senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and co-manager of the Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative (EW3) that looks at water demands of energy production in the context of climate change. SACE is an active partner with UCS on this critical work. This blog was originally posted on June 5, 2014 via the UCS blog, “The Equation.”

The EPA’s new power plant carbon standards are a potential climate game changer for a whole lot of reasons, given how much fossil-fueled power plants contribute to global warming. And in her speech unveiling the proposed standards on Monday, in talking about what global warming means for the power sector, rather than the other way around, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy nailed it.

How climate change puts our electricity at risk

Administrator McCarthy’s speech was chock full of compelling points about the science of climate change, current and future impacts, and solutions.

Fort Calhoun nuclear plant in Nebraska, with too much Missouri River (Credit: Wikimedia/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

About three-quarters of the way through, she turned her attention to the reliability implications of our evolving fleet of coal, nuclear, natural gas, and renewable energy plants (emphasis added):

The critics are wrong about reliability, too. For decades, power plants have met pollution limits without risking reliability. If anything, what threatens reliability and causes blackouts is devastating extreme weather fueled by climate change. I’m tired of people pointing to the Polar Vortex as a reason not to act on climate. It’s exactly the opposite. Climate change heightens risks from extreme cold that freezes power grids, superstorms that drown power plants, and heat waves that stress power supplies.

Wildfires and power lines: not a great combination (Credit: Flickr/Colin Shackelford)

How climate change increases power sector risks was the exact subject of a recent UCS report. Power Failure: How climate change puts our electricity at risk—and what we can do looks at the ways our electricity system is vulnerable to extreme weather and how climate change is making some types of weather more common. It covers climate impacts including sea level rise, wildfires, drought, and heat waves, and what they all mean for power plants, power lines, and more.

And now, the good news

Administrator McCarthy’s resilience thoughts don’t end on a down note, though, and neither does Power Failure. Because it just so happens there’s a whole lot we can do to cut our risks.

As Administrator McCarthy put it:

 …it turns out, efficiency upgrades that slow climate change actually help cities insulate against blackouts.

Power Failure goes even further, talking also about adaptation — sea walls and dune restoration for coastal infrastructure, for example. And about the key role of renewable energy, how technologies like solar and wind are already helping equip our electricity supply for extreme weather, and what more renewables will be able to do for us.

And, of course, it also all comes back to cutting carbon and the other heat-trapping emissions that cause climate change.

Rooftop solar to the rescue (Credit:

Here’s where Power Failure ends up:

The resilience of our electricity sector will determine the extent of power outages and damages from the next major drought, coastal flood, storm, and heat wave. Making smart choices to improve the resilience of our electricity grid and produce clean power will minimize the impact of these events while strengthening our energy security and helping to curb further climate change.

And high on our list of ways to get there? Strong federal carbon standards. We’re on our way, thanks to Administrator McCarthy and the EPA.

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