EPA’s New Carbon Rule Doesn’t Do Much in CA

California enacted similar limits to pollution from power plants in 2006

The EPA's new rule limits carbon emissions from new power plants nationwide.

The US Environmental Protection Agency will, for the first time, begin restricting greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants. The EPA’s new standard limits how many pounds of carbon can be emitted per megawatt-hour of electricity generated. It doesn’t apply to existing power plants or to new plants that have already been permitted, and natural gas-powered plants should be able to meet the standard without changes. But coal-powered plants will no longer make the cut without adding carbon capture and sequestration technology.

This won’t have much of an effect on California’s energy industry, Dave Clegern from the California Air Resources Board told me, though he’s not complaining. “It’s always good to see a national standard, and we’re glad the EPA is doing it.”

Former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a similar standard for power plants in California back in 2006. The state gets very little electricity from coal-powered plants, and the coal-fired power California residents do use comes from outside of California.

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California’s Dirty Secret: The Five Coal Plants Supplying Our Electricity

The “invisible” fossil fuel that may be powering your lifestyle

The Navajo Generating Station is coal-fired power plant in Arizona, just outside the Grand Canyon National Park. It's one of two coal plants that supplies more than 40% of Los Angeles' power.

Here in California, you hear a lot about our “green” reputation.  We have one of the most ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals in the country, and the state is certainly a hotbed for new solar and wind energy investments and installations. We also have a law that says electricity providers have to get 33% of their power from renewable sources by 2020.

So… you might be surprised to hear that coal — that’s right, dirty ol’ coal — is still very much a part of the power supply in parts of Southern California. If you’re one of the 1.4 million residents of Los Angeles who gets power from the city’s Department of Water and Power, about 40% of your electricity comes from coal.

But how’s that possible?  Here in California, we don’t have much in the way of coal deposits, and no significant coal power plants. But we do have several public utilities that own portions of out-of-state coal power plants, and that entitles them to lots of less-than-clean, coal-fired energy. Continue reading

Capturing Carbon in California

CoalPlantLauren Sommer’s two-part radio series on carbon capture in California airs this week on The California Report. You can also view her slide show at the end of this post.

The idea seems simple enough: In order to get energy, we burn carbon. In most cases, that carbon comes out of the ground in the form of natural gas or coal. So instead of releasing the resulting carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, why not put it back into the ground?

Of course, carbon capture and storage/sequestration (CCS) is much more complicated than that. Nonetheless it’s a strategy that’s being pursued aggressively by both international leaders and US Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who would like to see it deployed in ten years.

There are obstacles on both the “capture” and “storage” side of the equation. In terms of technology, however, “storage” is much further along, thanks to the oil and gas industry, which is already using CO2 in oil recovery. Injecting compressed CO2 into oil fields forces more oil to the surface in a process known as enhanced oil recovery. As many in the industry will remind you, they have three decades of experience doing this.

Keeping it underground is another matter. In the western US, the West Coast Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership (WestCarb) is setting up a number of pilot projects to study how CO2 can be safely stored underground. As Technical Director Larry Myer explained to me, one of the primary goals is to simply work out the regulatory, siting, and liability issues.

As with any waste issue, choosing the site is the most important–and often most difficult–issue. California’s Central Valley has plenty of underground saline aquifers and depleted oil and gas fields that could hold CO2. But the trick is finding a site where the geology can securely store it and where there’s little risk of groundwater contamination. On the plus side, scientists know that CO2 is slowly immobilized underground, which lessens the risk over time. But how long that takes is still under study.

As for the “capture” issue, there are three ways to separate CO2 from power plant emissions.

  • In today’s Climate Watch story, I describe Oxyfuel technology, in which natural gas is burned in pure oxygen. Since the outputs are steam and carbon dioxide, the CO2 can be easily siphoned off. But that requires building new power plants from scratch.
  • The second option seeks to deal with the carbon dioxide before the fuel is burned; a “pre-combustion” approach. Or for all you wonks out there: Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC). The downside to this process is that it requires gobs of energy, which makes it expensive.
  • Finally, there’s the “post-combustion” approach. That’s where the CO2 is “scrubbed” from flue gas after the fuel is burned. Existing plants can be retrofitted with this technology, but it also comes with large energy penalty, just like IGCC.

