Environment

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.

A year ago I wrote a post "Old coal’s out, can’t wait for new nukes, so what do we do NOW?" where I hypothesized:

Suppose the leaders of this country were wise enough to put a moratorium on traditional coal (the most urgent climate policy needed, as discussed here)? How will we meet our steadily growing demand for carbon-free power over the next decade? And to get on the 450 ppm path, we don’t just need to stop U.S. emissions from rising -- we should return to 1990 levels (or lower) by 2020.

Well, we now appear to have leaders that wise (see "Obama EPA to act on global warming emissions from new coal plants"). And we need real reductions by the end of next decade (see "The U.S. needs a tougher 2020 GHG emissions target").

Also, while my original post focused on the key strategies of efficiency and recycled energy (i.e. cogeneration or combined heat and power), wind, and concentrated solar thermal, I left out one of the most crucial -- biomass cofiring, which is almost certainly the cheapest, easiest, and fastest way to provide new renewable baseload power without having to build any new transmission lines!

I think it is incumbent on progressives to propose a realistic alternative to new coal plants -- and a path to reduce emissions from existing ones. That’s especially true since it is increasingly clear carbon capture and storage will not be a major player by 2020 (see "Is coal with carbon capture and storage a core climate solution?"). So I will revise and extend my previous analysis:

NUCLEAR: Nuclear is an obvious possibility, beloved of conservative Francophiles like McCain and Gingrich, but energy realists understand that it is very unlikely new nuclear plants could deliver many kilowatt-hours of electricity by 2020, let alone affordable kWhs. Indeed, back in August 2007, Tulsa World reported (here):

American Electric Power Co. isn’t planning to build any new nuclear power plants because delays will push operational starts to 2020, CEO Michael Morris said Tuesday….

Builders would also have to queue for certain parts and face "realistic" costs of about $4,000 a kilowatt, he said….

"I’m not convinced we’ll see a new nuclear station before probably the 2020 timeline," Morris said.

And that in spite of the amazing subsidies and huge loan guarantees for nuclear power in the 2005 energy bill (see here).

As for the $4,000 a kw capital cost -- and the related electricity price of about 10 cents per kwh -- mid-2007 has already turned into the "good old days" for nukes. Utilities are now telling regulators that nukes will cost 50% to 100% more than the AEP estimate (see "Exclusive analysis, Part 1: The staggering cost of new nuclear power" and "The Self-Limiting Future of Nuclear Power").

So what do we do in the near term to meet the projected 1% annual increase in demand over the next decade while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions?

The answer is we do energy efficiency (including cogeneration), wind power, concentrated solar power (CSP), and biomass cofiring. These are the low-carbon power sources capable of delivering power affordably and quickly -- and that means having no obvious production bottlenecks (unlike, again, say, another well-known power source, see "Look up nuclear bottleneck in the dictionary….").

The goal is to fund technologies and boost industries that are capable of scaling up to deliver hundreds if not thousands of GWs of carbon free power by mid-century. No surprise that these sources account for a (slight) majority of the wedges I propose for 2050 (see "Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 2: The Solution").

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, efficiencywould 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.

CSP: Concentrated solar power I have previously written about at length (see "Concentrated solar thermal power -- a core climate solution"). It has come roaring back after more than a decade of neglect with more than a dozen providers building projects in two dozen countires (see "CSP update" and, more recently, "CSP outshines ‘clean coal’ -- and it always will").

As of November, "some 60 plants are either under construction or under contract worldwide -- with most in either Spain or the United States -- for a total capacity just north of 5,700 megawatts." As they say in Sourthern California, CSP is ready for its close up (see "Biggest CA utility contracts for world’s biggest solar power deal -- 1300 MW solar thermal").

Utilities in the Southwest are already contracting for power at 14 to 15 cents/kWh. The modeling for the CPUC puts California solar thermal at 12.7 to 13.6 cents/kWh (including six hours of storage capacity) -- and at similar or lower costs in the rest of the West. A number of players are adding low-cost storage that will make the power better than baseload (since it delivers peak power when demand actually peaks, rather than just delivering a constant amount of power 24/7). More importantly, CSP has barely begun dropping down the experience curve as costs are lower from economies of scale and the manufacturing learning curve (see experience curve discussion here). The CPUC analysis foresees the possibility that CSP could drop 20% in cost by 2020.

A 2006 report by the Western Governors Association "projects that, with a deployment of 4 GW, total nominal cost of CSP electricity would fall below 10¢/kWh." And that deployment will likely occur before 2015. Indeed, the report noted the industry could "produce over 13 GW by 2015 if the market could absorb that much." The report also notes that 300 GW of CSP capacity can be located near existing transmission lines. As an aside, wind power is a very good match with CSP in terms of their ability to share the same transmission lines, since a great deal of wind is at night, and since CSP, with storage, is dispatchable.

Finally, a report from Environment America, Solar Thermal Power and and the Fight Against Global Warming, explains how the United States could achieve 80 GW of CSP by 2030, which is not even what I would consider to be a true stretch goal given how dire the climate situation is.

The bottom line is that even without a WWII-scale effort, we could start making significant reductions in grid GHG emissions by 2020 that would not raise the nation’s energy bill!

And that is without even considering the major contribution that we could get over the next decade from biomass cofiring, the subject of my next post on this.