Cities play critical — but unclear — role in EPA’s Clean Power Plan 

Source: Scott Detrow, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, May 27, 2015

There’s no question that when it comes to complying with U.S. EPA’s looming regulations requiring the power sector to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent, cities will need to play a major role.

After all, as a recent report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy pointed out, two-thirds of the world’s energy consumption — and three-quarters of its greenhouse gas emissions — occurs in cities or broader urban areas.

Dozens of American cities have taken an aggressive approach toward curbing greenhouse gas emissions in recent years. The ACEEE study, released last week, focused on cities that have been particularly successful in implementing energy efficiency policies that have reduced their overall energy footprint or slowed its growth.

Many of the policies being implemented in cities like Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C. — bulked-up building codes, aggressive partnerships with utilities aimed at improving homeowner energy use and mandatory energy-use reporting for commercial buildings — could play a key role in the eventual Clean Power Plan compliance strategies that states will need to put together in the coming years.

The “building blocks” EPA has recommended for states to comply with its requirements suggest states can ultimately achieve annual efficiency improvements of 1.5 percent. And a growing number of studies suggest that efficiency-heavy compliance plans present an easier, cheaper way of meeting EPA’s carbon-reduction goals.

But when it comes to folding successful city-level efficiency programs into the implementation plans EPA will require states to submit, two key questions remain unanswered:

  • How, exactly, will states verify or enforce city-level efficiency gains?
  • And will transportation policies, which ACEEE’s report said accounted for a large percentage of efficiency gains in cities like Washington, D.C., even be accepted by EPA as a form of compliance?

Moving into ‘uncharted territory’

Philadelphia scored 14th on ACEEE’s city scorecard. The group gave the city credit for policies requiring large commercial buildings to report their annual energy use, as well as energy-savings goals imposed on Philadelphia’s municipal government.

Katherine Gajewski, director of Mayor Michael Nutter’s Office of Sustainability, said that she and her peers in other major cities are still trying to figure out how, exactly, their efforts will fit into state-level Clean Power Plan approaches. “I think it’s unclear where the opportunities are going to be,” she said at a Washington, D.C., energy efficiency forum last week. “There’s so much variation between the states and what the state’s approach to the rule is. I think it’s too early to give a definitive response on, this is the model that we think is best for cities to plug in,” she said.

National experts say there’s no question states will need to embrace city-level policies as they craft their implementation plans. “If cities within a state are undertaking measures such as efficiency or clean energy that reduce emissions, then it would be unwise of the state not to take advantage of those reductions and not count them in its plan,” said Ken Colburn, a senior associate at the Regulatory Assistance Project. “How to do that … that’s a trickier question. I want to say completely uncharted territory right now.”

The challenges are similar to the ones that states with aggressive carbon-reduction policies, like California, are facing, as well: Is it possible to keep enforcement and programming at the local level, while still vouching for and banking on programs’ successes?

Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said it’s a question many state officials are grappling with. “States aren’t going to accept blank checks crediting these programs. There will need to be sufficient verification — emissions verification and monitoring — of these programs,” he said.

As with so many other aspects of Clean Power Plan compliance, Becker said, regulators need to walk a fine line. “One of the things we have talked about is, we don’t want to make it so easy that credit will be given to anything irrespective of how good the program is,” he said. “But we don’t want to make it so difficult, with so many bells and whistles, that no state or municipality in its right mind will want to go through all these hoops.”

Should transportation emissions count?

NACAA and RAP recently collaborated on a major report examining how states can comply with the Clean Power Plan’s requirements. Several local-level efficiency programs, like aggressive enforcement of building code requirements, were included in the study (ClimateWire, May 21).

One suggestion Colburn made was over-accounting for city-level efficiency goals — counting on, say, a program achieving 115 percent of its target. “So if one [program] fails,” explained Colburn, “they still have 110 or 108 percent. Thereby, the state can have greater confidence.”

Becker is confident states will ultimately figure it out. “There are enough protocols that are existing that will allow these energy efficiency programs to be seamlessly included in state plans,” he said.

The second challenge of tapping city-level efficiency gains remains a bit more complicated. Many of the successes ACEEE touted occurred in the transportation sector. Washington, D.C.’s high score was primarily a result of its transit policies, for example. “Washington aims to achieve a 75 percent increase in commuter trips by transit, biking and walking by 2032,” the report noted. “To do so, it has invested in public transit facilities and hosts several car-share programs in addition to one of the most successful bike-share programs implemented recently.”

The Clean Power Plan is the federal government’s most ambitious approach to date in curbing greenhouse gas emissions, but it is focused squarely on the power sector. So observers like Colburn have a hard time seeing EPA accepting transportation programs like bike-shares as an acceptable method of reducing carbon footprints. “I don’t know. It’s clearly the longest stretch,” Colburn said.

He’s holding out hope that someone can make a successful argument for inclusion, though. “I see water conservation policies as being directly applicable [to the power sector],” he argued. “Pumps are electrically driven … you could knock out a bunch of power plants just serving water. If you’re going to allow water, can you allow transportation? It’s a little further out on the limb.”

“I hope somebody does come forward with that approach and breaks the ice,” he said.

The final rule is expected to be released later this su