Two nuclear plants being built in Fairfield County are expected to help South Carolina comply with new rules that require the state cut its greenhouse gas emissions.
The sweeping federal rules, the nation’s first regulation of carbon dioxide pollution from coal-fired power plants, also will force South Carolina to look more carefully at increasing its use of solar, wind and natural gas power, as well as tightening energy-efficiency programs.
The rules, which became final Monday, require states to develop plans within the next three years to reduce carbon dioxide pollution below 2005 levels. Those reductions, which amount to a 32 percent cut nationally, must be effective by 2030, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
State plans likely will examine an array of options on how to cut carbon dioxide pollution. In South Carolina, that means cutting emissions from the state’s remaining coal-fired power plants.
A key question is what form of energy South Carolina would rely on to replace some of the energy now produced by coal-fired power plants, which are leading sources of carbon dioxide pollution.
Carbon dioxide is a major reason the climate is changing, with higher temperatures, more weather extremes and rising seas, an overwhelming majority of scientists say. That’s significant in South Carolina, where sea-level rise is expected to erode beaches and flood properties along the coast.
Part of the answer could be more reliance on nuclear power.
Like renewable energy, nuclear power plants do not release carbon dioxide when generating electricity. SCE&G and Santee Cooper have partnered to build the $10 billion nuclear plants northwest of Columbia.
But nuclear power is controversial because atomic energy plants create dangerous waste and the United States does not have a permanent disposal site for the material. The EPA’s new rules give credit to South Carolina for the construction underway of the atomic energy plants.
Utilities were reluctant to fully endorse the plan, but officials said Monday they’re encouraged. A previous version of the EPA’s carbon reduction plan gave less flexibility for using nuclear power, utilities said.
“The final rule appears to address our chief concern, in that it gives South Carolina credit for work by Santee Cooper and SCE&G to reduce (carbon dioxide) emissions through building new nuclear units,’’ Santee Cooper said in a statement.
The power company said U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., helped convey that message.
“Today’s final rule makes important improvements over the proposed rule with respect to nuclear power, treating it the same as other clean energy sources like wind and solar,’’ Clyburn said in a statement. “It is appropriate to treat these energy sources the same because, for purposes of combating climate change, they are the same — all emit zero greenhouse gases.’’
Environmental groups are more interested in ramping up the state’s use of solar, wind and other forms of renewable power — and they will push for those components in the plan South Carolina submits to the federal government in the next three years.
But they cheered the regulations as an important step in curbing greenhouse gas pollution. South Carolina’s coal-fired power plants released some 29 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution in 2013, according to the EPA.
“The release of the (EPA) plan today is a milestone event for the country,’’ said Frank Rambo, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has offices in South Carolina.
Not everyone is happy with the EPA regulations.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., blasted the regulations Monday as too expensive and unrealistic for the nation to comply with. He noted South Carolina is among 15 states that have challenged the rules in federal court.
“While we all agree our energy policy should embrace sustainable, accessible and affordable sources of energy, the EPA has once again forgotten the affordable piece,’’ Scott said in a statement after the rules were announced late Monday afternoon. “The EPA should be working to help American families, not finalizing rules that drive up the cost of essential services such as electricity.”
EPA officials said the health benefits of reducing pollutions would outweigh the actual cost of curbing pollutants that create smog and soot. The tougher rules will help reduce up to 6,600 premature deaths of people who breathe bad air and prevent up to 150,000 asthma attacks in children, according to the EPA.
Overall, the EPA calculates the value of the climate and health benefits will be more than $55 billion by 2030.
“We’re proud to finalize our historic clean power plan,’’said EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. “It will give our kids and grandkids the cleaner, safer future they deserve. The United States is leading by example today, showing the world that climate action is an incredible economic opportunity to build a stronger foundation for growth.’’