Bomb Cyclone Exposes Perry’s Subsidy Fallacy

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Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant: Looks good on a sunny blue sky day, but didn’t weather the storm. Photo: NRC

Extreme weather events have knocked both nuclear and coal-fired power plants offline in just the past six months, undercutting the Trump Administration’s argument that subsidizing these aging energy generators is crucial for bolstering grid stability.  The latest failure came late last week when Winter Storm Gregory forced a nuclear plant in New England offline, ratcheting up the challenge facing grid operators amidst the “bomb” cyclone’s high winds and freezing temperatures. Continue reading

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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

Ohio State Gets a Bead on Cleaner Coal

OSU cleaner coalOhio State University claims to have reached a milestone towards proving a radical new take on oxyfuel power generation that could push down the cost of zeroing out coal’s large and growing carbon footprint. Project director Liang-Shih Fan, director of OSU’s Clean Coal Research Laboratory, revealed recently that their reactor had operated for 203 continuous hours last fall and captured 99 percent of the resulting CO2.

Their run is the longest to date for a “chemical looping” reactor consuming coal, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, and in Fan’s view it means the technology is ready for testing at pilot scale.

OSU’s chemical looping reactor (the centerpiece for a $7.1 million ARPA-E project that began in 2010) is so named because it circulates its components in a continuous loop in a manner that controls the interaction of pulverized coal and oxygen to prevent ignition of the coal. “We carefully control the chemical reaction so that the coal never burns—it is consumed chemically, and the carbon dioxide is entirely contained inside the reactor,” says Fan. Continue reading

Winged Creatures Should Fear CO2, Not Wind Turbines

Benjamin Sovacool agrees that wind turbines kill birds and bats, but this University of Singapore public policy professor makes a convincing case that this fact desperately needs context. Reviewing avian mortality from power generation in the June issue of Energy Policy, Sovacool shows that — gigawatt-hour for gigawatt-hour — it is fossil-fired power by a longshot that will ground winged creatures.

Sovacool’s analysis estimates avian deaths throughout the fuel cycle for coal, oil and natural-gas fired power generation:

  • Coal mining = 0.02 deaths per gigawatt-hour (GWh). For example, habitat destruction by mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia has killed approximately 191,722 Cerulean Warblers.
  • Plant operations = 0.07 bird deaths/GWh. Electrocution at one well-observed power plant in Spain killed 467 birds over two years.
  • Acid rain = 0.05 deaths/GWh. Cornell’s Laboratory of Ornithology estimated in 2002 that acid rain reduced the U.S. wood thrush population by 2–5%.
  • Mercury emissions = 0.06 deaths/GWh. Impacts include hampered reproduction and survival, observed in everything from albatross and woodstorks to bald eagles. Continue reading

Giving FutureGen a Second Chance

FutureGen — the carbon-neutral coal power project initiated and then killed under the Bush Administration — looks increasingly likely to be resuscitated under President Obama after proponents met with Energy Secretary Steven Chu this week. There is now good reason to take a fresh look at this proposed coal gasification power plant which integrates carbon capture and storage (CCS) from the ground up.

Those words don’t come easy for this longtime FutureGen critic. But the context has changed since FutureGen was conceived in 2003, and even since Bush Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman killed it in January of 2008. While Energywise recently noted ongoing concern over FutureGen’s cost, here are five arguments that could justify heavy federal financing:

  • Project scope: In its early years FutureGen was viewed as a PR exercise because it framed carbon-neutral coal as a research project, positioning the use of commercially-ready Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle power plants as a moon-shot. Chu has indicated that the project would be streamlined. My sources say one element likely to go will be plans to generate fuel-cell grade hydrogen.
  • Financing: The most fundamental block to commercialization of IGCC technology was Bush’s refusal to put a price on carbon emissions, which thwarted even utilities such as AEP that wanted to build cleaner coal plants. Carbon pricing may arrive under Obama–if he can push it through Congress–but the financial collapse has now slashed utilities’ appetite to pore capital into big projects.

Continue reading

Gorilla in the Greenhouse Meets the Coal Machine

The Natural Resources Defense Council embarrassed the coal industry last week by acquiring and distributing video of Don Blankenship, CEO of number-four U.S. coal producer Massey Energy, proudly professing his continued denial that climate change is real. Now multimedia producer Jay Golden and environmental media firm SustainLane have released video that’s considerably more entertaining and, thus, potentially far more damaging: a high-energy, Scooby Doo-esque production called “Turn It Up Day” from their savvy Gorilla in the Greenhouse cartoon series:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

I heartily endorse the review by online videobiz blog NewTeeVee, which calls Gorilla in the Greenhouse “genuinely entertaining and informative”:

Green gorilla KJ is an enigmatic environmental savant, telling the future through riddles that the kids who share his greenhouse must solve in order to ward off threats to the planet. (And in their spare time, they have a rock band. Of course.)

