Commentary: Photo Ops with Coal Miners Offer No Substitute for Fact-based Climate Policy

Harry Fain, coal loader. Inland Steel Company, Floyd County, KY. 1946. Photo: Russell Lee

President Donald Trump surrounded himself with coal miners at the EPA yesterday as he signed an executive order calling for a clean sweep of all federal policies hindering development of fossil fuel production in the United States. The order’s centerpiece is an instruction to federal agencies to cease defending EPA’s Clean Power Plan and thus, according to Trump’s rhetoric, revive coal-fired power generation and the miners who fuel it.

The electric power sector, however, responded with polite dismissal.

What separates President Trump and some of his top officials from power engineers and utilities? The latter operate in a world governed by science and other measurable forces. Unlike President Trump, scientists, engineers, and executives suffer reputational and financial losses when they invent new forms of logic that are unsupported by evidence. And a world of fallacies underlies the President and his administration’s rejection of climate action. Continue reading

Wind Could Provide Over 26% of Chinese Electricity by 2030

Last month I argued that the primary reason Chinese wind farms underperform versus their U.S.-based counterparts is that China’s grid operators deliberately favor operation of coal-fired power plants. Such curtailment of wind power has both economic and technical roots, and it has raised serious questions about whether China can rely on an expanding role for wind energy. New research published today appears to put those concerns to rest, arguing that wind power in China should still grow dramatically.

The report today in the journal Nature Energy projects that wind energy could affordably meet over one-quarter of China’s projected 2030 electricity demand—up from just 3.3 percent of demand last year.

In fact the researchers, from MIT and Tsinghua University, project that modest improvements to the flexibility of China’s grid would enable wind power to grow a further 17 percent. That, they argue, means that China’s non-fossil resources could grow well beyond the 20 percent level that China pledged to achieve under the Paris Climate Agreement. Continue reading

Beetles, Cacti, and Killer Plants Inspire Energy Efficiency

What do you get when you mix a desert beetle, a pitcher plant, and a cactus? Pick the right parts and you get an extremely slippery surface with an uncanny capacity to condense and collect water, according to research reported today in the journal Nature.

The advance could be a big deal for the energy world because, when it comes to energy efficiency, condensation lies somewhere between a necessary evil and a major drag. Nuclear, coal, and thermal solar power plants, for example, require large heat exchangers to condense the steam exiting from their turbines so that they can raise a new round of hotter steam. For other devices, such as wind turbines and refrigerator coils, condensation is the first step towards energy-sapping ice formation. Continue reading

Carbon Polluters Fund XPrize to Repurpose Their Emissions

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Unique plant in San Antonio converts CO2 to minerals and chemicals. Photo: Skyonic

XPRIZE—the organization behind grand technology challenges such as the race to space won in 2004 by SpaceShipOne and current contests to land a Lunar rover and a Star Trek-style medical tricorder—unveiled a competition today that tackles a more mundane yet critical challenge: transforming carbon dioxide emissions from power plants into saleable products to help slow or reverse climate change. The competition’s $20 million kitty has been raised from major carbon emitters: a coalition of oil and gas producers producing high-carbon oil from Alberta’s oilsands, and New Jersey-based electric utility NRG Energy. Continue reading

Censors Take On China’s Silent Spring Moment

Jinhua skyline 2005c

Jinhua skyline, 2005

Chinese censors took down a hugely popular documentary on China’s air pollution crisis this past weekend, according to reports by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Under the Dome, a polished, 104-minute report by Chinese broadcast journalist Chai Jing [embedded below], had gone viral after its release last week, attracting several hundred million views in China before censors restricted domestic access to the video and squelched news coverage of it.

The film is a damning account of China’s declining air quality, the sources of its pollution, and the toothlessness of environmental agencies charged with controlling it. It’s a wide-ranging production that tries to explain the price China has paid for its industrialization and wealth generation, as well as a passionate call to action.

For me, the film’s visceral portrayal of contemporary life amidst smog—and the movie’s historic sweep—sparked flashbacks to my own discomfort breathing in Chinese air during visits in 1991, 2005, and 2006.

In 1991, my eyes burned as the aging cruise liner I’d taken over from Japan motored up the Huangpu River, past the petrochemical plants then lining the river’s eastern banks, on its way into Shanghai. But the historic city across the river was clean. Aside from a few buses, it was a city that still moved on pollution-free pedal power, its streets a flood of bicycles. And as I traveled inland for several weeks, the pollution faded further, revealing China’s natural beauty.

When I flew into Shanghai 14 years later to report on China’s rising tide of electric bicycles for IEEE Spectrum, Shanghai itself seemed still cleaner than I’d recalled. While cars and trucks were on the rise, the East-bank industry had been cleared to make way for gleaming skyscrapers.

But China was clearly changing. I visited smaller cities where smog nearly blocked out the sun. Continue reading

EPA Coal Cuts Light Up Washington

A meeting at the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC’s) Washington headquarters yesterday lived up to expectations that it would be one of the most exciting sessions in the agency’s history. Buttoned up policy wonks, lobbyists, and power market experts showed up in droves—over 600 registered—to witness a discussion of what President Obama’s coal-cutting Clean Power Plan presaged for the U.S. power grid. The beltway crowd was joined by activists for and against fossil fuels—and extra security.

Inside proceedings, about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans’ impact on power grid reliability, protesters against fracking and liquid natural gas exports shouted “NATURAL GAS IS DIRTY” each time a speaker mentioned coal’s fossil fuel nemesis. Outside, the coal industry-backed American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity distributed both free hand-warmers and dark warnings that dumping coal-fired power would leave Americans “cold in the dark.”

