Staying the Course: Despite Supreme Court Decision on Clean Power Plan, Progress Continues

Energy efficiency policies and programs are generally scaling up across the southwest

February 16, 2016 | Howard Geller

The Supreme Court recently took the unprecedented action of “staying” the Clean Power Plan prior to its review by the U.S. Court of Appeals. This means the Clean Power Plan will not go into effect while the litigation is pending. However, this does not mean that efforts to reduce the harmful carbon dioxide emissions from power plants will or should stop in southwest states or elsewhere. Nor does it mean that efforts to accelerate cost-effective energy efficiency improvements will or should slow down.

All of the southwest states (AZ, CO, NM, NV and UT) have announced significant coal plant retirements that will occur in the 2016-2020 time frame, and more coal plants are expected to be shut down after 2020. These actions are occurring because older coal plants are inefficient and costly to operate, and in many cases would require expensive retrofits to continue to operate in order to comply with various air quality standards. The plants are being replaced by renewable power sources, gas-fired generation and energy savings from energy efficiency improvements. None of these trends will change as a consequence of the Supreme Court’s recent decision.

Energy efficiency policies and programs are generally scaling up across the Southwest given the fact that energy efficiency improvements are the lowest cost and cleanest energy resource available to states and utilities. Funding for utility energy efficiency programs in the Southwest grew from $70 million in 2005 to $280 million in 2010 and then to $410 million in 2015. Households and businesses in the region realized three times as much energy savings from utility efficiency programs implemented in the region in 2014 compared to those implemented in 2007.

States and local governments are also stepping up their energy efficiency efforts. For example, cities, counties and states are approving more stringent building energy codes, meaning new homes and commercial buildings are far more energy efficient than those built a generation ago. Energy savings policies and programs are expanding in most southwest states because the economic benefits far outweigh the costs, and because greater energy efficiency helps reduce pollutant emissions and improve air quality in places like the Wasatch Front in Utah. This is true today and should continue under the Clean Power Plan assuming it goes into effect and implementation begins. 

States are now considering whether to continue Clean Power Plan planning and analysis in light of the Supreme Court’s decision. Colorado almost immediately announced that it will continue to do so in order to develop cost-effective strategies to diversify its energy mix, strengthen its economy, and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Continuing the collaborative planning efforts that Colorado has undertaken will also put the state in a stronger position should the courts uphold the legality of the Clean Power Plan, as is expected.

SWEEP urges all southwest states to continue scaling up cost-effective energy efficiency policies and programs, as well as maintain Clean Power Plan planning and analytical efforts. There is too much at stake, both in terms of our economic prosperity and environmental integrity, to slow down.

Howard Geller is the Executive Director of SWEEP, a public interest venture he founded in 2001. Howard also leads SWEEP’s work on utility energy efficiency policy and programs.