Lead State Regulator Discusses Challenges Of Proposed EPA Carbon Rule

Jul 11, 2014

EPD's Keith Bentley, center, sits alongside Kevin Kelly of Southface and Mandy Mahoney of the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance for Friday's panel discussion.

The state’s lead regulator on air quality Friday offered his first public assessment of new carbon rules proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Keith Bentley, the Air Protection Branch Chief at the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said he and other state regulators are still working to understand the proposed carbon standard.

"It was pretty frantic there in that first week or two. We were shooting emails back and forth with a bunch of questions to each other and we finally had to call time out and say let’s all kind of cool down," said Bentley, speaking during a panel discussion in midtown Atlanta.

Last month, in an effort to combat climate change and improve air quality, EPA proposed cutting carbon emissions from existing power plants 30 percent by 2030. However, Georgia is home to some of the dirtiest coal plants in the country so the state must reduce even more – about 44 percent.  

Bentley said Georgia has already taken major steps to curb carbon emissions by investing in two new nuclear units at Plant Vogtle in Augusta and bolstering its solar portfolio.

Still, he said EPA’s proposal is a tall order.

“It doesn’t really matter too much about what you did before. It just kind of adds on. I’m sure EPA is hearing a lot probably about it just doesn’t seem fair but Georgia is in good shape. But I’m not sure what it means in terms of meeting that number in 2030,” said Bentley.

In addition to its nuclear and renewable projects, Georgia Power has already committed to shutting down several older coal-fired units. Assuming Georgia Power executes its current plans, Bentley said by 2020 the state would still need to reduce carbon emissions 28.7 percent to meet EPA’s new standard.

To close the gap, EPA is recommending a six percent improvement in the generating efficiency, or heat rate, of existing coal plants. Bentley says that will be a challenge. 

"We've heard from Georgia Power that the six percent probably doesn't work for their facilities because they've done many of those things [to improve generating efficiency already]," said Bentley.

EPA has also recommended utilities use natural gas plants for more hours of the day. According to Southface, the state increased its use of natural gas plants from 30 percent in 2006 to 51 percent in 2013. EPA ultimately wants that number at 70 percent, but Bentley expressed concerns about telling Georgia Power and the state's electric membership corporations, or EMCs, how to run their businesses.

 "You can say, well, we just crank up all those natural gas plants and we'll be fine but it's not that simple and it's certainly not that simple for an environmental agency to tell them how to run their business from an economic standpoint," said Bentley. 

"What this rule basically says is you run the plant that has the lowest emissions, rather than the cheapest. That's obviously a big deal for the utilities," said Bentley. "It's not just Georgia Power. The EMCs have some of their own generating capacity. They have part ownership in some plants. It's very complicated.  All those inter-relationships and contracts."

Among the other carbon-cutting options include energy efficiency measures, but Bentley said he remains unclear as to whether the EPD has authority to enforce mandatory efficiency programs.

"That’s part of the question here - do we need any kind of legislation to implement these programs. We haven’t sorted that out yet," said Bentley.

Bentley said the state will submit formal comments to the EPA about the proposed standard by October 16th.

EPA is holding two days of public hearings in downtown Atlanta July 29th and 30th.

The carbon rules are expected to be finalized next summer. Each state would be required to submit a plan laying out how it intends to meet the new standard the following year.