Why the Environmental Protection Agency is reconsidering its clean energy plan

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Takaki Yajima/Getty Images

This post originally appeared in Science of Us.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was halting all its plans to modify the nation’s electric utility fleet for its next 100 years in accordance with the Paris climate agreement. This ended months of foot-dragging, and had supporters of the agreement scrambling to explain why the agency had waited years to develop plans for this change.

As it turns out, much of the EPA’s disagreement rests with cobalt, an element that powers the electricity grid. Once considered a relatively insignificant element, the oxygen-rich metal jumped onto the Environmental Protection Agency’s radar some years ago. It’s not just that it’s easy to make—scary hints about what happens when too much goes wrong can be spotted in the chains of nano rays emitted by the stuff, which are implicated in the decay of oxygen, the relatively fine dust that generates all that power from fossil fuels. Just last year, the United Nations’ chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said that removing cobalt from the air could result in significant additional deaths.

So the EPA is considering a big change to the power grid. Not from within it, though—instead, to plug in cobalt directly, often far from the grid. This would vastly increase the existing storage capability. Think of it as a sort of perfect storm. But beyond changing the grid, scrapping technology that had been named and heavily promoted by the world’s most powerful chemical and energy companies because they weren’t giving it any more use is a black eye for a whole sector.

Still, the president decided that everything was fine—and so did his administration.

Last year, the EPA proposed a battery technology standard for new power plants to increase the amount of electricity produced per kilowatt hour, allowing them to more readily produce electricity in the form of stationary storage. Researchers tell the AP that these same standards had already been adopted by the European Union and Japan. The goal is the same, but the technology would mean many small changes to the electric grid, and in the end that proposed standard would have been voluntary.

The EPA had tried this before, and said there was no reason to change now because additional battery capacity could be achieved from any method. This time the administration seemed more confident, and changed the standard more forcefully, killing it in December. The stage was set for angry grassroots pressure.

Enter EDF, an environmental advocacy group that had been raising questions about this plan through a series of thorough legal investigations. A federal appeals court put a temporary halt to the project in November and the EPA did not act on that decision until after California regulators, already fighting the decision, asked EPA administrator Scott Pruitt to intervene.

This week, the EPA and EDF had to re-think the concept. According to the AP, the EPA decided to build the storage system in phases. The proposed regulations will not be moving forward. The agency’s announcement included little about the fine details of its plan; rather, it said that it would propose new standards for moving energy from the grid to storage.

So for now, we don’t know the details of how the agency might provide the facilities for real-time storage—but given all the hype, we have a good guess. More importantly, the decision shows just how much power has shifted from corporate interests to the power consumers. Fossil fuels still will be king, but a narrative of environmental ruin and chaos is looking increasingly hollow.

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