Georgia Institute of Technology

U.S. Carbon and Pollution Emissions Policies are ‘Up in the Air’

Legislative and legal snags have put regulations and incentives to help lower carbon gas emissions and other air pollutants in limbo.

Newswise — If endangered air quality energy regulations and incentives fall flat, carbon gas emissions are predicted to accelerate. Additional pollutants from coal power plants would synergize with warming to hamper the fight against harmful ozone, according to a new study appearing on Friday. Ground-level O3, which damages the human respiratory system, may eventually make a comeback.

Here, energy policy expert Marilyn Brown elucidates the current jeopardy many emissions-related policies face.

[This is a partner piece to the news on the study, titled: Energy Regulation Rollbacks Threaten Progress Against Harmful Ozone.] 

Brown is a Regents Professor and Brook Byers Professor of Sustainable Systems in the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Public Policy. She also was an author on the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, which won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. She recently co-led the new, embargoed ozone study that modeled what stripping away the policies could do to future ozone levels.

Georgia Tech research news, question: There’s a lot going on with emission policies right now. Not only are regulations being held up or repealed, but tax incentives for people and companies who contribute to cleaner air and lower carbon emissions are under threat. What’s happening with the incentives?

Marilyn Brown, answer: Some incentives are being retired early like production and investment tax credits, which have been very influential in the spread of solar and wind power. A major one, the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) gives a 30 percent tax reduction for investments in solar or wind farms or the purchase of solar rooftop panels by homeowners. The Production Tax Credit for utilities reduces tax liabilities by 23 cents for each kilowatt-hour of electricity generated by solar, wind or other renewable energy sources. These measures have been transformational in the U.S. power industry.

Question: Where did these incentives come from, and how long have they been in place?

Brown: They started spreading at the state level probably about 30 years ago. Iowa was the first state with its significant wind resources. With the Energy Policy Act of 1992, the incentives became national policy. Tax credits have been an on-and-off policy but mostly on, and they have really helped transform the energy landscape. But the incentives have to be renewed periodically, and when they do, they go up for debate in Congress.

Question: Has this been a partisan thing? One party came up with the incentives, and the other has tried to knock them down?

Brown: That’s not the kind of dynamic we’ve seen. These were not partisan agendas in particular in their implementation. For example, the last extension of the Production Tax Credits two years ago benefitted the economics of Plant Vogtle’s two new units, because nuclear power now qualifies as an eligible resource. These incentives have been on a planned gradual retirement trajectory.

In our new study, we just removed them entirely and other key policies under threat to see the effect on ozone levels with them completely gone. Such removal actions are occasionally debated in Congress, so it’s not unrealistic to see them suddenly disappear. The paper quantifies the resulting ozone penalty, and that is a first. Our results show that we would have less success fighting ozone, and eventually it would resurge, which is bad for the health of many people. Costs would rise pretty sharply for places in ozone non-attainment to try to meet healthy targets, and many of them would fail like many do today.

Question: But there was recently a more political back-and-forth over an Obama administration plan, correct?

Brown: The Obama administration created the Clean Power Plan (CPP), and it was stayed – not approved – by federal courts in 2016, so it was not implemented. The Trump administration basically replaced it with the Affordable Clean Energy plan. CPP would have phased out coal-fired electricity generation in favor of natural gas and sustainable energy solutions. ACE, on the other hand, emphasizes improvement in the efficiency of coal plants, but there is a strong a consensus that coal plants can’t be made much more efficient.

Question: A foundational clean air regulation, the iconic Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards, which were first enacted in 1975, is also under threat.

Brown: The CAFE standards are very much up in the air right now. They could be frozen or done away with, but the automobile industry appears to be divided on this. Seventeen auto makers – Ford and Honda among them – came out in support of CAFE’s progressive tightening of fuel standards because they said doing away with them could destabilize the industry. CAFE lays down a trajectory of improvement that car makers are already anticipating in their product engineering. But CAFE is also being litigated. Also, California has the right to have its own standards, which have a strong influence on fuel economy for all cars sold in the U.S., and that’s being challenged, too.

Question: Why the concentration on ozone in the study as opposed to, say, particulates?

Brown: The Clean Air Act regulates many pollutants, but it seems that ozone is the one we are having the most trouble with. Thirty percent of Americans live with levels exceeding public health targets. Progress has been quite slow because ozone’s precursors come from coal plants, and those precursors are what have to be regulated. There are no new coal plants under construction or plans to build any, however a lot of coal plants are still active, and they can boost capacity a lot. For example, you could get about 250 percent more coal being used in the Great Lakes region by 2050. That would come from existing coal plants being dispatched much more.

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