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Salem MA Power Plant

As Americans we use a lot of water—per capita, more than any other country on the planet. A huge portion (49% as of 2005) of what we use goes to thermoelectric cooling, or removing heat from our fossil fuel burning power plants. That’s around 200 billion gallons a day, but we have a lot of power plants out there. How much does one of these plants actually use? The biggest culprits are the oldest plants that are the least efficient, built before the days of harnessing cogeneration. Taking the coal-fired power plant in Salem, Massachusetts (set to be decommissioned next year), the word is that the plant currently uses up to 359 million gallons a day when it is running at full capacity. How much is that? Continue Reading…

As one of the nation’s largest producers of pollution and carbon emissions, the vastness of coal’s contribution to the nation’s power supply has left them a champion of the economic and political realm with a lot of weight to throw around. Not long ago the EPA stopped dancing around the ring and decided to throw some weight behind an overdue advance on the coal industry. It is easy to forget that the EPA’s prime function is neither research nor public awareness (though both are important). It provides “protection” as an agency of enforcement. Continue Reading…

Dear Mr. Droz,

I recently came across an article on that lead me to your presentation critiquing wind power. The decree that wind power is “an insult to science and mankind” seems a bit alarmist and wrought with exaggeration. I understand that you have labeled wind power as a deficient source of power generation and based this conclusion on seven points of criteria that you claim reasonable power sources should strive to meet. These points include:

  1. Can it provide large amounts of electricity?
  2. Can it provide reliable and predictable electricity?
  3. Can it provide dispatchable energy?
  4. Can it serve as more than one grid element?
  5. Can its facility be compact?
  6. Can it provide economical energy?
  7. Can it make a consequential reduction in carbon dioxide?

According to you, wind energy has failed all but the first point, after which you claim it to be an overly expensive, intermittent and restrictive form of energy production–something the world should stop devoting time and money towards. Instead, we should focus on improving our existing technologies so that they can be improved and better utilized to achieve environmental progress.

Though your individual assessments cannot be labeled as “incorrect”, I think you are unfairly painting a grim picture of wind energy while denying it both its accolades and opportunities for further improvement. Wind energy is a great industry and one of a number of technologies that will eventually allow us to reduce our environmental impact and reach a more balanced, sustainable society. I think a full critique of wind should include not only the shortcomings (which we all know exist) but the possibilities.

Continue Reading…

Coal Power Plant The much debated climate bill is being heralded as legislation with the substance enough to begin to change our lives towards a new path of sustainability. One group that would arguably see the most change is the network of the country’s energy providers as carbon pricing leads to higher stakes for producing electricity from coal, oil and natural gas. Some have set up this confrontation as taking place between greenies and big power companies, but the power generation world is not as uniformly resistant as some might say. Is it possible that some of our biggest polluters could actually help lead our walk into the sustainable promised land?

A series of recent events points to the possibility of utility companies leaving behind the stance of defiance to play a more cohesive role in formulating new climate legislation. One of first steps is acknowledging the issue which, compared to where we have been, is a big step. A trio of large utility companies recently lead a withdrawal from the United States Chamber of Commerce citing disagreements over the Chamber’s stance on climate change. Exelon, Pacific Gas & Electric and PNM Resources all pulled their participation from the organization that claims to be “the voice of business.” Shortly afterwards, Nike resigned its position on the federation’s board. Tech bellwether Apple has been the most recent departure.

New York Times sentinel, Kate Galbraith, recently reported on two more utility companies steering their business away from coal-fired power. Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest utility, released a new strategy outline for future production to meet an anticipated 50% rise demand with no new coal plants. Similarly, NV Energy, a utility servicing Nevada and California, decided to postpone production of a 1.5 gigawatt coal plant to change its potential opening from 2012 to 2020. As Ed Mazria of Architecture 2030 often notes, the only true solution to make the difference that we need to, as fast as we need to, when it comes to carbon emissions is attacking coal for power production.

So why the change of heart? Could it be that the widespread chanting of environmental advocates are finally seeping in on the highest level, enough to make corporate executives question their means for making profits in our country? Before we start doling out halos and merit badges, there could be a number of reasons why this turn of events is not quite so surprising.

