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Obama Challenges Power Engineers To Do More With Less

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If the president's Clean Power Plan survives all the political and legal challenges facing it, there are still many details to deal with. Under the new rules, the nation's electricity industry will have 15 years to remake itself. NPR's Christopher Joyce has this look at the available options.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Most of the pain in the power plan will fall on the coal industry. A third of the nation's power plants burn coal to make steam. The steam turns a turbine that makes electricity. However, burning coal produces more greenhouse gases than any other electricity fuel. The president's plan directs the states to start moving away from coal power plants to something cleaner, such as natural gas, wind, solar or nuclear. That will take years. In the meantime, many coal plants can lower their emissions with a little nipping and tucking to be more efficient. Jennifer Macedonia is a mechanical engineer at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

JENNIFER MACEDONIA: Anywhere that there might be leaks in the system, and the fans and pumps that are used to move that water and steam throughout the system have a lot of room for efficiency if they're, you know, potentially from 40 years ago.

JOYCE: In fact, most of the nation's coal plants are almost that old. Dallas Burtraw, an economist with the research group Resources for the Future, says a makeover could help clean up some of them.

DALLAS BURTRAW: There are opportunities to achieve a 1 to 3 percent improvement in the emission rates of existing coal plants at moderate cost.

JOYCE: One to 3 percent isn't much, but Burtraw says a utility that has a fleet of coal plants has another option.

BURTRAW: A second way to achieve these emission reductions on average is by increasing utilization of the most efficient plants and reducing the utilization of the less efficient plants.

JOYCE: Or there's this option. Burn natural gas in a boiler that was originally made for coal. It's not ideal from an engineer's point of view, but natural gas emits only half the carbon monoxide as coal. These are short-term fixes, though. The Power Plan makes it clear that coal's days are numbered. In its place, it encourages natural gas, which is cheap and abundant. Nuclear remains an option, if an expensive one. Mostly though, the plan greases the skids for wind and solar power. In fact, the plan envisions over a quarter of all electricity from renewables by 2030. Jennifer Macedonia says that presents serious challenges. Engineers have to rejigger the national grid that shuttles electrons around the country.

MACEDONIA: A large amount of transition lines are being built as we speak to try and bring wind from out in the middle of nowhere to - closer to population centers.

JOYCE: And what about those days when the wind isn't blowing or the sun's not shining? Utilities need a backup they can switch on and off quickly.

MACEDONIA: And natural gas facilities, which are quick to ramp up and down, have been used to balance renewables.

JOYCE: But to go totally carbon free, engineers will have to invent cheaper batteries or other methods to store electricity for that rainy or windless day. According to industry calculations, replacing cheap coal with all this could cost consumers tens of billions of dollars. The government's Energy Information Administration, however, says electricity prices would only rise a few percent on average in the short term. The president says the switch to this new energy regime will actually save consumers money on their utility bills. Macedonia is skeptical about dollar figures.

MACEDONIA: You can't really, with a straight face, pinpoint an exact number at this point.

JOYCE: Because the prices for all these power sources - natural gas, renewables, nuclear - are notoriously unpredictable. Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.