Posted on February 1, 2016 by Virginia C. Robbins
New York participates in the cap-and-trade system operated by 9 northeastern and mid-atlantic states known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative that limits carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil-fuel burning power plants. These plants must purchase allowances at auction for each ton of CO2 they emit. An efficient gas-fired plant that produces 225 MWs of electricity emits approximately 1.2 million tons of CO2 a year.
During the adoption process for New York’s final RGGI rule in 2008, power generators predicted serious adverse consequences. These included increased electricity costs for consumers, added operating costs for generators who would never recoup all CO2 allowance costs from the sale of electricity, and concerns about longer term energy transactions due to the uncertainty of allowance prices.
In comments on a draft RGGI rule, generators requested the State to establish a price cap of $0.75 on the cost of a CO2 allowance to protect consumers from significant price increases and a sunset provision in the event a federal cap-and-trade program were established. The generators also expressed concern about the lack of available control technology for CO2 emissions.
Fast forward: at the last allowance auction in December 2015, the cost of a CO2 allowance was $7.50. New York generators purchased almost 6 million allowances reaping revenue of more than $44 million for the New York RGGI fund. At the previous auction in September, almost 10 million allowances were purchased at a cost of $59 million. Despite these high allowance costs, the lights are still on in New York. According to data published by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, updated as of January 16, the monthly average retail prices of electricity in the residential, commercial and industrial sectors have decreased between 2008 and 2015, attributable to the success of energy conservation and efficiency programs, the availability of more renewable energy, and the low price of natural gas and oil.
CO2 emissions from the power sector have decreased by more than 40% in the RGGI states since 2009 due to reductions in the regional CO2 cap. New York has been a significant contributor to those reductions. Revenue from the program of over $1 billion has been invested by the RGGI states in energy conservation and efficiency efforts, clean and renewable energy, direct bill assistance to households and greenhouse gas abatement. Importantly, RGGI also has the potential to assist states in meeting the CO2 reduction goals in EPA’s Climate Action Plan.
However, a report issued on January 20, 2016 by Synapse Energy Economics and the Sierra Club, entitled The RGGI Opportunity, states that RGGI’s current requirements are not enough to get the RGGI states to their climate goals in 2030 and beyond (40% reduction in carbon pollution from 1990 levels) and it encourages more energy efficiency programs, increased levels of wind and solar projects, and adding 10 million battery electric vehicles, all of which will result in job creation.
The RGGI program has been a clear revenue and greenhouse gas reduction success, but there is potential in New York for RGGI funds to be diverted to the general fund. This last occurred in 2015 when the legislature approved a budget that moved $41 million of RGGI revenue to the general fund to be used for other environmental programs. Environmentalists considered this action a threat to the program. Since RGGI was adopted by executive action, not by statute as was the case in the other RGGI states, the environmentalists’ view is that RGGI funds can only be used for program purposes. The 2015 transfer of RGGI funds to the general fund could subject the program to challenge as a tax on electricity levied without the legislature’s approval. In contrast, the State’s 2016 budget does not include a raid on RGGI funds.
Would similar cap-and-trade programs work as well in other regions of the country? Yes, but the political will to establish such programs will depend in part on a region’s fuel mix. Since coal-fired power plants emit almost twice as much CO2 as gas-fired plants, the allowance costs for coal plants will be higher, thereby increasing the cost of the electricity they produce and making such facilities less competitive in regions that also have more efficient facilities. That said, if the programs’ revenues are pumped into energy conservation and efficiency programs, consumers could use and pay for less electricity.