Reducing carbon pollution from electric power generation: what works?

It has been more than sixteen years since the famous and infamous Kyoto Protocol. In signing Kyoto, 37 countries and the EU committed to reducing emissions of man-made carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal greenhouse gas pollutant. In those sixteen years, many countries, especially Germany, took the Protocol seriously—so seriously that they led efforts to reduce their national carbon footprints. How have those efforts paid off?

Let’s find out. Let’s look at the power generation sector: it gets most of the attention when it comes to reducing carbon pollution. This is because power plants are large non-moving combustion engines that produce electricity, and electricity is a major public issue. For this reason, it is a natural low-hanging fruit. Approached properly, addressing power generation CO2 could yield enormous reductions in emissions of the man-made gas.

The formidable carbon dioxide (CO) molecule, one of mankind’t toughest chemical engineering challenges. Too much of our electricity puts too many of these highly stable molecules into the air. There are ways we humans can live our lives without producing nearly so much CO. Making electricity with nuclear energy is the most obvious.

The formidable carbon dioxide (CO2) molecule, one of mankind’s toughest chemical engineering challenges. Too much of our electricity puts too many of these highly stable molecules into the air. There are ways we humans can live our lives without producing nearly so much CO2. Making electricity with nuclear energy is the easiest, least disruptive, and most obvious.

So: how effective have been the efforts to cut power plant CO2? There are two pieces of information you need in order to judge this. These are:

  1. The price of electricity.
  2. The carbon content of that electricity.

Ideally, you would want electricity to be low-carbon and cheap. Actually, low carbon and cheap is the only viable option. If electricity is high carbon (i.e., dirty) and cheap, well that is why there was a Kyoto Protocol to begin with. The dirtiest but cheapest electricity there is comes from coal-fired power plants. Coal was the fuel that drove the Industrial Revolution, but it is not outdated as some claim. It remains even today the unchallenged King of Power Generation in most of the world’s major economies.

Those economies include the enthusiastically pro-Kyoto Germany. Germany, in spite of all the Kyoto talk, still gets a big chunk of its electricity from coal-fired plants. The OECD estimates that in 2012, Germany made 43 percent of its 617 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity using coal (see Electricity Information 2013, p. IV.323). This contributed to a CIPK of around 570 grams per kilowatt-hour for German grid electricity.

What is the CIPK, and how is it calculated?
CIPK stands for CO2 Intensity Per Kilowatt-hour. It is a measure of the carbon content of a kilowatt hour of grid electricity.

The CIPK of a given grid is simply the amount of CO2 emitted by the generating plants that feed the grid with electricity, divided by the total amount of electricity fed, over a given hour. Of course, you have to know both of these figures.

Here is how to calculate Ontario’s grid CIPK. You need to refer to Table 1, in the upper left-hand sidebar on this page. Table 1 gives the current Ontario grid generation mix (it draws from data published at www.ieso.ca), and the CO2 emissions associated with the emitting fuel types.

  1. Go to the Total row in Table 1.
  2. Take the figure from the CO2, tons column.
  3. While still in the Total row, now take the figure in the MWh column.
  4. Divide the CO2, tons figure by the MWh figure.
  5. Multiply that result by 1,000. This converts tons-per-megawatt-hour into grams per kilowatt-hour.

Try it!

There is an unavoidable consequence to Germany’s massive use of fossil-fired and especially coal-fired power generation. That consequence is, Germany’s grid electricity comes with a very high CIPK: I estimate about 570 grams in 2012. Ontario’s CIPK is typically less than 100 grams—see Table 1 in the left-hand sidebar for last hour’s CIPK of Ontario grid electricity.

And what price are Germans paying for that dirty electricity? In electric power generation, there are four combinations of carbon content and price. Here’s a matrix that summarizes these combinations:

Clean price quadrant

The ideal, as mentioned above, is to have electricity that is low-carbon and cheap. That happy situation is represented in Quadrant IV in the Carbon-Price Matrix, highlighted in yellow.

The absolute worst outcome is to be sitting in Quadrant II: to have electricity that is high-carbon (dirty) and expensive.

Germany is, unfortunately for it and the planet, sitting squarely in Quadrant II of the Carbon-Price Matrix. Its grid electricity was in 2010 the fifth most carbon-heavy in a list of 25 OECD Europe countries (see “IEA Statistics: CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion, 2012”, p. 111). I predict the CIPK of German grid electricity has risen far above 500 grams since 2011, and that it could go as high as 600 grams in 2013.