A price on carbon, through either a cap-and-trade system or carbon tax, would change the economic case for CCS, but there are a lot of strikes against the technology. So why pursue it?

The argument goes like this: In order to achieve steep emissions cuts–say an 80% reduction worldwide by 2050–it may be an important tool (or stabilization wedge).  The world will continue to use fossil fuels in the near term and despite the enormous growth of renewable energy, it’s still a drop in the bucket. That’s why many believe that CCS is a crutch the world needs to wean ourselves from fossil fuels.

Stanford Studies Clean Coal Tech for China

coal_blogChina, the world’s largest emitter of CO2, is the focus of a new $2 million investment in clean coal technology research by  Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP).

The project will fund research into large-scale carbon sequestration in underground geological formations. China relies heavily on coal for electricity generation and in 2006 was reported to be building the equivalent of one new coal-fired power plant every week.

“China is growing so rapidly, and if they’re going to be able to lower their emissions, they are going to need a whole suite of technologies,” said Sally Benson, director of GCEP.  “They are doing a lot with solar technologies and energy efficiency but China is not abandoning coal.  So, we’re looking for ways they can reduce their emissions from coal.”

The three-year project is an international collaboration among the University of Southern California (USC), Peking University (PKU) and China University of Geosciences at Wuhan (CUG). It will focus on the technical aspects of stashing carbon in saline aquifers, such as chemical reactions between the rock and carbon and understanding what portions of the aquifers can actually be filled up.  The research will involve 39 scientists and students, and will integrate geological modeling, reservoir simulation and laboratory experiments.   The results may shed needed light on China’s overall carbon storage potential.

“Saline aquifers have been shown to have the biggest storage capacity across the world,” said Benson, “and China has a tremendous need.”

China’s not the only country with a tremendous need.  As the second largest emitter of CO2 (and still bigger than China per capita), the United States has yet to deploy large-scale CCS. Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $27.6 million in new funding for 19 projects exploring potential carbon storage technologies.

No Country for “Clean Coal?”

An activist group led by the Alliance for Climate Protection has crafted another national TV ad aimed at debunking “the clean coal myth,” this one directed by Hollywood legends Joel & Ethan Coen (directors of No Country for Old Men, in case you’re still puzzling over my obscure headline).

Produced by The Reality Coalition, the ad depicts a pitchman touting a fictional product called “Clean Coal” air freshener. He’s inter-cut with shots of a family spraying what looks like coal dust out of an aerosol can and coughing. The spot ends with the coalition’s stock text message: “In reality, there is no such thing as ‘clean coal.'” The best line in the mock ad, though, is when the pitchman explains that the product “harnesses the awesome power of the word ‘clean,'” the implication being that saying something is clean doesn’t make it so.

Former Vice President Al Gore has been on the stump for some time, carrying the same message; that clean-coal technology “doesn’t exist.” Reality Coalition spokesman Brian Hardwick goes farther than that. He claims that not only does it not exist but the industry isn’t doing much to make it reality. A separate analysis by the Center for American Progress pegged the research commitment by U.S. coal companies to carbon capture technology at about $3.5 billion “over several years,” compared to combined profits of $57 billion in just one year (2007).

The clean-coal debate is relevant to Californians. Mostly through imported power, coal provides more than 16% of the electricity we use. And as I mentioned in my radio segment for The California Report, China is counting on the U-S to develop technology to allow them to burn coal “cleanly.”

While clever, the ad does kind of miss the climate connection. It seems to be aimed at particulate pollution rather than the unseen emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. Hardwick responded to that critique by saying that “Truly clean coal would have to mitigate all the (environmental) issues” involved in burning the fuel. Still, it’s a source of potential confusion for viewers unclear about the distinctions among greenhouse gases, ozone-depleting gases and local air quality issues.

“Is the Planet Just Doomed?”

