Critics of proposals to make our country more sustainable often suggest that such measures would raise the prices of products and make it more difficult for the nation to do business–forcing our coveted Gross Domestic Product downward. This argument would suggest that it isn’t possible, or at least very difficult, to reduce the amount of carbon we emit while simultaneously lifting GDP. The thing is, apparently we did that in 2012. Continue Reading…
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Talking about the “power grid” in the U.S. can bring to mind images of high tension wires strung across massive metal towers and hefty brick buildings with large smokestacks built in the mid-20th century. For a lot of our electricity infrastructure this picture would be accurate. Our power grid is showing its age–not only in our continued reliance on a dirty fuel source, but in the plants that burn it as well. The boom of building coal-fired generation in this country spanned from the 1960’s to the 1990’s when new capacity turned to natural gas. While most of the natural gas plants we have are less than 20 years old, 71% of their coal-burning cousins have been around for over three decades. These older plants represent not only the dirtiest, but often least efficient components of our grid–sometimes with net efficiency as low as 33%.
Fortunately, we are at a pivotal point where the nature of how we produce power is changing. COOKFOX Architects along with landscape architecture firm Terrain are working together on a new breed of power facility in Salem, Massachusetts that questions many of our infrastructural assumptions not only in functionality, but urban presence and response to the local community. The Salem Harbor Station exemplifies the near term transition that we need to encourage in order to take quantifiable steps in improving the rate of pollution and carbon emissions attributed to our power supply.
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…
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
According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) the U.S. is making strides on its goals to bolster its renewable power portfolio. In their recently released Electric Power Monthly, an overview of our country’s sources and usage, the EIA reports that renewable energy, including hyrdoelectric sources, have jumped to 11.1% of our total production. Of the individual sources, wind power posted the largest gain with a 34.8% increase. Hydroelectric power increased 18.4% The news is complimented nicely by a slide of 13.9% in coal power production, leaving it as producing 46.1% of our total power needs. The rise of cleaner energy sources has positive timing with the Waxman-Markey bill that recently passed through the House and is now being ravaged on the floor of the Senate.
However, the news does bear some caveats. The EIA said that total consumption by the nation declined 4.6%, undoubtedly linked to the recession and decreases in industrial and manufacturing draws. The same reason was used to explain the notable decreased in coal power with more factories producing less and thus using less energy. As a result, a recovery in the economy could add some strength back to coal’s share of the pie.
Nevertheless, the footnotes do not diminish the weight of the opportunity. Keep in mind that these figures come without money coming from stimulus funding or anything related to the Waxman-Markey bill, should it survive its journey through Congress. Moreover, it could be a blessing that more coal plants are running idle when jobs are tight and investments are low, leaving the possibility of having cleaner options to choose from when we have the reason to turn more switches back on. With all hope, we may be able to replace, or at least deter the new construction of, coal plants by buoying the power supply with new investment in green power. The more dollars that can be diverted to sustainable power creation is more jobs that the industry can tote creating as well as working to lower the prices of technology and its resulting kilowatt hours.