Action Alert: The Union of concerned scientists is asking that we sign a petition to oppose the building of additional dirty coal plants
Here is some background on why this is important.
Right now, there are plans in place to build up to 150 new coal fired electricity plants in the United States by 2030. While these plants will emit only a tiny fraction of the sulfur dioxide, mercury, and nitrogen oxides of older style plants, they emit only 15 percent less CO2, mostly through increased efficiency. None of these plants are designed to capture CO2, or easy to retrofit as carbon capture technologies improve. Burning coal for electricity produces 32% of the CO2 emmitted in the U.S. If these new plants are all built, the US will be increasing the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere no matter what else we do. From Architecture 2030
If every household in the US changed a 60-watt incandescent light bulb to a compact fluorescent… The CO2 emissions from just two medium-sized coal-fired power plants each year would negate this entire effort.
That is JUST ONE PLANT - and we are talking about 150!
CO2 is one of the main greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. While a lot has been written on global warming and the potentially devastating effects, every new piece of news tells us it is worse than we thought. Scientific American reports on some recent research done by geologist Darrell Kaufman of Northern Arizona University and a consortium of colleagues. The team analyzed 14 sediment cores from arctic lakes and compared the results with ice cores and tree rings.
In warm summers, relatively more sediment is deposited thanks to from the glaciers that create these lakes, and the abundance of algae in the sediment layers reveals the length of growing seasons. So, these sediment cores provide a picture of the climate that goes back millennia.
Combining this analysis with tree ring and ice core studies done previously, yields a fairly detailed climate history. The result? There has been a 2000 year cooling trend due to variations in the Earth’s orbit.
As the Earth has moved slightly further away from the sun due to vagaries in its orbit—it’s roughly 600,000 miles further away now than in 1 C.E.—some parts of the Arctic received as much as 6 watts per meter squared less sunlight than in 1 C.E. That, in turn, has led to a cooling rate of roughly 0.2 degrees Celsius per 1,000 years. But at some point in the 20th century, that trend stopped and reversed…. In the past decade, summertime Arctic temperatures have been 1.4 degrees Celsius higher on average than would be expected and 1.2 degrees Celsius higher than in 1900. And the Arctic is merely the trendsetter—the northern-most latitudes are among the fastest-warming parts of the globe due to various feedbacks. For example, melting Arctic sea ice exposes more ocean, which in turn absorbs more of the sunlight’s warmth and further increases warming… (the) cooling trend wouldn’t have reversed naturally for at least another 4,000 years. Yet, despite this decline, Arctic temperatures have soared and the most likely culprit is the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from fossil fuel burning, forest clearing and other human activity, Kaufmann and his colleagues wrote.
OK – So here is where we are at. Solar activity (and yes, that includes sunspots) should be taking us cooler. Instead we are warming at an ever increasing rate. How bad is the warming?
“The most recent 10-year interval (1999–2008) was the warmest of the past 200 decades,” they wrote. “Temperatures were about 1.4 degrees C higher than the projected values based on the linear cooling trend and were even more anomalous than previously documented.”
And this warming can have catastrophic consequences. According to a recent report by the WWF delivered at the World Climate Conference-3, hosted by the World Meteorological Organization.
The combination of thawing Arctic sea ice and melting ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica is likely to raise global sea levels by about 1.2 meters (four feet) by 2100, more than previously thought, the report warns. “The associated flooding of coastal regions will affect more than a quarter of the world’s population,” the WWF said.
How bad is the arctic warming? For the first time in history, commercial frieght ships have taken the NorthEast Passage, the Arctic Sea route, from Norway all the way to Korea.
“It is global warming that enables us to think about using that route,” Verena Beckhusen, a spokeswoman for the shipping company, the Beluga Group of Bremen, Germany, said in a telephone interview.
So, in light of all this, why are we building over 150 new coal fired electric plants?
Ultimately, the reason for the “coal rush” going on in the midwest is economic.
Utility executives say that the coal expansion is needed to meet rising electricity demand as the U.S. population and economy grow. Coal-fired plants provide half the electricity supply in the country.
