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Should We Just Pay Operators of Dirty Coal Plants to Shutter Them?

Last fall, inspired by the popularity and immediate success of the cash for clunkers program, I had the whimsical thought that maybe, instead of taxing coal-fired generators or forcing them to participate in a complicated cap-and trade system, we should should just pay them to shut down.

It turns out, as Grist blogger Ted Nace recently brought to my attention, that this little lightbulb had already lit up over other heads as well--several of them encasing bigger brains than mine. This is of more than merely personal interest because, with the death this year of the proposed U.S. cap-and-trade bill, if mandated carbon reduction is going to occur on a national scale, it's going to happen some other way.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal last August, T. Boone Pickens and Ted Turner suggested adopting a cash-for-clunkers program in the utility sector, so as to "save money and reduce emissions right away by retiring the oldest, least efficient and most polluting plants." Ten days later Silicon Valley entrepreneur and philanthropist Steve Kirsch proposed in the Huffington Post a "cash for coal" program, in which the government would pay owners of dirty coal plants their residual value, to finance the construction of clean coal plants.

Pickens, Turner, and Kirsch plainly meant the idea to be taken seriously and were not writing in mere whimsy. But the idea just as plainly was a trial balloon, and they did not linger over details. Kirsch confined himself to saying that any dirty coal plant would be eligible for replacement if replaced by a zero-carbon generator at an investment cost under $2,000 per kilowatt. Pickens and Turner preferred to see coal plants replaced by natural gas generators, which would cut per-kilowatt emissions roughly in half.

Nace, eyeing the added costs owners of dirty coal plants will incur in the next five years as they are required to install the latest in scrubbing equipment, has been calculating just how much they'd have to be paid to replace the plants instead. Going beyond that, he'd also like to show that net national savings would result from replacing all U.S. coal plants, which he believes will be necessary if the world is going to have any chance of attaining its 2030 greenhouse gas reduction goals. He believes the issue has legs: A site he helped build, "existing U.S. coal plants," has received 130,000 hits so far.

POSTSCRIPT (Sept. 2, 1010): Nace has now published his analysis explaining how he thinks the U.S. government could save money long-term by paying operators of dirty coal plants to close them. His basic concern is that although about one sixth of the aging coal fleet can be expected to be closed in reaction to rules requiring pollution scrubbers, we'll then be stuck with the other five-sixths, which will continue to emit huge quantities of carbon dioxide. Taking his cues from work done on the beneficial fiscal effects of tobacco regulation, Nace estimates how much money the government could save as a result of higher tax receipts from people who, instead of dying from exposure to coal emissions, continue to work.

His ballpark estimate of how much coal-emission mortality costs the government over a 30-year period? $175 billion. Additional costs attributable to morbidity over 30 years, the remaining time existing coals plants would be expected to operate, comes to $74 billion.

For Carbon Capture, DOE Moves Oxycombustion Ahead of IGCC

As reported by my fellow blogger David Levitan a couple of weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Energy has announced that its futuristic zero-carbon-generation project will be based on oxycombustion, not on integrated-gasification, combined-cycle technology,  as had been expected for more than a decade. With some reason, Levitan suspects the whole project may have turned into an ongoing boondoggle; certainly, FutureGen has come to seem rather like nuclear fusion--the technology that's always just a decade or two away but, like a mirage, never actually gets any closer.

Nevertheless, I'd like to offer another perspective: Possibly DOE's decision is sound and will open the way, at last, for FutureGen to actually be built and then lead, as hoped, to commercial prospects for zero-carbon coal-fired generation.

Several years ago, IEEE Spectrum magazine designated as one of its January winners the oxycombustion plant that Vattenfall, Sweden's national energy company, was building at Schwarze Pumpe, a site in eastern Germany. At that time, as we explained, IGCC still was generally considered the front runner in so-called clean coal technology. Yet the Florida plant that had pioneered the technology in the United States did not make a particularly prepossessing impression and for years had been generating the country's most expensive electricity by far. And now, two companies with substantial reputations in the power business, Vattenfall and Alstom, were betting on a different horse, dubbed oxyfuel or oxyfiring or oxycombustion.

