5 Strong Reasons Why States Should Move Ahead with Transition to Clean Energy No Matter What the Supreme Court Does

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court surprised almost everybody by issuing a “stay” on the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), the goal of which is “to combat global warming by regulating emissions from coal-fired power plants” and to hasten the transition to cleaner forms of power. That doesn’t mean the CPP is dead, by any means, but it does “[increase] the chances that the conservative-leaning Supreme Court would take the case after a lower court issues a decision on the legality of the regulations and ultimately would strike it down.” The next step: “the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which denied a similar stay request last month, will hear oral arguments in the case on June 2 and decide whether the regulations are lawful.”

Regardless of what happens in the courts, states have been moving to clean energy for a variety of powerful reasons. As Chris Mooney writes in the Washington Post:

The fact of the matter is that the Clean Power Plan wasn’t set to fully kick in until 2022 — and in the interim, the U.S. has been going through something that looks a lot like the kind of transition it is meant to prompt even without the plan in place.

Namely: The nation has been slowly decarbonizing its electricity system, through the growth of renewables and the switching from burning coal to burning natural gas.

Also, Reuters reports that “even in some of the 27 states that sued to block the rule, officials had been working on compliance plans,” that “[m]ost states said they will continue to decarbonize their energy supply, and that “[u]tilities across the country have already begun a major shift away from coal-fired electricity toward cleaner burning and cheaper natural gas and renewables like wind and solar.” Numerous states — California, Colorado, New York, Virginia, Washington, and presumably others — are planning to move ahead with the transition to cleaner energy, regardless of what the Supreme Court ultimately decides. There are a number of powerful reasons why all 50 U.S. states should do the same; here are five big ones.

  1. The cost of clean energy is plummeting, with no end in sight. As we wrote in our Top Cleantech Stories of 2015 post, according to the latest ‘levelized cost of energy” (LCOE) report by Lazard, the LCOE of wind power is now 61% lower than it was in 2009, and continuing to fall. As for utility-scale solar power, its LCOE is down 82% since 2009, and dropping fast. More anecdotally, Greentech Media reported on December 16 that “[y]ear-over-year, overall solar PV system pricing has fallen by 2 percent to 18 percent, depending on the market segment, with the largest declines in ground-mount PV systems.” Even better, as Stephen Lacey of Greentech Media wrote in June: “the average cost of developing wind projects will fall by 32 percent and the cost of solar PV projects will fall by 48 percent by 2040. Within a decade, wind will become ‘the least-cost option almost universally.’ And by 2030, solar will become the cheapest resource.”
  2. The economics of fossil fuels make no sense going forward. Given the downward cost trends for clean energy we just mentioned, and the volatile nature of fossil fuel prices, why would states, utilities, or the private sector want to lock themselves into more expensive, dirtier forms of power for the next few decades? It simply makes no sense to double down on fossil fuels at this point, for economic reasons alone.
  3. The environmental case for ditching fossil fuels is overwhelming. Regardless of what the Supreme Court has to say about the Clean Power Plan, the science has already spoken loud and clear. In late January 2016, scientists reported that 2015 “was the hottest year in the historical record by far, breaking a mark set only the year before — a burst of heat that has continued into the new year and is roiling weather patterns all over the world.” As Gavin A. Schmidt, head of NASA’s climate-science unit explained, this is yet more evidence that the rate of global warming has not paused. To the contrary, a June 2015 NOAA study found that “the rate of global warming during the last 15 years has been as fast as or faster than that seen during the latter half of the 20th Century.” Another recent study found that “there is an increased likelihood of accelerated global warming” in coming years. And, of course, most of this is the result of human combustion of carbon-based fuels. In stark contrast, clean energy sources – solar, wind, geothermal, tidal, efficiency – release no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere whatsoever.
  4. The health care costs of fossil fuels are large. A 2011 study by Harvard researchers found that the “lifecycle cost” of coal alone to the U.S public, largely in terms of damage to human health, is upwards of $500 billion per year. Another study, by the U.S. EPA (entitled “Economic Value of U.S. Fossil Fuel Electricity Health Impacts”), found that “hidden health costs [from fossil fuels in the U.S.] add up to as much as $886.5 billion annually, or 6% of GDP,” equating to an additional “14 to 35 cents per kilowatt-hour to the retail cost of electricity.” Finally, looking at the human costs, the fact is that fossil fuel pollution causes a variety of illnesses. For instance, “roughly 30 percent of childhood asthma is due to environmental exposures, costing the nation $2 billion per year.” Also, the combustion of coal results in emission of a wide variety of toxic substances — lead, mercury, cadmium, uranium, etc — which damage human health. Clean energy doesn’t do any of that.
  5. Fossil fuel power plants use large volumes of increasingly scarce water resources. Many states, particularly in the arid western U.S., increasingly are experiencing serious droughts and water shortages. As it turns out, fossil fuel-fired power plants use large amounts of water, while clean energy sources like wind, solar PV and energy efficiency use none. As the Union of Concerned Scientists explains, “A typical coal plant with a once-through cooling system withdraws between 70 and 180 billion gallons of water per year and consumes 0.36 to 1.1 billion gallons of that water.” Also see the 2011 report, “Freshwater Use by U.S. Power Plants: Electricity’s Thirst for a Precious Resource,”which found that power plants in the U.S. use nearly three times as much water every minute as flows over Niagara Falls.

There are other strong reasons we could go into, of course. But this short list should provide enough powerful evidence for why, regardless of what the courts decide about the Clean Power Plant, it’s high time for states to switch away from carbon-based fuels and towards clean power — as rapidly as possible.