In the 7-minute episode released last week, the Green Gorillas gang exposes the blend of complacency and deception that allows our civilization to literally chew through mountains in search of the coal that fuels half of U.S. electricity production. With sage advice from KJ and a little follow-the-wire detective work, the kids trace the cause-and-effect connections between their own profligate energy use, the ‘turn it up’ hype embedded in popular media, and mountaintop removal mining.

As NewTeeVee put’s it, the Green Gorillas’ 2nd episode “fires on all cylinders”:

It teaches complex issues in a digestible way; it shows the characters taking practical action; and it even goes a little deeper, teaching kids to not buy into the hype about something just because it calls itself green, but to really learn about what’s going on behind the scenes.

My favorite character is the talking worm that plays the coal baron, Wormulus, who delivers several crucial Seussian rhymatribes. His malicious gloating opens the show: “My Wormulator chops the rocks, making loads of watts per hour. So They get their precious energy, but it’s Me who gets the power!” Later his willful deception is exposed in this dialogue with Dr. Morlon Hufflebot, whose brain Wormulus inhabits: “Our robot tears at the Earth as fast as it can,” says Hufflebot. “It’s a cause and effect they don’t understand,” says Wormulus.

Kentucky author, poet and social critic Wendell Berry noted how hard it is for people to connect power use and coal mining when he spoke at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ conference in Roanoke, VA this fall. He also told a poignant Christmas tale of direct action that helped me make the connection. Recalling a holiday season advertisement years ago by the coal industry with the message, “We dig coal to light your tree,” Berry said he never again allowed an electrified Christmas tree in his home. The tale struck a nerve: I’ve been avoiding escalators ever since.

AND NOW A NOTE FROM OUR SPONSOR: The 800-pound savant in Gorilla in the Greenhouse, KJ, is in no way related to the Green Gorilla power spray system, highlighted last week as a “special gift for the gardener in your life” by Canada’s Financial Post. That Green Gorilla puts an end to hand pumping garden sprays thanks to its rechargable lithium ion-powered pressurizer. “No more sore arms and sore backs,” assures the Post. It’s a steal at C$71.95! (Solar charging kit not included.) Or buy direct and get the dual-tank bundle for just US$94.99! (With separate tanks for your herbicides and insecticides you’ll “never cross contaminate again”!)

Season’s Greenings from Carbon-Nation!

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

Should Carbon Capture Capture Carbon Credits?

Click image to see IEA's Nobuo Tanaka zeroing in on CCS at Poznan

Click image to see IEA's Tanaka on CCS at Poznan

International climate change negotiators gathered in Poznan, Poland to draft a follow-on to the Kyoto protocol appear to have rejected the talks’ most controversial proposal: giving a big boost to carbon capture and storage (CCS), whereby carbon dioxide produced by coal-fired power plants is trapped deep underground. The proposal was to award carbon credits to developing countries that installed CCS equipment — credits that they could then sell to industrialized nations or companies — but this morning opponents successfully tabled the proposal until next June, according to climate policy blog Climatico.

Countries pushing the credits-for-CCS proposal included Japan, Norway, Australia and Canada. All are major coal consumers eyeing CCS to meet their own greenhouse gas reduction targets and/or oil and gas producers that could dual-purpose captured CO2 for enhanced oil recovery. Japan and Canada also figure among the nations furthest behind in meeting emissions cuts mandated by the Kyoto protocol, and could be big buyers of CCS-generated carbon credits.

International Energy Agency executive director Nobuo Tanaka had also added his support (see video). Tanaka calls credits a means of accelerating development of capture and sequestration technologies, which the IEA sees as crucial to control emissions in countries such as China that will remain heavily dependent on coal for decades to come. “These technologies need all the financial help they can get,” says Tanaka.

But the idea remained red-hot among the climate activists swarming Poznan this week as it unites a controversial technology with an already controversial program. They see carbon sequestration as a potentially risky technology that could delay the transition from coal to solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy. Meanwhile the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which manages the awarding of carbon credits to developing nations, attracts scorn from those who see carbon trading as a numbers game by which countries will avoid making real emissions cuts.

Many question whether emissions cuts certified for millions of dollars worth of credits under the CDM wouldn’t have occurred anyway — whether they offer ‘additionality’ in the UN lingo flowing in Poland this week.

The UN acknowledged possible problems after spot-checking a leading CDM certification firm and identifying a series of “non-conformities” in its auditing practices. The firm, DNV Certification AS, was suspended but insists it is addressing the concerns identified to regain its accreditation.

Poznan’s ministerial-level talks start tomorrow and should wrap up Friday. Unless they pop CCS back onto the agenda the credits proposal will be stalled until next June’s followup meeting in Bonn. That meeting is a prelude to the big game that will define global energy policy: final negotiations and, if all goes as planned, the signing of a ‘Kyoto II’ treaty in Copenhagen next December.

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This post was created for the Technology Review Editors Blog: Insights, opinions and analysis of the latest in emerging technologies