In his state of the Union address, President Obama set a goal of generating 80 percent of US electricity from “clean energy sources” by 2035. President Obama was using a very inclusive definition of “clean energy sources”, leaving coal without carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology as the big loser. Obama provided no details of how the country could achieve this goal but left it to Congress to work it out. Any new Federal legislation that comes out of this goal should recognize that electricity markets differ by state, and each state has its own body of laws, regulations, and administrative decisions that govern electricity regulation. A flexible approach from Congress will enable further regulatory innovation by states, dampen the effects of market failures, and allow states to allocate costs to meet their current situations and long-term priorities.
The President was indirectly acknowledging that there are only two ways to significantly reduce CO2 emissions from electricity generation: either reduce the amount of electricity generated by coal combustion or capture and sequester the CO2 emitted by coal-fired plants. Coal combustion for electricity generation is responsible for approximately 30 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Within the electricity sector, coal is responsible for more than 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. While the percentage of all U.S. electricity that is generated by coal has decreased over the past 15 years, the total amount of coal combusted by the electricity industry has actually increased by 4 percent from 1996 to 2009, peaking at a 16 percent increase as compared to 1996 in 2007. Coal use is currently widespread throughout the country but concentrated in a handful of states. (more…)