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Proposed Clean Energy Standard Could End Power Plant Greenhouse Gas Emissions By 2035


This is the year that the U.S. might pass some sort of the most significant climate change legislation ever. Earlier this morning, Democrats passed a $3.5 trillion budget resolution. Depending on the details that emerge in the final package, it could help achieve President Biden's goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 2035. From our climate change team, NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Two infrastructure bills with climate elements are moving through Congress. The bipartisan one includes a boost for public transportation, electric vehicle charging stations and money to plug old, leaky oil wells. The larger budget resolution includes a national clean energy standard. It's similar to renewable energy requirements 30 states already have, but instead of a regulation, it's an incentive. Minnesota Senator Tina Smith says it would encourage utilities to add cleaner electricity generation like wind and solar.

TINA SMITH: I would also say that we need to have fees or taxes if utilities fail to add clean power.

BRADY: Democrats have a narrow majority in the Senate, so this budget focus is necessary to pass filibuster-proof legislation without Republican support. The Biden administration wants this clean energy standard, and over the past six months or so, the name has changed because of this budget requirement. Now it's being rebranded as the Clean Electricity Payment Program. Smith says it will not raise power bills.

SMITH: Because you are paying utilities to add clean power, it allows us to keep utility rates stable.

BRADY: The money comes from the federal government instead of ratepayers. It's part of a $198 billion allocation that also includes financing to manufacture clean energy products and climate research. Smith says states that have lagged behind on renewable energy would have the most to gain. The incentives likely would mean a lot of new construction for wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear and other forms of zero-carbon electricity.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Let's choose clean air, healthy kids and jobs, jobs, jobs.

BRADY: That's a new TV ad from EDF Action, the advocacy arm of the Environmental Defense Fund. While environmental groups are happy to finally see climate legislation that has a chance of passing, there's still disagreement about what should be considered clean power. Both infrastructure packages include support for carbon-capture systems that likely would be installed on gas or coal power plants. That's something Natalie Mebane from 350.org rejects.

NATALIE MEBANE: It is an excuse for the fossil fuel industry to continue existing and polluting our world.

BRADY: Mebane is among those encouraging Democrats to be even more ambitious.

MEBANE: This is the last moment in time for us to actually act on climate change in any substantial way that is going to matter for our future.

BRADY: But Democrats in the Senate know they also have to appeal to moderates like Joe Manchin from the coal state of West Virginia. And even though dozens of coal-fired power plants have shut down, coal is not dead. A new federal report shows the country is burning more coal this year to generate electricity. Power sector carbon emissions likely will rise 7% after last year's pandemic decline. This is the backdrop as lawmakers work out details for legislation aimed at Biden's goal of zeroing out those emissions in just 14 years.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKE FOR FREE'S "ADD AND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.