Given the increasingly complex world of Environmental Protection Agency rules, some are tapping unlikely sources of inspiration in coping with the regulatory hardships, namely Captain James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock.

"If you are old enough to remember the original 'Star Trek,' the three-dimensional chess that used to be played by Captain Kirk and Spock. Well, that's kind of what we're doing" to comply with the EPA, said Sue Kelly, president and CEO of the American Public Power Association, representing the country's large swath of publicly owned power companies.

She dropped the Kirk reference at a recent workshop in Washington on how states can comply in meeting the centerpiece of the president's climate change agenda, called the Clean Power Plan.

In the Star Trek series, the three-dimensional chess game had three overlapping boards, with any move on one board helping or hindering your position on the two other boards suspended above one another.

Based on Kelly's analogy, the bottom chess board would be the EPA's goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Above that would be the threat of power outages, commonly phrased as "reliability concerns," from the plan forcing coal-fired power plants to close and not adequately taking into account the time needed to build new power stations and transmission lines.

Above that is the floating chess board of states' compliance plans, which are required to meet different emission reduction targets under the plan. What one state chooses to do will affect another. For example, if Missouri closes a plant, how does that affect a city in Arkansas that buys power from that plant?

Kelly said the EPA is "fuzzy" on a lot of those issues, if it addresses them at all.

"Frankly, I think in some ways having additional time to work through these issues, to better understand how are the pieces going to work" is required, she said. "How are the new types of generation going to fit into old types of generation that are going to be retired, or repowered? What type of transmission is going to be needed to knit them all together?"

"There are quite a number of moving parts here," Kelly added. "We want to make sure there is not an 'Oh, lord!' moment"— where it is realized a power plant was retired and suddenly "we really needed it."

The public power sector that Kelly represents is no fan of the EPA plan. It has tried to argue for a variety of changes to the plan since it was proposed. But the industry has chosen to sue the administration given the number of unanswered questions the rule raises.

Even though the Supreme Court put a stay on the EPA regulation, Kelly suggests the trend of increasing regulation is not likely to stop with the Obama administration.

"Efforts to address increased federal regulation are also needed to eliminate or minimize adverse impacts of new regulations on our members and their retail customers," she recently told the Energy Department. "In just the last few years alone, we have seen a large increase in energy policies and regulations that affect all areas of utility operations, and this trend is likely to continue."

The utility group believes the Clean Power Plan "tries to do too much too fast for public power utilities and their customers in many states," she told the Energy Department, which is taking comment on what to include in a new national energy policy blueprint it is developing.

The fast pace of the regulation adds new levels of difficulty to the Star Trek chess board.

Other chess pieces in the three-dimensional game of EPA compliance include:

  • The creation of stranded costs in curtailing the remaining useful life of existing power plants.
  • Increasing power plant operating costs and creating new costs for related infrastructure.
  • Raising electricity bills for millions of utility customers by as much as 30 percent.

In the words of former Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio: "Beam me up!"