3117211300_7c2dceccac_m.jpgThe world needs to completely phase out coal emissions over the next 20 years to avoid climate disaster, James Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS) told a room packed with several hundred people at the AGU conference in San Francisco on Wednesday.

An immediate moratorium on new coal use that does not capture CO2 and phasing out of all other coal emissions by 2030 is the path to reach a target for CO2 emissions of 350 parts per million (ppm) identified in a new study led by Hansen. Previously, Hansen has said that the dangerous level for CO2 was likely to be 450 ppm or higher, but in light of new observations and analysis of ‘slow’ feedback processes like ice melt and greenhouse gas release from the ocean and soil, the study team revised that projection.

Unfortunately for the world, current atmospheric CO2 levels are already at 385 ppm.

(Hansen, a well-known climatologist, received a lot of publicity in 2005 and 2006 over his assertions that NASA administrators tried to censor his public statements about the causes of climate change.)

“We’ve got to get politicians to understand that it is more serious, and we’re at a more critical stage, than they seem to understand,” said the scientist. “No one is doing anything even close to what’s needed, even those countries who appear to be the most serious.”

Hansen’s colleague Pushker Kharecha acknowledged in an earlier lecture that phasing out coal over the next 20 years would be a “Herculean” task, but that it is possible, and necessary. Even if the world comes together to meet this goal, atmospheric CO2 would peak at 400-425ppm before gradually declining with the help of reforestation and other efforts.

Hansen warned that because of certain feedback loops, there will be no escape from “The Venus Syndrome” – runaway global warming – once the climate reaches certain tipping points. We may have already reached the tipping point with the Arctic sea ice which has decreased dramatically, he said. Other indicators he cited are a quadrupling of wildfires in American West over the last 30 years and the rapid retreat of glaciers, which he predicted will have disappeared within 50 years under a “business as usual” scenario.

All of this led one member of the audience to ask the question in everyone’s mind:

“Is the planet just doomed?”

To that Hansen replied that some human causes actually have slowed, such as CFCs and methane, and that there are technologies worth exploring like burning nuclear waste. Then he added, “I think we’ll solve the problem, but we need to tell the truth that it does require a carbon price. Politicians are not willing to do this.”

I can’t say I found his answer especially reassuring.

Life After Oil

3116043117_9bdc0bc414_m.jpgScientists at the American Geophysical Union conference made it clear on Wednesday that if peak oil isn’t here now, it’s coming very soon. The US reached its peak in 1971, and according to NASA scientist Warren Wiscombe, most estimates place the global oil production peak between 2000 and 2017. While surely problematic for industry, transportation, and agriculture, could peak oil actually be a good thing from a climate perspective? Burning less oil has got to be good for getting CO2 emissions down, right?

Well, that all depends on what we do.

Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford says that oil is actually only a second tier concern when it comes to climate change because there’s not enough of it left to sustain CO2 levels at dangerous levels for very long. The real impacts will depend on how we replace oil as it disappears.

“Coal is the big bear on the block,” said Caldeira. “As we approach the end of oil, will we choose coal or will we choose low carbon technologies?”

Coal may be cheap and abundant, as the coal lobby would have us know, but replacing oil with coal-derived fuels would actually increase global CO2 emissions, according to Caldeira. Not only is coal a “dirtier” fuel than oil (coal emits more C02 per unit of energy than oil does), but there are also greenhouse gases emitted in the process of liquification.

Caldeira spoke on Wednesday at the AGU conference about his recent study examining what could happen to the climate if we ran out of oil today. He created two scenarios, one where we replace oil with coal, and one where we replace oil with renewables. Both scenarios assume we continue to use coal for the same purposes that we do today.  Under the oil-to-coal scenario, carbon emissions will actually increase, causing global temperatures to rise three years sooner than predicted under the Intergovernmetal Panel on Climate Change’s A2 scenario, increasing by 3.6 degrees F by 2042 instead of 2045. In his second scenario, where oil is replaced with renewables such as wind, solar, and nuclear, however, the same temperature rise would be delayed 11 years, to 2056.

“Addressing the climate problem means addressing the coal problem,” said Caldeira. “Most future climate change will be the result of burning coal in absence of policy.”