How much should carbon cost in power generation? At a modest $30 per ton, $2 million in Ontario for one day’s output from “clean” fuel

On February 4, 2013, Ontario gas-fired power generation plants emitted 63,667 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main man-made greenhouse gas, into Earth’s atmosphere. Table 2 in the left-hand sidebar gives a running total by generating fuel since midnight on today’s date.

Baffin Island’s east coast, as seen from Davis Strait. Massive emissions of man-made CO2 are destroying scenes like this. These sights were once commonplace during airplane flights along the east coast of Baffin. But because mankind has dumped so much carbon dioxide into our air, glaciers like the one on the right will stop flowing into Davis Strait. They will instead melt, and disappear forever.

I watched the documentary Chasing Ice yesterday. It is stunning and powerful. It brought back fond memories of my time in the Canadian arctic, when as an employee of First Air I regularly saw spectacular sheets of ancient ice flowing into Davis Strait. Chasing Ice documents, with amazing photographs and live footage, the currently occurring rapid demise of what used to be viewed as permanent ice. The photographer, James Balog, is certain that the rapid recession of glaciers is due to the increased CO2 from human activities.

Since beginning this blog, I have followed the carbon dioxide emission pricing schemes in the European Union and the U.S. northeast. These schemes, the European Emission Trading System (ETS) and Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), are mostly about the CO2 emissions related to electric power generation. The idea is ostensibly to make fossil fuel use expensive, and thereby compel electric utilities to invest in non-emitting generation technology. In reality, the aim of those who developed and implemented the ETS and RGGI was simply to expand the market for natural gas, a CO2-emitting fossil fuel.

Gas-fired power generation emits somewhat less CO2 than coal-fired. Evidently, the ETS and RGGI designers prefer “somewhat less CO2” to “no CO2 at all.” That is because the only power generation technology that can replace coal in mature power markets is nuclear. The ETS and RGGI designers are anti-nuclear.

This should be no surprise, considering that the main impetus for the ETS came from Germany and the main impetus for RGGI came from the state governments of the U.S. northeast. Two of the latter—Vermont and New York—are overtly anti-nuclear; their governors have chosen that position as a matter of electoral political advantage. It is similar with Germany: the ETS came into being during the chancellorship of Gerhard Schroeder, who was forced, when forming his initial coalition government in the late 1990s, to adopt an anti-nuclear policy.

This is why the ETS and RGGI carbon prices are so low as to be meaningless to anybody except carbon market profiteers. The ETS and RGGI are little more than public relations schemes, designed to give the public the impression that something is being done.

But as you can see in Chasing Ice, and hear in Jeff Beck’s lament from 1989, nothing is being done.

It has been 24 years since Beck’s observation. How much CO2 has been dumped into Earth’s atmosphere in those 24 years? And how much should it have cost?

Some have called for a $30 per ton tax on CO2 emissions. If such a tax were in place today, gas-fired generators in Ontario would have paid $1.91 million for their emissions on February 4 2013.

That cost would have been ultimately borne by electricity ratepayers, of course. Which would lead some at least to wonder why, with such expensive emissions, Ontario’s nuclear plants, which emit zero CO2, were ordered to run only at 83 percent capacity, when running at upwards of 95 percent would have spared Earth’s atmosphere from tens of thousands of metric tons of CO2 and Ontario ratepahers from nearly $2 million in taxes over that day.

[Note: my claim in the last paragraph, that the nuclear plants “were ordered to run only at 83 percent… ” is incorrect. This sentence should have read “Which would lead some at least to wonder why, with such expensive emissions, Ontario’s nuclear plants, which emit zero CO2, are not being expanded beyond the current capacity.”]

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Steve Foster
10 years ago

Steve: Are you serious? Nuclear plants have been ordered to *throttle* mean capacity factor? Do you have any references for that?

It would be truly scandalous to have zero-carbon plants, producing thousands of MW at 5 cents/kwh, forced to slow-down to make room for emissions spewing plants that produce power for double or triple that price! W.T.F.!!

Please say it aint so.

10 years ago

I like to answer questions with questions:

How much should it cost, to accomplish what purpose?

If the purpose is deemed important, you’d think that other measures would be taken such as re-writing or eliminating counterproductive and punitive regulations.

If the purpose is to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels, obviously this is a question to be answered empirically.  You keep the price going up until the emissions start heading down at the necessary rate.

10 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

The point I love to keep making is that if they really wanted to cut carbon emissions, they’d subsitute nuclear electric generation for coal and natural gas, push electric for space heating and water heating also, then re-purpose the natural gas as vehicle fuel to slash the emissions compared to petroleum fuels (and eliminate the upstream refinery emissions).

10 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

that would take foresight and backbone.

Or scientific literacy, but that’s also in short supply among pols (and even their staffs).

10 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

“Ontario’s Ministry of Environment is considering a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction program that may include the trading of allowances or offsets.”