We are moving into a political state of mind where it is a question of when, not if, climate legislation is going to be passed. With the Copenhagen summit on climate change only months away, fewer want the U.S. to appear as the climate dunce of the developed world. Furthermore, Manik Roy, Vice President of  Federal Government Outreach for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, recently pointed out that 23 states and the EPA are all in the process of reforming their own means of combating emissions. “There is a misconception that no legislation means no regulation. This is just not the case.” Utilities could be facing new laws and regulation on local levels regardless of whether or not the Kerry-Boxer bill passes in the Senate. At this point it is simply smart business for companies with the largest stake in the outcome of climate regulation to play a more central and participatory role in how the laws get detailed.

Most of these mentioned utility players hail from the west coast where states already have healthy goals for requiring renewable power generation by 2020. California prides itself on being at the forefront of sustainability. Supporting a more broadly based action and downplaying coal production can create the appearance of being a green crusader while getting more mileage out of things that they may run into on the local level anyway (which does not make it wrong, I say take all the credit that they want.) It is unlikely coincidence that Exelon is the country’s largest producer of nuclear energy. As pointed out by Robert Peltier from energy blog Master Resource, nuclear energy stands to fair extremely well if climate legislation doles out carbon allowances by percentage of current generation—meaning that nuclear companies could get carbon permits for free that can be sold at market price (since they produce no carbon themselves.) With few people asking questions about what we will do with the country’s nuclear waste issue, it is increasingly easier for nuclear companies to claim green roots.

There may be more than a bunch of born again greenies to explain the growing support for change, but so what? For the challenges that we face now of reformatting a number of social norms, supporters do not have time to quibble over whether or not different people are doing the right thing for the right reasons. If the prospect of imminent climate legislation is causing utilities to re-evaluate beforehand, then process is working just as it should and its integration may be even easier. With goals that are even slightly closer to aligning, more progress can be made on getting initiatives to market and implementation. From consumer education, to smart grid test programs, to quicker resolution to NIMBY sentiments for siting new power generation and transmission; all could stand to benefit from having more utilities on board.

Photo Credit: Flickr davipt

I came across a great article on the energy blog Master Resource (of which I have become a regular reader) by Robert Peltier that focuses on some of the intricacies that may result from an eventual passage of H.R. 2454. Peltier notes on how remarks of opposition from the energy industry have been few and far between so far in the discussion of Waxman-Markey and that perhaps, for some, their end of the deal is not quite that bad. One could think the large energy providers will need to shoulder a great deal of burden towards reducing our carbon footprint, but the key of how newly distributed carbon allowances actually get doled out brings a great deal to bear on how how utilities will be affected. The give and take of Capitol Hill negotiating may have left some hands far from empty. Three of Peltier’s seven points include:

  • Given that existing plants will be given new allowances for free, new plants face a considerable barrier to entry in the marketplace having to purchase new allowances in order to gain a permit to build. Existing owners and operators could cement their place on the high ground for years to come.
  • Nuclear providers could end up with amazing benefit given that allowances are doled out in response to the percentage of national generation. Since nuclear provides nearly 20% of our nation’s power they could wind up with 20% of the carbon allowances that are unneeded and could be resold. As Peltier puts it, “For utilities with a lot of nuclear generation, these allowances are a gift.”
  • Original distributions of allowances to older coal plants could encourage them to remain open given that the allowances could be worth more than the plants themselves. As long as a utility provider can keep the plant open (and continue to be spewing carbon) long enough for allowances to be doled out, they will be handed a nice, tax-payer sponsored retirement plan.

I encourage the reading of the entire article.

Even staunch environmentalists like Joe Romm consider this a flawed bill and it is wrought with concessions and exceptions that help make its passage plausible, but in the end it may be worth it. Though large nuclear owners do not need any extra money, rewarding their low-carbon model is not exactly counter-productive (besides the fact that they produce some of the most hazardous material known to mankind.) If entry into the energy market for high carbon producers is more expensive, that seems fine as well. We should be discouraging carbon-intensive models for power. Giving allowances to coal plants on the verge of decommissioning is a more difficult one to swallow given that coal is already responsible for pollution in the country that has either been suffered or needs to be repaired. The notion of buying out the problem leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, but how much can we expect from American legislators.

Peltier does a great job in giving an overview of the issue. Being an advocate for sustainability reform is one thing, but being an educated advocate raises the likelihood of making notable progress. Though some of the contributors and frequent readers of Master Resource may not share my position of the severity of a more sustainable economy, their knowledge of the energy markets is thorough and often provide much-needed points to ground the aspirations of new technologies and bold, but sometimes half-baked, claims.