‘Clean products standard’: A key to 100% clean energy?

Source: By Carlos Anchondo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, December 10, 2020

A newly proposed framework is aiming to address one of the country’s largest sources of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: the U.S. industrial sector.

In a report released yesterday, the research firm Rhodium Group detailed a national “clean products standard” to curb emissions from the manufacturing of products such as aluminum, cement, glass and steel. The standard, which would be implemented through a federal agency like EPA, would set up a maximum amount of emissions per unit of material produced, with manufacturers able to “employ any technological or process-based solutions” to adhere to the emissions limit.

Those solutions could range from the use of low-carbon electricity to the deployment of carbon capture technology, the report said.

The proposal would apply to “all designated products sold — not just produced — in the U.S.,” the group said, noting that deciding which products must comply with the standard will be “one of the most important decisions” to make given the diversity of manufactured products.

Rhodium’s proposal adds to the debate about how to achieve 100% clean energy targets outlined by President-elect Joe Biden.

His clean energy plan says a new agency could target “affordable, game-changing technologies,” including “decarbonizing industrial heat needed to make steel, concrete, and chemicals and reimagining carbon-neutral construction materials.”

Under current policy, Rhodium said industrial sector emissions are expected to surpass those from the transportation and power sectors within the next decade, with manufacturing making up over 60% of that total.

“Reducing [greenhouse gas] emissions in the industrial sector will be increasingly important in any effort to achieve deep decarbonization,” the proposal said, which called its clean products standard “a technology-neutral, market-based approach” to address those emissions.

Sasha Mackler, director of the energy project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said the Rhodium proposal rightly pointed out the difficulty in decarbonizing the industrial sector and said it would be “one approach that could help enable the transition [to a decarbonized energy system], while allowing for a broad set of technologies to participate.”

To carry out the standard, Rhodium said EPA is “a natural choice” to implement a policy because of the department’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program — an annual reporting of emissions from thousands of facilities.

The idea of a federal standard, if proposed, would likely spark pushback from industry groups and conservatives opposed to national mandates. Many say that such plans are bureaucratic and that the private sector is better suited to plan emission cuts. The hurdles against a national plan could be higher if the GOP retains control of the Senate.

Currently, some trade groups are making their own decarbonization plans. The Portland Cement Association, for example, said last month they are committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, but won’t be developing a road map until 2021. The National Association of Manufacturers did not respond to press inquiries about the report.

The report notes that because of the diversity of the manufacturing sector and range of products, “establishing an emissions standard for each type of product” would be a “monumental undertaking.” Instead, Rhodium said policymakers could narrow in on a subset of some of the more emissions-intensive products.

Doug Vine, a senior energy fellow at Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said in the absence of carbon pricing, establishing performance standards is the “second-best” solution to driving emissions reductions.

This framework goes further than some previous proposals, Vine said, because the agency in charge of oversight would be “working with an industry to help come up with all of the mitigation or the abatement measures that a particular industry could actually employ over time.”

“Hopefully it’s a constructive engagement with the agency and the industry to determine the abatement measures that you could employ and ultimately drive emissions down to zero,” Vine said, who also noted the ambitious nature of the proposal.

Jeffrey Rissman, the industry program director and head of modeling at Energy Innovation: Policy and Technology LLC, said the type of standard outlined by Rhodium is “good policy” and said industries producing commodity materials like cement or steel are well-suited to standards.

A “technology-neutral standard” that allows companies to find innovative ways to produce a given material “can enable a range of compliance options and maximize flexibility,” Rissman said in an email, “and lead to investments in [research and development] that help the U.S. remain a technology leader.”