A Sound Approach to Climate Change
By Jennifer Taylor and Scott Gates
Discussions about global climate change inevitably include electric power generation. The reason: power plants that burn fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas produce more than 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year. That’s 39 percent of all man-made carbon dioxide, the largest single source of the principal greenhouse gas blamed for contributing to climate change.
As the climate change debate takes aim at power generation, electric cooperatives have a responsibility to keep policy makers in check, ensuring that the right solutions are developed and implemented in ways that keep the nation’s lights on in an affordable way.
The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a non-profit, utility-sponsored consortium whose members include electric co-ops, believes we can do just that. It has developed a technology-based framework that would achieve a 45 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions over the next 22 years while meeting growing demand for electricity.
“Technology is what it’s all about,” notes Glenn English, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned electric co-ops. “It gives electric cooperatives the opportunity to address climate change and, at the same time, generate the amount of power we need to meet the needs of our members.”
Even though demand for electricity is predicted to increase by 18 percent over the next decade, capacity to generate electricity will only increase by 8.4 percent, according to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a non-profit organization charged with monitoring America’s power system reliability. This means that unless new power plants and transmission facilities to carry the power are constructed, Americans will have to adjust to the almost unimaginable possibility of not having electricity available every time they flip on a switch.
What’s more, climate change legislation could have a dramatic effect on power generation and electric bills. Local, state and federal lawmakers are currently considering additional costs on power plants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, notably carbon dioxide.
EPRI’s analysis recognizes this reality and encourages aggressive new action in seven specific areas: boosting energy efficiency, improving the operating efficiency of advanced coal-fired power plants, investing in renewable energy, expanding nuclear power capacity, capturing carbon dioxide produced by coal-fired power plants and storing it deep underground, adding distributed generation resources and putting plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on the road.
The recommendations are sound, although implementing many of the ideas on a large scale will require a massive investment of government resources and mobilization of every sector of the economy. Making some technologies, notably carbon capture and storage, commercially viable will require expensive research and development – an estimated $1.4 billion per year through 2030. But Revis James, director of EPRI’s Energy Technology Assessment Center, feels confident that the overall goals can be met through a progression of milestones.
“Let’s suppose that as a society we want to send a man to Mars,” James says, providing an example of a project similar in scale. “Are we currently building rockets designed to go to Mars? Absolutely not. But we do have technology available now that will be valuable in getting there.”
James sees curbing carbon emissions in the same way. “Underlying research has already laid the foundation. We’ve got a good bedrock of current technology to build on in years to come.”
Energy efficiency stands as the most cost-effective approach for managing electricity use and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Steps include making simple modifications around a home or office, such as replacing insulation or caulking air leaks around doors and windows. Energy efficiency measures also reduce how much more generation needs to be built. Still, energy efficiency improvements will reduce electricity consumption by 9 percent over the next 22 years, according to EPRI.
New domestic renewable energy resources, such as wind, solar, hydro and biomass (including landfill gas, livestock waste, timber byproducts and crop residue), can help diversify our nation’s fuel mix, shrink dependency on foreign sources of energy, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. EPRI sees “green power,” led by wind energy, leaping from 2 percent of kilowatt-hours produced nationally today to 6.7 percent by 2030. Of course, transmission lines must be built to bring the power generated at remote wind farms, for example, to population centers.
Many more nuclear power plants will be needed to meet the growing demand for electricity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. EPRI proposes that roughly 12 two-unit nuclear plants come online in the United States by 2020, with two additional plants then added each year through 2030. On average, it takes 10 or more years to construct such a facility, including permitting. Presently, only four license applications for new nuclear reactors have been submitted to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, although many more are expected. Although nuclear plants supply 20 percent of the nation’s electricity, none have been ordered in the U.S. for about 30 years.
Advanced Coal Plant Efficiency
Presently, coal generates 50 percent of our country’s electricity and new technologies are being developed to improve plant efficiency and reduce carbon emissions. These new technologies must be implemented to improve coal plant operating efficiencies – finding ways to burn less coal and still produce the same amount of power.
Carbon Capture and Storage
Effective ways to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions can make coal – a readily available and affordable fuel – an integral part of the nation’s electricity supply. Research and development of carbon capture and storage technology will likely take years, if not decades, to come online – assuming the federal government provides sufficient funding.
Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles and Distributed Generation
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and small-scale power plants owned by consumers are also among EPRI’s solutions. In the first project of its kind, electric co-ops are testing whether plug-in hybrid electric vehicles can wean the nation off foreign oil, curb greenhouse gas emissions and increase off-peak electric sales. Distributed energy resources, such as ”backyard” wind and solar systems, as well as emergency generators, help electric co-ops reduce load during times of peak demand – the electric utility industry’s equivalent of rush-hour traffic and the time when power costs skyrocket – offset the need to build new power plants and transmission lines, and slash greenhouse gas emissions.
In coming months, a closer look at each of these seven areas will demonstrate how electric co-ops have emerged as industry leaders, all in their continuing efforts to provide safe, reliable and affordable power in an environmentally responsible manner.
Source: Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration; North American Electric Reliability Corporation; Electric Power Research Institute; National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus not-for-profit, consumer-owned electric co-ops.
Jennifer Taylor is writer of consumer and cooperative affairs and at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Scott Gates writes on technology and energy efficiency for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
© 2008 Illinois Country Living Magazine.