“A lot of congressmen ask me, ‘Dave, why are you building that coal plant?’ ” says MidAmerican’s Sokol. “And I say, ‘What are my options?’ “
Coal is an attractive option, because the US has at supply of Coal that will last for at least 100 years:
“There is probably sufficient coal to meet the nation’s needs for more than 100 years at current rates of consumption,” the study said. “However, it is not possible to confirm the often-quoted assertion that there is a sufficient supply of coal for the next 250 years.”
And the scale of these new plants can be huge
The new $1.1 billion MidAmerican facility will be one of the nation’s biggest, with 790 megawatts of capacity. Its boilers and pulverizers will devour 400 tons of coal every hour, 3.5 million tons a year, Sokol says. Combined with an existing plant next door, it will require a fresh train of coal every 16 to 17 hours; each train will be nearly 1.5 miles long and lug 135 cars about 650 miles from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.
Aside from the environmental damage done by the mining of this much coal, these new firing up these plants will add a lot of carbon to the atmosphere, significantly worsening global warming.
As the power executive asks, “What are the options?”
Option 1 – Conservation and efficiency. Among other things, it has been estimated that 5% of all electricity is wated by vampire electronics.
Option 2- Renewables - Currently, less than 10% of electrical generation comes from renewable sources, and the bulk of that is hydroelectric. Less than 2% comes from wind and solar. Clearly. we can do a lot more. Can we meet Al Gore’s challenge to meet 100% of our electricity generation from renewables by 2018, not at the rate we are going, but we can do a lot more.
Option 3 Nuclear – Many people think nuclear power is an option, but safety concerns alone mean that nuclear should not be an option, and that leaves…
Option 4 – Coal – Given the economics of energy today, it is almost certain that coal will play a major role in electricity generation for some time to come.
”The notion is that the sooner we wean ourselves off fossil fuels, the sooner we’ll be able to tackle the climate problem,” said Sally Benson, executive director of the Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP) and professor of energy resources engineering. ”But the idea that we can take fossil fuels out of the mix very quickly is unrealistic. We’re reliant on fossil fuels, and a good pathway is to find ways to use them that don’t create a problem for the climate.”
For coal, it seems one of the best possible paths is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), also referred to as sequestration, CCS involves
capturing the CO2 from coal-fired power plants, compressing it into a liquid and injecting it deep beneath the earth into old oil fields or saline aquifers. There, according to geologists, the CO2 would be trapped by sealing cap rock to prevent it from seeping back to the surface and into the air.
But there are numerous problems with CCS. Even the strongest supporters acknowledge that the technology is still young, and that there are many unanswered questions. For example, from the Union of Concerned Scientists
For CCS to play a major role in reducing CO2 emissions, an enormous new infrastructure must be constructed to capture, process, and transport large quantities of CO2. And although CCS has been the subject of considerable research and analysis, it has yet to be demonstrated in the form of commercial-scale, fully integrated projects at coal-fired power plants.
Such demonstration projects are needed to determine the relative cost-effectiveness of CCS compared with other carbon-reducing strategies, and to assess its environmental safety—particularly at the very large scale of deployment needed for CCS to contribute significantly to the fight against global warming.
Among the questions needed to be resolved before CCS can be implemented on a wide scale:
1. What are the best techniques for capturing the carbon? There are several promising technologies for carbon storage, but none have been used on a commercial scale. Will they work on that scale? What will the cost be?
2. Can the Carbon be transported large distances to storage sites safely, and economically? Again, what is the cost?
3. Will long term underground storage of carbon work, or will there be leaks?
One of the most promising new technologies is integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC). In this technology, coal is transformed into gas. The solid waste is seperated and stored. The gas powers a turbine, and the excess gas fires a steam generator.
It is very promising, but these technologies are not proven on a commercial scale.
What we need is to do the following
1. Stop the construction of dirty coal plants
2. Expedite research on the new clean coal technologies. Build commercial sized pilot plants
3. Once we have settled on technologies that work, we can expedite the building of new plants.
This was one of the scenarios laid out by McKinsey in their report Carbon Capture and Storage, Assessing the Economics.
Time is running shorter. We need to act soon, if we are going to have a chance to prevent the potential catastrophies we face. Sign the petition, please.