As expected, state regulators and utility executives from coal-reliant states such as Arizona and Michigan hammered home the ‘Cold in the Dark’ message in their exchanges with FERC’s commissioners. Gerry Anderson, Chairman and CEO of Detroit-based utility DTE Energy, called the Clean Power Plan “the most fundamental transformation of our bulk power system that we’ve ever undertaken.”

EPA’s critics argue that the plan’s timing is unrealistic and its compliance options are inadequate. Anderson said Michigan will need to shut down, by 2020, roughly 40 percent of the coal-fired generation that currently provides half of the state’s power. That, he said, “borders on unachievable and would certainly be ill-advised from a reliability perspective.”

EPA’s top air pollution official, Janet McCabe, defended her agency’s record and its respect for the grid. “Over EPA’s long history developing Clean Air Act standards, the agency has consistently treated electric system reliability as absolutely critical. In more than 40 years, at no time has compliance with the Clean Air Act resulted in reliability problems,” said McCabe.

McCabe assured FERC that EPA had carefully crafted its plan to provide flexibility to states and utilities regarding how they cut emissions from coal-fired power generation, and how quickly they contribute to the rule’s overall goal of lowering power sector emissions by 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. (Michigan has state-verified energy conservation and renewable energy options to comply with EPA’s plans according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.)

McCabe said EPA is considering additional flexibility before it finalizes the rule, as early as June. EPA would consider, for example, specific proposals for a “reliability safety valve” to allow a coal plant to run longer than anticipated if delays in critical replacement projects—say, a natural gas pipeline or a transmission line delivering distant wind power—threatened grid security.

As it turned out, language codifying a reliability safety valve was on offer at yesterday’s meeting from Craig Glazer, VP for federal government policy at PJM Interconnection, the independent transmission grid operator for the Mid-Atlantic region. The language represents a consensus reached by regional system operators from across the country—one that is narrowly written and therefore unlikely to give coal interests much relief. “It can’t be a free pass,” said Glazer.

A loosely-constrained valve, explained Glazer, would undermine investment in alternatives to coal-fired power, especially for developers of clean energy technologies. “Nobody’s going to make those investments because they won’t know when the crunch time really comes. It makes it very hard for these new technologies to jump in,” said Glazer.

Clean energy advocates at the meeting, and officials from states that, like California, are on the leading edge of renewable energy development, discounted the idea that additional flexibility would be needed to protect the grid. They pushed back against reports of impending blackouts from some grid operators and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation(NERC). Those reports, they say, ignored or discounted evidence that alternative energy sources can deliver the essential grid services currently provided by conventional power plants.

NERC’s initial assessment, issued in November, foresees rolling blackouts and increased potential for “wide-scale, uncontrolled outages,” and NERC CEO Gerald Cauley says a more detailed study due out in April will identify reliability “hotspots” caused by EPA’s plan. At the FERC meeting, Cauley acknowledged that “the technology is out there allowing solar and wind to be contributors to grid reliability,” but he complained that regulators were not requiring them to do so. Cauley called on FERC to help make that happen.

Cleantech supporters, however, are calling on the government to ensure that NERC recognizes and incorporates renewable energy’s full capabilities when it issues projections of future grid operations. They got a boost from FERC Commissioner Norman Bay. The former chief of enforcement at FERC and Obama’s designee to become FERC’s next chairman in April, Bay pressed Cauley on the issue yesterday.

Bay asked Cauley how he was going to ensure that NERC is more transparent, and wondered whether NERC would make public the underlying assumptions and models it will use to craft future reports. Cauley responded by acknowledging that NERC relied on forecasts provided by utilities, and worked with utility experts to “get ideas on trends and conclusions” when crafting its reliability studies.

Cauley also acknowledged that they were not “entirely open and consensus based” the way NERC’s standards-development process was. And he demurred on how much more open the process could be, telling Bay, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

The challenge from Bay follows criticism leveled at NERC in a report issued last week by the Brattle Group, an energy analytics firm based in Boston. Brattle found that compliance with EPA’s plan was “unlikely to materially affect reliability.”

Brattle’s report concurred with renewables advocates who have argued that NERC got it wrong by focusing too much on the loss of coal-fired generation and too little on that which would replace it: “The changes required to comply with the CPP will not occur in a vacuum—rather, they will be met with careful consideration and a measured response by market regulators, operators, and participants. We find that in its review NERC fails to adequately account for the extent to which the potential reliability issues it raises are already being addressed or can be addressed through planning and operations processes as well as through technical advancements.”

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Will Shuttering Coal Plants Really Threaten the Grid?

Does President Obama’s plan to squelch carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants really threaten the stability of the grid? That politically-charged question is scheduled for a high-profile airing today at a meeting in Washington to be telecast live starting at 9 am ET from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Such “technical meetings” at FERC are usually pretty dry affairs. But this one could be unusually colorful, presenting starkly conflicting views of lower-carbon living, judging from written remarks submitted by panelists.

On one side are some state officials opposed to the EPA Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut U.S. power sector emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. Susan Bitter Smith, Arizona’s top public utilities regulator, argues that EPA’s plan is “seriously jeopardizing grid reliability.” Complying with it would, she writes, cause “irreparable disruption” to Arizona’s (coal-dependent) power system.

Environmental advocates and renewable energy interests will be hitting back, challenging the credibility of worrisome grid studies wielded by Bitter Smith and other EPA critics. Some come from organizations that are supposed to be neutral arbiters of grid operation, such as the standards-setting North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). Clean energy advocates see evidence of bias and fear-mongering in these studies, and they are asking FERC to step in to assure the transparency and neutrality of future analyses. Continue reading