Leakage: RGGI’s (not so little) Problem

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report on Friday that concludes that the cuts in emissions from power plants within the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) region may be compromised by power generated outside the RGGI region and imported into the region. This problem is called "leakage" in carbon-capping jargon, and it is a problem for which RGGI, Inc. has never found a satisfying solution.

The UCS report highlights that although RGGI caps the emissions of power plants in 10 Northeastern states, ratcheting down emissions to 10% below 2005 levels by 2018, it does not preclude utilities that supply electricity to homes and businesses within the region from buying more electricity from coal-fired plants outside the region. UCS estimates that use of the excess capacity of existing coal plants to the west and south of the RGGI region — the equivalent of 15 new coal plants — could produce emissions greater than three and a half times the expected cuts of CO2 emissions from RGGI. With the addition of the six coal-fired plants that are under or near construction in states near the northeast, emissions from outside the region could equal 140% of RGGI’s reductions. The problem comes not only from the fact that cost of electricity within the RGGI region is already higher than in surrounding states, but also from planned efforts to expand the capacity of the grid, allowing less expensive power produced in coal-intensive states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to be imported into RGGI states at higher levels.

The report makes 4 suggestions for RGGI states to help "plug the leak":

  • Limit the ability of in-state electricity suppliers to contract for power from more polluting plants, whether inside or outside the region.
  • Cap global warming emissions for the entire portfolio of each local electricity supplier.
  • Together or individually, RGGI states could require local electricity suppliers to account for global warming emissions from electricity produced outside the region as well as inside it, offsetting the advantage of imported coal power. States could, for example, require local suppliers to offset any increases in emissions linked to higher imports by expanding their investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy, or another public good.
  • RGGI states could insist that proposed transmission projects to expand the import of power from states with abundant coal consider the Northeast’s goals for cutting global warming pollution.

The majority of these suggestions would require new legislation — as the RGGI implementing statutes in each of the states only reach generators above 25 MW, not utilities — but several states have already moved to require local electricity suppliers to account for greenhouse gas emissions generated by the power they sell, whether it is produced within the state, within the RGGI region, or imported. Such a provision is expected to be included in Massachusetts’ second round of regulations implementing the Global Warming Solutions Act (see Thursday’s post for more information), and New Jersey’s draft report on implementing its Global Warming Response Act suggests managing imports as a solution to the issue of leakage.

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