FRANKFORT — Whether we like it or not, Kentucky’s dependence on electricity generated by coal-fired plants will decrease in the next decade and a half, according to Dr. Len Peters, Secretary of the Energy and Environment Cabinet.
Peters was discussing impending new federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations governing carbon emissions before the Natural Resources Committee.
“Getting a new coal-fired plant approved is going to be a difficult if not impossible task,” Peters said under the new regulations.
The committee asked Peters to update them on the new carbon emission standards which the EPA had previously had proposed but then delayed. But recently, President Barack Obama announced he’s directing the EPA to proceed on developing the new regulations.
Peters said because Kentucky’s economy relies heavily on manufacturing, which in turn creates heavy demand for electricity, the state’s “carbon footprint is about 50 percent above the national average.” He said between 200,000 and 215,000 Kentuckians work in manufacturing jobs.
That means the regulations on new and existing coal plants will hit Kentucky especially hard. Kentucky generates nearly 90 percent of its electricity with coal, and the state also relies on mining jobs and taxes. (Nationally, coal-fired plants produce less than 40 percent of electricity.)
Peters said Kentucky is four times as dependent on intense energy use as the least dependent states, which tend to have fewer manufacturing jobs.
Peters laid out the time lines for the proposed regulations: final regulations are to be approved for new and existing plants by June 1, 2015, after which states will have 12 months to submit implementation plans.
But Peters said meeting those deadlines will be a challenge, especially for states which don’t yet know what the actual rules will be.
Peters said he has been in contact with the EPA and is asking for time and flexibility once the rules are approved. That includes allowing flexibility within a state or region to determine carbon emission limits and time to implement the final rules.
He also pointed out that the federal government is setting aside $8 billion in loan guarantees for development of advanced fossil energy and efficiency projects. He and lawmakers mentioned several studies of new technologies which would allow the burning of coal in cleaner ways.
He said there are really only three effective ways to generate “base load” electricity, the generation for heavy users in industry and residential uses: coal, natural gas and nuclear.
But the country is moving away from coal and remains reluctant to pursue nuclear energy because of the cost and fears about wastes and accidents. But Peters warned of the danger of a “one-fuel economy,” noting that natural gas prices may increase after power plants have invested billions of dollars in plants that are expected to use natural gas for 30 years.
Most of the lawmakers on the committee represent coal-field districts, and they aren’t happy with the new regulations. Repeatedly, they tried to get Peters to question the validity of “climate change” studies.
Peters responded diplomatically, but in the end, he said the evidence is “overwhelming” that the earth is warming over time, even in spite of data that indicates recent cooling. He also said CO2, carbon emissions, form the greatest concentration of “greenhouse gases” in the atmosphere and pose significantly more threats than methane or naturally occurring forms of CO2.
He and LG&E and KU President for External Affairs, George Siemens, also told the committee there really is no way to burn carbon fuels without carbon emissions and that a lot of the proposed technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration simply aren’t yet workable or affordable. So the task is an immense one, especially for a coal-producing, high-energy state like Kentucky.
“This is unlike anything we have dealt with before,” Siemens said.
Peters seemed resigned to a declining dependence on coal, but he cautioned against abandoning the fuel altogether.
“Whether we like it or not, we are not going to be 90-percent dependent on coal 15 years from now,” Peters said. “But we don’t want to be at zero either.”