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

February 4, 2013
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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.”]

8 Responses to 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

  1. Steve Foster
    February 4, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    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.

    • February 5, 2013 at 12:08 pm

      Steve, good eye. I’ll have to indeed say it wasn’t so, for Feb. 4 2013 anyway, when my data indicate that the operational units in the nuclear fleet did not throttle but ran flat out with no capability factor less than 99 percent. I somehow got “83 percent” stuck in my head — must be from the most recent SBG event in which this was indeed the case, and mixed it up with nuclear outages.

  2. February 5, 2013 at 7:42 pm

    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.

    • February 6, 2013 at 8:03 am

      exactly. Look at the stated aims of both the ETS and RGGI. It is in both schemes to lower CO2 emissions. Get into the fine print, and you see that it is to lower the CO2 emissions per kWh to that of gas-fired generation. Fine, if the only two options are coal and gas.

      But the deeper problem is the political wiggle room that was written into the rules governing emission allocations. In the ETS, national governments approve or disapprove companies’ projections for the upcoming year; Brussels bureaucrats then approve the national government estimates. Lots of avenues for lobbying against really strict caps on emissions. This has led to systematic over estimation of CO2 allocations, i.e., built-in moral hazard. Hence the low carbon price. The only reason this has not been outed as the scam that it is is because of the demand destruction due to the recession, which has been portrayed as successful emission reduction efforts.

      Exactly the same thing with RGGI — look at the GHG allowance price: $1.87 per freaking short ton. This allows governors like Shumlin (Vermont) and Cuomo (New York) to point up emission reduction efforts when in reality this has had no effect on meaningful investment decisions.

      The politicians behind these two systems don’t want prices that are too high. High prices would make nuclear an absolute no-brainer.

      • February 6, 2013 at 11:55 am

        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).

        • February 6, 2013 at 12:31 pm

          Yes, but that would take foresight and backbone. It seems easier to listen to DBFEs (D**che Bags for the Environment) — i.e. every “green” NGO — who prescribe compact fluorescents and bag bans while hitting up oil and gas companies for CSR consulting gigs.

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Item 1: if Ontario did not have its nuclear generating fleet, last hour’s CO2 emissions would have been AT LEAST:

5,841 metric tons, and the CIPK would have been 392.3 grams

Item 2: Since prorogation of the Ontario legislature on October 15, 2012, provincial gas-fired generating plants have dumped this much CO2 into our air:

14,320,564 metric tons. This is a running total. Every hour, the total increases by the amount of Gas CO2 given in Table 1.

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