What the Clean Power Plan Means for ACUPCC Signatories: Top 5 Areas of Impact

August 24, 2015

by: Janna Cohen-Rosenthal & Brett Pasinella, Second Nature 

The new White House Clean Power Plan is part of the administration's attempts to address climate change. This plan focuses on the greenhouse gas emissions from power plants around the country. The federal government will set specific reduction targets for each state, it is then up to the state governments to decide how best to meet their individual target. The impact to any individual signatory of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) will have a lot to do with their state's policies and history of existing energy and climate policies. The White House provides  a list of potential impacts for each state, however, some general predictions can be made nationally. Here are the 5 top potential areas of impact:

1. Reduced electric power sector emissions

The primary focus of the Clean Power Plan is to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from the generation of electric power. With an increasingly decarbonized electric grid, ACUPCC signatories should see a decrease in their Scope 2 emissions going forward. It’s unlikely that any sates would be required to have a carbon neutral electric power sector, and of course Scope 2 emissions are only one piece of the emissions puzzle that signatories are trying to eliminate, but a reduction in overall electricity emissions should make it easier for signatories to move towards carbon neutrality.

This will be especially important to institutions whose carbon footprint is dominated by Scope 2 emissions. Scope 2 emissions have typically been a challenge for institutions to tackle since the decision-making about the emissions profile is largely in the hands of state/federal governments and utility companies, with some regions aggressively supporting renewables, while other areas are actively opposed to renewables. Institutions have had to rely on reducing Scope 2 emissions through conservation and efficiency and in moving generating capacity from the grid onto campus. These efforts will still be necessary for the large part, but now across the country the grid will be assisting these efforts rather than being an unknown factor in emissions reductions planning.

2. More Affordable Clean Energy

Changes proposed in the Clean Energy Plan will not provide changes fast enough for most signatories to solely rely on cleaner grid supplied electricity to meet their goals. However, the Clean Energy Plan is supposed to help make renewable energy more affordable and available to consumers for voluntary purchases. Reducing carbon from purchased electricity through on and off site renewable energy projects is the primary component of most Campus Climate Action Plans, but we have not seen many schools complete large scale projects.

We mapped all the schools that have submitted a progress report (required starting 2 years after the Climate Action Plan is due, data is current as of January 2015), it's a useful image and snapshot of the network. Out of the 402 ACUPCC signatories who have submitted a progress report about ½ of the institutions report renewable energy generation and Renewable Energy Credit (REC) purchases.

On one hand, the map illustrates that schools located even in states with no clean energy policies are making voluntary choices to support renewables, which is exciting. On the other hand the map illustrates that most schools are reporting small projects that do not likely meet a high quantity of their electricity demand, because of cost and access. Most of the larger projects are biomass projects that are campus based and behind their meters. The Clean Energy Plan, and work being done by the Department of Energy (DOE) should help states work through net metering rules, interconnection issues, and other barriers to adding renewables to the grid.

The Clean Energy Plan has a goal of a 30% increase in renewable energy generation by 2030, with an estimated $155 billion savings to consumers over that period. Where are some of these savings coming from? While fossil fuel prices are likely to continue rising, renewable energy prices will likely escalate slower or go down. On top of their savings as renewable energy consumers, Universities can receive good financial returns and help spur this market by becoming investors in this sector. The new Clean Energy Impact Investment Center at the U.S. Department of Energy is making information about clean energy accessible to mission-driven investors, including University endowments.

3. Increased demand-side efficiency programs and standards

One of the tools most states will utilize to help achieve their goals will be either various utility programs to boost efficiency, or new standards for minimum levels of efficiency. Most states currently have efficiency programs and about half have some type of efficiency standard already in place. Under the Clean Power Plan it is likely that more states will create new programs and policies or increase support for existing policies .

Many ACUPCC signatories already take advantage of these type of utility incentives to purchase energy efficient equipment and lighting, or other types of utility sponsored programs aimed at reducing overall electricity demand or peak loads. These types of programs are ideal ways for institutions to help minimize the costs of energy use on campus (by reducing demand), and the initial capital costs of making efficiency improvements (which generally have high rates of return on investment once the initial project costs can be allocated). With more of these opportunities available it provides a great opportunity for signatories to consider starting or increasing a Green Revolving Fund.  

4. Greater Impact on Public Health

Many commentators have pointed out that the Clean Power Plan is as much a public health policy as a climate policy. By targeting the most polluting sources of electricity generation – typically the easiest way to large greenhouse gas reductions – the plan estimates some major public health benefits like 3,600 fewer premature deaths, 90,000 fewer asthma attacks in children, and 300,000 fewer missed days of school and work.

This is a straight-forward benefit to most ACUPCC signatories. Many signatories are large employers or maintain large medical facilities, and so the higher education sector should feel the improvements to public health to a greater extent than the community at large.

5. More Opportunities for Community Engagement

ACUPCC signatories have acted voluntarily to reduce all their carbon emissions and have become local climate action leaders. Institutions can showcase their achievements and work together with their neighboring communities to advance more regional action as outlined in the Clean Energy Plan. Signatories can help coordinate with regional planning efforts for climate resilience and mitigation to more quickly reach mutual goals. For example, the plan encourages states to think about impacts on low income and vulnerable populations, which is something many signatories have long focused on while working with their local communities. From supporting staff & faculty experts who engage in academic and policy discussion, to students learning about the policy process, there is great opportunity to be involved in state by state planning and more.

We hope that many other opportunities for climate change action leaders will be opened up with the increased investment in renewable energy; including more funding for research, new jobs in the sustainability sector (and the need to have a trained workforce across all sectors- community college to research schools) and creative community engagement activities.

If you have more ideas about how the Clean Energy Plan may impact higher education, or suggestions of ways signatories can collaborate to advance these goals, let us know via email: acupcc@secondnature.org.