What does the Clean Power Plan mean for you?

Sep 30, 2016

Credit Inside Energy

The Clean Power Plan is a federal rule aimed at cleaning up electricity's carbon footprint. It's America's most ambitious effort yet to fight climate change. But how big of a deal is it?

Well, American energy use is a whopper — 98 quadrillion BTUs last year. It's a number so big, what does it even mean? Well, it's enough to send a Saturn V rocket to the moon every 26 seconds for a whole year.

Your share as an American? It's roughly the energy of 100 lightning bolts every year, if you could catch them. And most of that energy comes from burning fossil fuels, which releases carbon dioxide into the air, and if left unchecked, will make earth basically unlivable.

Right now, of those 100 energy lightning bolts you use every year, roughly 40 are in the form of electricity. And those 40 bolts are what the Clean Power Plan is all about — making electricity cleaner.

Under the Clean Power Plan, each state has a goal for reducing the carbon emitted from its power plants. States get to decide how they meet the target by ditching coal plants for natural gas, wind and solar, or buying cleaner energy from neighboring states. They can even trade carbon itself.

But for you, what will actually change? Well, your carbon footprint will shrink because the electricity coming from your plug will be a bit cleaner. But the price you pay for each kilowatt-hour might go up. Projections say 3 percent to 7 percent.

Why? We've still got a lot of coal power plants. But today, natural gas is cheaper and burns cleaner than coal. Switching all those coal plants over to gas takes time and money, which means higher prices, at least until the transition is complete.

And what about wind and solar? Their costs keep dropping. And they'll soon be able to compete with coal and gas in terms of price, but not quite yet.

But even though electricity might be more expensive, your average bill could actually stay the same or even decrease. The thing is, when prices go up, we tend to use less. And after a few years, prices are likely to return to normal in most parts of the U.S.

But 27 states are now suing the federal government over the plan. Why do some object? A lot of reasons. It's federal overreach, some say.

And if you happen to be one of the 150,000 people who work in coal mining and coal power plants, the Clean Power Plan could mean fewer coal-related jobs. And states that depend on coal and coal jobs could suffer. Plus, our grid was built to handle steady power sources, so adding renewable as well keeping a reliable grid is a technical challenge.

So what do we actually get for the trouble? Of those 100 lightning bolts of energy that every American uses each year, the CPP will make about eight or so carbon-free by 2030. And the grid is already moving in that direction. So really, it's not a huge change. But it is symbolic.

The U.S. is the second-largest carbon polluter in the world. The Clean Power Plan is a signal that our federal government is attempting a first step to tackle one of the biggest contributors to climate change.

Inside Energy, a national hub for energy reporting, includes seven public radio and television stations from Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota. Its reporting explores the points of tension, the tradeoffs and opportunities, and the very human consequences of energy policy, production, use and innovation. Inside Energy is an Innovation Trail partner.