Energy and the Environment
Electricity generation is generally not one’s first priority when it comes to reading. However, I admit that I found it interesting when perusing Change.gov to find, among many, these three energy/environmental goals:
- Ensure 10 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025.
- Develop and deploy clean coal technology.
- Implement an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.
The first consideration is to ask what large energy sources are you going to replace? Nuclear (19.4%) and hydroelectric (6.0%) are more desirable than coal (48.5%) and natural gas (21.4%). It would appear that coal would be the main target to be replaced. In the chart below is a breakout of energy sources for the generation of electricity, measured in Gigawatt hours. A Gigawatt hour is a unit of electrical energy equal to one billion watt hours or one thousand megawatt hours. In 2007 the United States generated 4,166,507 Gigawatts of electricity which is enough power to light almost 8 billion 60 watt bulbs for a year.
Source: Energy Information Administration
25 Percent from Renewables by 2025
By examining current electricity generation we can determine how feasible the goals are. Let’s look at the first goal in our list. Hydro-electric and other renewables make up 8.5% of the total. A goal of 10% by 2012 would therefore be quite doable. There is nothing like an easy goal attained in the early stages of a project to give one energy to proceed to the next level. To reach a goal of 25% would take some effort. How likely in the current climate are new large hydroelectric projects? Not very encouraging. For example, consider the Glen Canyon Institute that wants to decommission Glen Canyon Dam. What about other renewable sources? Energy Information Administration (EIA) defines “other renewables” as:
Wood, black liquor, other wood waste, biogenic municipal solid waste, landfill gas, sludge waste, agriculture byproducts, other biomass, geothermal, solar thermal, photo-voltaic energy, and wind.
These sources would have to compete with coal. The levelized energy cost (LEC) is a cost of generating energy for a particular system. It is an economic assessment of the cost the energy-generating system including all the costs over its lifetime. Using the LEC, coal is seen as costing one half as much as wind power and a third as much as solar thermal. Photo-voltaics cost four times as much as coal. Clearly, if these goals are met we will be paying much more for our electricity. However, I do believe that advances in technology and economies of scale will close the gap.
Clean Coal Technology
Our second goal aims to improve coal, which is a wise move considering that it is responsible for almost half of electricity generation. It has been estimated that commercial-scale clean-coal power stations (coal-burning power stations with carbon capture and sequestration) cannot be commercially viable and widely adopted before 2020 or 2025. The concept of clean coal is said to be a solution to climate change and global warming by coal industry groups, while environmental groups maintain that it is a public relations tactic that presents coal as having the potential to be an environmentally acceptable option. Greenpeace is a major opponent of the concept because emissions and wastes are not avoided, but are transferred from one waste stream to another.
Whether clean coal technology makes coal more acceptable will remain to be seen. Because powerful environmental groups are opposing its use it seems that there will be as much progress in this arena as there is in building new dams.
The last goal again takes aim mostly at coal. A cap-and-trade program is often seen as a better approach than direct regulation or a carbon tax. For existing industries cap-and-trade can be cheaper because the initial allowances can be issued by taking into account the history of the emissions from that sector. Politically it can also be more appealing. Presumably most of the money is spent on environmental activities. However, there are critics:
The notion that emissions trading is going to make a significant dent in global warming is deeply flawed, they say. Current emissions-trading schemes have proved to be little more than a shell game, allowing polluters in the developed world to shift the burden of making cuts onto factories in the developing world. (“The Carbon Folly“, Newsweek, 2007)
Because 2050 is so far out anything is possible. We may well reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by that year. I would like to see smaller percentage goals for years closer at hand. That way, progress can be tracked and timely adjustments made to reach the goals.
The energy goals on Change.gov are commendable. I have only covered three of them. However, I would like to see a table with goals for each year, starting in 2009. Each goal would state clearly its objective, along with measurable data, including costs, to track progress. I would like to see nuclear power expanded. I have no objection to wind and solar power generation even though it is much more expensive than coal. I believe the costs of solar will decrease significantly. One goal that is missing is to greatly expand telecommuting where one moves bits and not bodies. And the best goal of all is: “I will be a little less fanatical about global warming this year.” Now that would really clear the air.