Sierra Club leader wants ‘orderly’ move away from fossil power by 2030

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Senior Director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign Bruce Nilles was interviewed by GenerationHub June 12 and the discussion focused on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed rule to limit carbon emissions from existing power plants and various related issues.

The Sierra Club prides itself on having forced retirement of more than 100 coal-fired power plants in recent years. Nilles has been with the Sierra Club since 2002. The attorney previously worked with Earthjustice and the natural resources division of the U.S. Justice Department.

Here are highlights of that interview, edited for brevity. (Items not inside quote marks are paraphrased).

GHUB: What’s your general impression of the EPA proposed rule under 111(d) of the Clean Air Act?

Nilles: “We’ve had almost a week now to pour over the 600-plus pages [so we are still reviewing]…but we are thrilled that the EPA is finally moving forward” to curb what has been “unlimited carbon” from the electric sector. “We will be pushing EPA for a final rule that is stronger still.”

In particular the Sierra Club thinks EPA has probably underestimated the amount of savings available from energy efficiency and renewable resources.

 

Regulators can no longer assume that the cost of carbon over the next 20 years is zero. “Those days are gone. Continuing to put money into high-carbon resources like coal plants is a very risky bet at this point.”

GHUB: Would a carbon tax have been simpler?

Nilles:  “There are many other policy ways that could achieve the same outcome.” The president and Congress worked early to get cap-and-trade [in the form of the Waxman-Markey bill] across the finish line. But there was heavy opposition from fossil fuel interests and the bill didn’t become law.

But the regulatory framework of the Clean Air Act “has been enormously effective” in the past curbing emissions of SO2 and NOx.

GHUB: What about EPA’s proposal setting CO2 limits for new power plants?

Nilles: We submitted extensive comments on the new source standard. That was divided into coal and gas. We stressed that carbon emissions have been unlimited until now.

Among other things, the Sierra Club has been “pointing out that natural gas is not benign… If CCS [carbon capture and storage] is appropriate for coal, should it also be appropriate for natural gas?”

GHUB: Do you expect that the EPA CO2 rules will be upheld in the courts?

Nilles: “If I knew the answer to that, I’d go to Vegas and put some money down.” It will, of course, be challenged by industry. “We challenge our fair share of rules too.” But EPA has been having a pretty decent success rate of late in the courts. It would be “pretty unwise” for the power industry to simply assume the courts will throw out the CO2 plan.

GHUB: Going back to CCS, what is your view of that technology?

Nilles: Our view is that it is technologically feasible. There have been projects globally and Southern Co. is developing a CCS project in Mississippi. “But we are not fans of coal. We should be weaning ourselves off of it.” There are electric options cleaner and cheaper than coal, even with CCS. “If you are going to build a new coal plant then, at a minimum, it should involve CCS.”

GHUB: You also don’t like ‘lifecycle’ issues of coal?

Nilles: Correct. “For many years we did not come out and say you should phase out coal.” We thought the coal interests would come out and self-improve environmental performance. That didn’t happen. Today we have increasingly cleaner energy options.

The Sierra Club considers coal dirty in the mining and the combustion process. Coal ash also poses a concern. There could be “more Dan River disasters.”

GHUB: So do you see any real role for coal beyond 2050?

Nilles: The Sierra Club would like to phase out coal by 2030. “There are simple economics. The best coal seams are long gone.” This is especially true in Central Appalachia. Even in the Powder River Basin, mining costs could go up.

Coal is uneconomic in the Sierra Club’s view. Look at the economic struggles of the relatively new Spiritwood plant in North Dakota.

GHUB: Isn’t coal use growing internationally?

Nilles: While new coal plants are getting built internationally, the Sierra Club doesn’t think the world picture is as robust as portrayed by Peabody Energy and other coal interests. “Other countries are catching on pretty quick… The way to address energy poverty is not through coal. That actually makes things worse.”

“We obviously can’t solve this problem [of greenhouse gases] in the U.S. alone. We are very aware of that.” The Sierra Club sees much hope in global negotiations.

GHUB: Please discuss the Sierra Club relationship with natural gas.

Nilles: If you asked us five years ago what you think of gas, no one thought it was growing in the United States for economic reasons. “It was sort of a non-issue in 2008 and 2009.” That changed with increased gas production.

“The more we learn about emissions of natural gas” in drilling, pipeline transmission leaks and combustion, the more concerns are evident.

We want to go to clean energy and efficiency “as fast as we can.” Not be locked into a natural gas infrastructure for the next 40 to 50 years. The Sierra Club wants to be carbon-free by 2030 and “that means no coal and no gas.”

Sierra Club members “are not big fans of” running combined-cycle gas plants dramatically more than they are now. That’s one of the building blocks of the EPA CO2 plan.

GHUB: While gas is a fossil fuel, nuclear power is often described as carbon-free. Please talk about your views on nuclear energy.

Nilles: “Nuclear has a host of challenges. It’s very expensive.”

In addition to nuclear waste and proliferation risks associated with nuclear energy, a nuclear plant is “actually sort of a real clunker on the grid.”

“It is increasingly ill-suited in a modern flexible grid” to back up intermittent wind and solar.

GHUB: In the future, what can back up wind and solar?

Nilles: There is a variety of clean power and energy storage options, including batteries, which are being deployed. California is putting together some interesting projects, including “old school” options like pumped storage.

GHUB: Is there enough time for new technology to mature if most conventional power plants are retired?

Nilles: “Our goal is to have all the coal and gas offline by 2030. We recognize that is a big ‘stretch goal.’ I’m mindful of that.”  A few years after that the Sierra Club would like to see remaining nuclear power plants phased out.

“We are not going to shut these things down tomorrow … We need to do this transition in an orderly way.” The Sierra Club recognizes that power plant retirements involve “real workers” in real communities.

The pending transition toward retirement of the Centralia coal plant in the state of Washington is an example of an orderly process to blunt the impact on displaced workers. A similar approach is needed for nuclear power.

Meanwhile, rapid development of cleaner energy generation must continue.

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