Are Clean Power Plan targets out of reach for Western states?

Experts say emissions targets are attainable, but uncertainty over how to get there remains.


The 27 states challenging the Clean Power Plan in court count five Western members among their ranks: Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Arizona.

Those states filed a lawsuit in October contesting the legality of President Obama’s signature action on climate changeclaiming that the federal government and the Environmental Protection Agency have exceeded their regulatory authority. Further complicating things, a stay imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court last month has halted implementation of the plan and cast even more uncertainty onto the energy futures of the states that are suing and the rest of the West.

Some of these states are suing for primarily ideological reasons as a way to push back against federal regulations, while others — like Montana and Wyoming — are worried about losing the multi-state markets for their coal power. Most, though, don’t like the Clean Power Plan because they have such a steep climb to hit the emissions targets, and say it’s not feasible. Many experts, however, say that not only are the targets reachable, but that some utilities are already well on their way to achieving them, with or without the Clean Power Plan. 

The Campbell Hill Windpower Project dominates the horizon above grazing pronghorn near Casper, Wyoming. In 2014, Wyoming generated 8.9 percent of its commercial electricity from wind.
Duke Energy/Flickr Creative Commons

Modeling of projected emissions shows that the Western states contesting the plan have the “biggest reach” to hit their targets, according to Tom Carr, an attorney and economist at the Western Interstate Energy Board. For example, Montana and Wyoming, where backlash has been forceful, respectively rank first and third in the nation in the rate of emissions reductions that the Clean Power Plan calls for. On top of that, emissions cuts in other states could imperil Montana and Wyoming’s coal-dependent economies.

“(The opposition) makes political sense, because that’s where their bread is buttered,” says Amanda Ormond, managing director of the energy policy and technical organization, Western Grid Group.

But renewable energy proponents tout the immense potential of fossil fuel alternatives and say the outlined emissions goals are attainable.

“Really, the potential is unlimited. I’m not using that flippantly,” says Ormond. She is confident that continued growth and cost-competitiveness of renewable energy is “going to take us most of the way there.” 

That optimism is not unfounded. Though renewables still account for a relatively small percentage of each state’s commercial energy output, recent years have seen a remarkable surge in production.

In the last five years for which data is available, Arizona saw its commercial solar production skyrocket from a mere 15,000 megawatt-hours to 3.1 million megawatt-hours annually – a two-hundred-fold increase. In the same interval, Colorado doubled its rate of wind power generation, from 6.8 percent to 13.7 percent of the state’s energy portfolio. Even coal strongholds like Montana and Wyoming saw notable expansion of state wind operations, as did Utah, though at a slower rate.

  • Montana and Wyoming: All renewable energy sources greater than 1 MW are wind
  • Utah: Wind accounted for 99.7% of renewable energy generation from sources greater than 1 MW (2014)
  • Colorado: Wind accounted for 96.7% of renewable energy generation from sources greater than 1 MW (2014)
  • Arizona: Solar accounted for 87.0% of renewable energy generation from sources greater than 1 MW (2014)

Continued growth will be further aided by improved tax credit policies for renewables, experts say. For wind energy, for example, national tax credits used to be renewed in brief one- or two-year spurts. Now, however, the tax credit for wind power has been extended to a five-year period, providing more certainty to investors.

“That tax credit will drive renewable development with or without the Clean Power Plan,” says Ormond.

Of course, emphasizing renewable energy growth is not without its challenges, and is not the only strategy at policymakers’ disposal.

For instance, aiming for compliance by retiring coal plants and swapping in solar or wind farms to offset the loss in energy production could have major implications for reliability and presents the grid with significant engineering challenges. “In theory, (that’s compliant), but in reality, is it reliable?” asks Carr at the Western Interstate Energy Board.

Other strategies include improving efficiency of existing power plants and increasing generation from cleaner-burning fuel sources such as natural gas. 

States can also trade emissions credits, with carbon emitters that surpass their targets for reduction selling leftover permits to other places struggling to comply.  Regional trading networks already exist across a number of Northeastern states and in California; if the Clean Power Plan goes ahead, that strategy could spread.

“With the potential for trading, it certainly looks a lot more doable,” says Carr. Former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter has been one prominent figure pushing for Western utilities to have Clean Power Plan discussions that span state lines. 

However, uncertainty from the Supreme Court stay and the ongoing (if not stalled) planning phase for states complicates collaborative planning between neighbors. Even within individual states, experts say they cannot accurately forecast a detailed energy outlook with so many variables in play.

Ultimately, all the legal wrangling could be a moot point. Ormond says that a number of utilities – even in states challenging the law – have been bracing for implementation of such a policy and are prepared to usher in the rise of renewables. Experts maintain that the continued march of renewable energy, combined with policy changes, pave a way forward with or without the Clean Power Plan. Certainly, clarity would be great for investment and for planning purposes, but Ormond says in meetings she’s attended, most utilities made clear they “were not going to change the trajectory they were on…Utilities are going to keep moving forward with the clean energy plans they had.”

But the pace of that change will be determined by the fate of the Clean Power Plan. Ormond says the plan provides the opportunity for facilitating a transformation of the grid more quickly than the organic change that's already — and unstoppably — underway.

Bryce Gray is an editorial intern for High Country News.

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