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Obama Must Stop Dirty Coal -- But What Will He Replace it With?

It is incumbent on progressives to propose a realistic alternative to new coal plants -- here's our best options.

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EFFICIENCY: Energy efficiency is the cheapest alternative (see " Energy efficiency is THE core climate solution, Part 1: The biggest low-carbon resource by far"). California has cut annual peak demand by 12 GW - and total demand by about 40,000 GWh -- through a variety of energy efficiency programs over the past three decades. Over their lifetime, the cost of efficiency programs has averaged 2-3¢ per kW. If every American had the per capita electricity of California, we’d cut electricity use some 40%. If the next president aggressively pushes a nationwide effort to embrace efficiency and change regulations to encourage efficiency, then we could keep electricity demand close to flat through 2020.

That is particularly true if we include an aggressive effort to push cogeneration aka combined heat and power (see " Recycled Energy -- A core climate solution). I will revist it in a later post, since cogen is a ready source of low-carbon baseload power that has been even more neglected in policy discussions than efficiency.

One very good source of apples-to-apples comparisons of different types of low- and zero-carbon electricity generation is the modeling work done for the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) on how to comply with the AB32 law (California’s Global Warming Solutions Act), online here. AB32 requires a reduction in statewide greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

A May presentation of the CPUC modeling results ( here) shows that energy efficiency could deliver up to 36,000 Gigawatt-hours of "negawatts" by 2020 (that is the equivalent of more than 5 GW of baseload generation operating 80% of the time). At the same time, the state could build 1.6 GW of small CHP and 2.8 GW of large CHP. So that is nearly 10 GW of efficiency by 2020. If this were reproduced nationwide, efficiency would deliver more than 130 GW of efficiency by 2020.

WIND: Wind has been growing at a staggering pace (see " U.S. becomes the global wind leader"). And its potential for growth is even greater (see " ITC to build $12 billion in wind farm power lines, JCSP study finds $50+B savings from 20% wind").

Power purchase agreements for wind power are currently averaging 4.5 to 7.5 cents a kilowatt hour, including the federal wind tax credit, which is a fair comparison in the near term to new nuclear, which itself gets huge subsidies, loan guarantees, and liability protection. Even unsubsidized, and with the recent price rise that most power sources have seen, wind power is delivering power at 7.5 to 10 (this does not include transmission costs). The country has thousands of gigawatts that could be delivered for under ten cents unsubsidzed. Just 300 GW by 2030 would provide 20% of U.S. electricity. America added over 8 GW just last year.

Yes, wind power is intermittent, but the country has a great deal of baseload power, and many regions of European countries integrate up to 40% wind power successfully. An August 2007 review of actual windpower integration by utilities in this country, " Utility Wind Integration and Operating Impact State of the Art," found that the integration cost in eight different major wind projects, ranged from 0.2 to 0.5 cents per kWh.

Wind is a core climate solution and even the Bush DOE said wind can be 20% of U.S. power by 2030 with no breakthroughs. Moreover, as we electrify transportation over the next two decades with plug-in hybrids, the grid will be able to make use of far larger amounts of intermittent, largely night-time zero-carbon electricity from wind. So post-2030, windpower should be able to grow even further.