In oxycombustion, coal is burned in an almost pure oxygen atmosphere, so that emissions contain virtually no NOx, which makes it easier to separate and store the carbon initially contained in the coal. IGCC involves gasifying coal, filtering out the carbon, and finally burning hydrogen to generate power. A big barrier to commercialization of oxyfuel is the initial separation of oxygen from air, which is expensive. But the technology is conceptually much simpler and arguably more elegant than IGCC.

Last November, Vattenfall announced that it was recovering virtually 100 percent of the carbon from the fuel burned at its small Schwarze Pumpe demonstration plant. Spectrum's account of the plant is somewhat dated, as the facility is being continually redesigned and rebuilt as part of Vattenfall's ongoing experiment. A fairly recent, nicely illustrated update about the oxyfuel plant is available.

Semiconductor Giant Pushes Millions Into Solar, LED Arena

One of the biggest semiconductor manufacturers in the world, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, is pushing its chips into the middle in another field: solar power and LED manufacturing.

Hsinchu-based TSMC announced that along with plans for new semiconductor foundries, they will spend more than $100 million on a LED manufacturing line and $218 million on a thin film photovoltaic construction facility. This comes a year after the company announced their intentions to move into these green tech fields, and follows on the heels of a number of business moves aimed at centering them in the push for solar and LED fields.

Late in 2009 TSMC acquired a 20 percent stake in Motech Industries, which is among the largest solar cell manufacturers in the world. More recently, the company reached a supply agreement with the solar thin-film manufacturer Stion, and in March they broke ground on an LED manufacturing facility.

Adding TSMC to the solar mix will only strengthen the tiny country's lofty position in the industry. Various reports from Taiwanese sources indicate that the country ranks third or fourth in the world in solar cell manufacturing, and adding TSMC's $3 billion in net income to that muscle can't hurt. And with nearby China recently overtaking the United States as the world's biggest energy user, the biggest market for those solar cells and LEDs isn't going anywhere.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

The Future is Now-ish: FutureGen 2.0 Gets $1 Billion For CO2 Capture

The Department of Energy announced an award of $1 billion in Recovery Act funding for what many have seen as the ultimate in energy-related government boondoggles, FutureGen. Only now they're calling it FutureGen 2.0.

The original idea of an ultramodern coal-fired electricity generating station with full carbon capture and sequestration technology was born in 2003 as part of President Bush's energy policy effort. Since then, projected cost overruns and controversies over siting of the project have plagued FutureGen, and environmentalists have decried it as a poor use of funds when investment in renewable energy could be quicker and more likely to produce results. The DOE pulled its funding in 2008, then joined back up with the FutureGen Alliance the next year, and has now clearly decided to push forward with a gigantic new infusion of funds.

This new version, though, is a far cry from the idea of a brand new near zero-emissions coal plant. Instead, an existing plant, Ameren's Unit 4 in Meredosia, Illinois, will be retrofitted with oxycombustion technology aimed at reducing emissions and allowing for capture of CO2. According to the DOE:

Oxy-combustion burns coal with a mixture of oxygen and CO2 instead of air to produce a concentrated CO2 stream for safe, permanent, storage. In addition, oxy-combustion technology creates a near-zero emissions plant by eliminating almost all of the mercury, SOx, NOx, and particulate pollutants from plant emissions. The Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory studies have identified oxy-combustion as potentially the least cost approach to clean-up existing coal-fired facilities and capture CO2 for geologic storage.

Of course, if this is the "least cost approach," many might remain skeptical as to the practical potential of such schemes that allow the continued burning of our dirtiest fuel source. Spending $1 billion to retrofit a 200-megawatt plant won't exactly scale up to the size our coal-dependent country needs without some serious cost-saving advances in the near future. The FutureGen project, even its 2.0 form, does still claim to act mainly as a prototype for future projects, but more than seven years after the original idea came to light there has been shockingly little progress toward creating zero-emission coal plants. Maybe these billions would do better elsewhere?

