The Environmental Impacts of Electricity Restructuring: Looking Back and Looking Forward
In the mid-1990s, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was preparing to release Order 888 requiring open access to the transmission grid, the commission, environmental groups, and the Environmental Protection Agency, among others, raised the question of how open access and greater competition in wholesale electricity markets might affect the environment. If open access worked as expected, underutilized older coal-fired generators in the Midwest and elsewhere might find new markets for their power, leading to associated increases in air pollution emissions. Restructuring also might lead to retirements of inefficient nuclear facilities, whose generation would be replaced by fossil generation, further increasing emissions. On the other hand, some suggested that in the long run, the anticipated increase in investment in new gas-fired generators might accelerate a switch from coal to gas that would decrease emissions. Lastly, if restructuring produced the desired result of lower electricity prices, many observers suggested that an increase in electricity demand would lead to more generation and higher emissions. The counterargument was that restructuring would lead to product differentiation and customer choice, including the opportunity for customers to willingly select “green electricity.” In this paper we review the prospective literature on the possible or anticipated effects of restructuring on the environment and the evidence from changes in the intervening years to utilization of coal facilities, performance of existing nuclear plants, investment in natural gas generation, and electricity prices. We assess how actual experience compares with prior expectations. We discuss other changes in upstream fuel markets, energy policy, and environmental regulations and the role that each of these factors plays in the efforts to evaluate the environmental effects of restructuring. Today the movement toward restructuring has stalled, leaving the country divided into competitive and regulated regions. We discuss the implications of this division for the future of environmental policy and the complicated relationships between policy agendas concerning mitigation of climate change and further restructuring of the electricity industry.
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