(Image via Dori/Wikimedia Commons)

Wo die Atomare Wildschweine Wandern

Given a choice between nuclear power and being pure green, Germans much prefer greenliness to radiation risks. But given the choice between actually ingesting radioactive materials and having to give up their beloved boar sausage, evidently Germans would rather go nuclear.

Ultimately it's not such a funny story, despite the humorous spin sometimes put on it. Southern Germany, where the boar population has been soaring (for reasons that go beyond the scope of this post), happens to have been the part of the country most affected by Chernobyl fallout. It turns out that radioactive materials tend to concentrate in truffles and mushrooms, rather the way certain pollutants concentrate in shellfish. Unfortunately just those delicacies are what the Bavarian wild pig most loves, and when meat from the most proficient of the truffle sniffers ends up in Wurst, there's a problem for those who can't live without their boar sausage.

Last year, the German government paid hunters about a half million dollars to compensate them for boar meat deemed too radioactive to sell. But of course less radioactive sausage--wait a minute? wasn't somebody just saying there's no safe level of radioactivity?--is still ending up on dinner plates.

POSTSCRIPT, Aug. 6 (Hiroshima Day): The story is getting unfunnier all the time. Russian environmental officials warned yesterday that radiation also is concentrated in some of the forests that are getting consumed by the wildfires sweeping much of the country's western regions, as temperatures have soared to unheard-of highs. Some of that released radiation will be blown into Europe. It's always amusing to poke fun at Germans' love affair with the boar and their complex attitudes about greenliness, but really this is no laughing matter.

GE versus Coulomb in EV Charging

A previous post reporting the rollout of GE's WattStation network for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicle charging raised two questions concerning its competitive status versus Coulomb's ChargePoint network: GE's apparent claim that its stations will offer faster charging; and its general competitive position, given that Coulomb Technologies appears to have got the jump.

Regarding the first question, GE says it only meant that  Level 2 charging at 220 volts will be faster than Level 1 and 110, which is true of the Coulomb setup as well, as I understand it.

On the second point, GE managers say the following: "GE has been in the electrical distribution and protection business for over 100 years. As the GE WattStation is a vital part of tomorrow's electrical infrastructure, GE is able to leverage it's existing network of authorized distributors and electrical contractors to install the EV infrastructure - that includes circuit protection equipment, transformers as well as the GE WattStation - to provide a safe and reliable installed system. GE will also leverage our extensive experience in the utility transmission and distribution business to make sure that the GE WattStation is Smart Grid enabled for intelligent integration into today's power grid."

However the competition plays out for each of the companies, the existence of the competition can only be good for the development of a grid adequate to the needs of EV and hybrid drivers. Nissan having announced last year a home-charging program for buyers of its upcoming Leaf, infrastructure is not being neglected. That said, the ability of local distribution transformers to handle the added load from car chargers if plug-in hybrids really catch on remains much in doubt.

Siemens Completes Major Chinese Transmission Line

Siemens reports that it has brought into operation a high-voltage direct-current transmission line connecting the highly industrial Pearl River delta (Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong) with hydropower sources 1,500 kilometers to the west. With a transmission capacity of 5,000 MW, the HVDC line in effect obviates the need for up to 5 GW of fossil generation in the Pearl River delta, saving enormously on air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions.

According to Siemens, power is being carried over the line at a record-setting 800 kilovolts, with losses of just 2 percent per 1000 kilometers and an additional 1.5 percent at the transmitting and receiving ends. The line is the second such electricity superhighway Siemens has installed in China to operate at 800 kV. Siemens developed a new "super transformer" for the lines, which it sees as "practically a blueprint for the DII (Desertec Industrial Initiative) desert power project."

Desertec could be a $500 billion project that would involve installing up to 470 GW of generating capacity in the Sahara, consisting of  concentrating solar plants, and transporting most of that power via HVDC lines to Europe. It may sound far-fetched, but if Europe it going to achieve it highly ambitious 2050 goals for renewable electricity generation and carbon emissions cuts, it may be the only way to go.

Tapping the Desert: Can Saharan Sun Really Help Power Europe?

Parts of Europe are already lapping the rest of the world in terms of renewable energy production and commitment, with Germany among the leaders in wind development and Spain holding a similar position in the solar power field. To meet the continent's lofty (relatively speaking) renewable goals, though, a mega-project situated south of the Mediterranean might end up as the most important piece.

The Desertec project, first conceived in 2003, has the following general goal: "Clean power from deserts for a world with 10 billion people." The flagship of that concept is a series of huge concentrating thermal plants in the Sahara Desert and elsewhere around North Africa and the Middle East, with transmission lines bringing the power north into Europe.

The numbers that Desertec can throw out are pretty staggering: by 2050, the projects are capable of generating up to 470,000 megawatts of electricity; only 0.02 percent of the land area in the region will be needed for all of the solar plants; in fact, only one percent of the entire world's desert area, if covered by solar power plants, could power, well, everything.

And now, in spite of an initial estimate that electricity might start flowing from the Sahara within 10 years, recent announcements indicate that number might be cut in half. The first pilot project appears slated for Morocco, and other countries in the region are on board as well.

Of course, any project so massive in scope carries with it a laundry list of pitfalls and potential problems. Transmission of all that electricity is probably exhibit A for such issues, but Desertec doesn't seem concerned. They note that the power loss over high-voltage direct-current transmission lines is about 4 to 5 percent per 1,000 kilometers of transmission; the costs associated with such losses, however, are made up by the remarkably high insolation (solar radiation energy) in the North Africa region, according to Desertec. And in fact, an industry group recently announced preliminary plans for an undersea grid of transmission cables in the Mediterranean to be developed in parallel with Desertec.

Among the other issues are cost - at least 400 billion Euros (about $520 billion) - and the risks associated with high level development in a number of politically unstable countries. But with Europe's 20-percent-by-2020 renewables goal only a decade away, such concerns seem to be taking a back seat. It looks more and more that before too long has passed, the Sahara really will help power Europe.

(Image via DESERTEC Foundation, www.desertec.org)

Smartening the Smart Grid

This year's annual New York press briefing by the Edison Electric Institute, the organization representing investor-owned utilities, naturally was devoted to the smart grid, the hot topic of the day. Most notable, actually, was the absence of anything really new to report, which confirmed expectations that the smart grid will begin to prove itself next year at the earliest--or not.

This was not the first EEI briefing devoted to smart grid prospects. Last year's briefing was devoted almost entirely to the smart meter avalanche, and a year or two before that much was made of Xcel Energy's SmartGridCity experiment in Boulder, Colorado. I reminded EEI president Thomas Kuhn of the Boulder briefing and pointed out that the experiment appears now to have been a failure. Kuhn did not dispute that and said it appears the problem in Boulder was that the target population was just too affluent: Despite the known green-mindedness of Boulderites, a major factor in Xcel's selecting the small city for its smart grid test run, it seems most of them do not care all that much about the modest monetary savings they stand to make from paying attention to electricity usage signals.

That message, not good news for the smart grid, strongly suggests that its success will depend heavily on the quality of customer communications. "Utilities now really need for customers to listen," says Christy Murfitt, senior manager for solutions marketing with Nuance Communications. How do you get ratepayers to pay attention? The main thing is to stress green mindedness and potential monetary savings, says Christy, but appeals to community values and making advantages as tangible as possible--not to mention, where possible, offering rebates--also help.

Nuance, with major utility customers across the United States and Canada, has been showing its clients how to use billing alerts to start educating their customers about peak versus off-peak rates, the major factors causing their bills to go up or down, and how they can best use their major appliances to minimize costs. Though real-time interactive communications based on hour-to-hour rates changes are only starting to be developed, says Christy, payment schemes can be arranged where customers are warned it their usage exceeds pre-agreed-upon thresholds.

Globally, smart grid investments are expected to be about $90 billion this year, according to a recent report. Infrastructure investments, including communications, represent the overwhelming bulk of that, and customer-side investments, mainly smart meters, only about 20 percent. But the customer-oriented expenditures are a fast-growing share and will be critical to whether the smart grid is seen as a success or failure, comments David Cappello, the main author of the SBI report.

However far electricity restructuring, deregulation, and privatization go, electric power will always be seen in the last analysis as a public service. The public has been led to believe that the smart grid will produce monetary savings and carbon cuts, and so, if those gains do not materialize fast enough, many states no doubt will step in and pass laws insisting that utilities produce tangible results.

Supply-Side Climate Policy

With last week's surrender of the White House and Democratic leadership on efforts to enact a cap-and-trade carbon bill, it follows that the entire U.S. effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be on the energy supply side. Though proponents of a carbon tax (as an alternative to cap-and-trade) are hoping for a second chance, that's almost certainly an idle hope--or threat, depending on how you look at it: There's no sign the president or the leadership have the imagination, boldness, and commitment to sell the country on pricing carbon, in whatever form; and nobody expects the president and Democratic leadership to emerge stronger from this fall's midterm congressional elections. (The opposite is the norm is midterms, which almost always favor challengers over incumbents.)

So, if they can't sell cap-and-trade or carbon taxation now, they won't be able to sell it next year or the year after that either. The game is up.

That means that the climate policy we'll have is pretty much the climate policy we've got: A hodgepodge of subsidies and incentives fashioned to stimulate nuclear, renewables, and the smart grid. Instead of putting a uniform price on carbon, so that  electricity customers and their utilities opt to get less of their electricity from coal and more from the most cost-effective lower-carbon alternative (whether natural gas, wind or nuclear), and drivers buy more fuel-efficient and alternative-fuel cars, we're ending up with just the approach Republicans in particular have always said they hated. That is, we're throwing a lot of money at miscellaneous technologies, hoping that at least some of them take off.

A demand-side policy produces sure results: Statistically, we know if we set carbon prices at certain levels, so as to have specific effects on electricity and fossil fuel prices, that predictable greenhouse gas emissions will follow. A demand-side policy tuned to get U.S. emissions back to their 1990 level by 2020, the Obama administration's stated objective, will do just that.

If a melange of supply-side policies somehow produces the equivalent reduction, it will be by dumb luck.

So let's evaluate the odds of the United States' getting lucky and achieving its 2020 goals, in general qualitative terms. The automotive sector can be left out of account, as people are not going to buy electric or hybrid vehicles in large numbers until prices come down radically, and there's no saying just when that might occur, no matter how much is done to subsidize battery manufacturing and charging infrastructure.

Turning to the all-important electricity sector, how much will new nuclear contribute to reducing carbon emissions in this decade? Nothing. Given that ground has yet to be broken for the first new plant to be initiated in a generation, and given that it takes close to ten years to bring a nuclear power plant project to conclusion, we can safely say that there will be no net increase in U.S. nuclear generation by 2020.

How much will solar contribute? Next to nothing. Contrary to the absurd spin in a recent Tech Review, solar electricity is still far from commercial viability. It's destined to remain a niche player as far ahead as one can look.

In terms of significant zero-carbon power sources that can displace fossil-fueled generation, that leaves only wind. It is sure to account for a growing share of the electricity mix and contribute to lower emissions, as fossil generation is taken out of service. But wind growth rates are highly uneven, O&M costs have been mounting, and the best sites may be getting used up. To remedy what it sees as a boom-bust cycle, the industry is pressing for a national renewable energy standard--another awkward supply-side measure (one that produces predictable results by administrative fiat, to be sure, but at completely unpredictable costs).

That leaves the smart grid, a topic so sweeping and complex it deserves and will receive separate treatment. Suffice it to say for now that we won't know for a few years, at the earliest, whether the concept is actually producing hoped-for reductions in energy  use and emissions.

To sum up, if the United States somehow meets its 2020 greenhouse gas production target, it will not be by deliberate design but because of forces largely beyond control of the U.S. government: Specifically, a grassroots anti-coal rebellion that has made it impossible, for all practical purposes, to build a new coal-fired plant in the United States; and shalegas developments, which imply that there may be enough to gas to replace coal very rapidly and on a very large scale.

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