And German household prices for electricity are the second-most expensive in the EU (see the OECD’s Electricity Information 2013, p. III.58).

German households are paying top dollar for dirty electricity.

Meanwhile, next door in France it is the exact opposite. According to the same EIA and OECD data, French grid power comes with an extremely low CIPK: 79 grams in 2010. French households pay half for electricity what German households pay. See article.

The reason for this difference is nuclear power. France gets most of its electricity from nuclear fission, which emits zero CO2. Because of the extreme efficiency with which nuclear plants make electricity, nuclear generated electricity is cheap.

For this reason, France sits happily in Quadrant IV of the Carbon-Price Matrix.

8 comments for “Reducing carbon pollution from electric power generation: what works?

  1. December 25, 2013 at 19:50

    So why isn’t France pulling all the industry over from Germany?  (Because industry gets preferential rates?)

    • December 26, 2013 at 09:36

      Yes, industry gets preferential rates. This is the case in both Germany (~14.9 U.S. cents per kWh for industrial users in 2012, versus ~33.9 cents for households) and France (11.6 cents for industry, ~17.5 for households). Electricity Information 2013, pp. III.57-III.58.

      Likely, the German industry rate is not so far above the French as to compel heavy users to move to France. The government will bend over backwards to keep “mobile” users in Germany; the general population is, as a bloc, far less mobile and therefore an enormous captive market and source of funds for this phony-green social engineering.

      Again, we see the intentions of progressive social policies — such as the regulated monopoly electric utility — utterly reversed, in favour of the reinstatement of rapacious monopolistic price gouging. Except with a twist: this time it’s the government smiling on big companies while putting the screws to ordinary people. All in the name of reducing carbon, which hasn’t even worked.

      John Rockefeller would be very confused, but happy.

      • Bas
        December 28, 2013 at 23:11

        Steve,
        the general population is, as a bloc, far less mobile and therefore an enormous captive market and source of funds for this phony-green social engineering.

        Polls show that ~90% of the German population supports the Energiewende. In line with these polls, the only party that wanted to delay the Energiewende (FDP) got an historic defeat in last parliamentary elections.
        From 16% towards out of parliament now.

  2. Bas
    December 28, 2013 at 23:04

    In the Kyoto protocol countries promised to lower their CO2 emissions with 20% in 2020, compared to 1990.

    Germany is about the only country (may be Denmark and few small countries too) that reached those Kyoto targets already!

    While the prime target of the Energiewende is nuclear out (though 1000miles away, it was hit by Chernobyl). Their targets are:
    1. nuclear out. Done at the end of 2022.
    2. democratize (electric) energy.
    As the Germans experienced the big nuclear lobby of the incumbent utilities (that run NPP’s).
    So (groups of) farmers with wind turbines, citizens (rooftop solar), villages and cities take the electricity in their own hands. Almost always with 100% renewable, e.g. http://www.ews-schoenau.de/footer/international.html

    These further diminish the role or the incumbant utilities, whose CEO’s did a desperate cry for help in Brussels trying to creat FUD regarding grid outages. Laughable because grid management is responsible for those. The grid being a natural monopoly is separated from utilities here. Utilities have to follow directions of grid management.

    3. affordable costs
    4. 80% renewable in 2050 (100% thereafter; sustainable future)
    5. less GHG (CO2)
    (and some more targets)
    Note that 4. and 5. are closely connected.

    • Mark
      December 30, 2013 at 18:33

      Regarding reaching Kyoto’s targets early, Germany was helped by the reference date: back in 1990 the inefficent ex-communist GDR industry was pushing out lots of CO2, especially from lignite, and is included in the 1990 baseline. Most of the gains were related to this industry’s collapse in the early nineties.

      The Energiewende is still popular with the majority of Germans, but critical voices are getting louder.

  3. Bas
    December 28, 2013 at 23:23

    German households are paying top dollar
    About 50% of that price are general taxes. Just as in the Netherlands that has no real renewable policy (government has to tax something to pay for education, etc).

    Germany is, unfortunately … in Quadrant II
    Germany is much colder than France and even UK. Little hydro, etc.
    It reached already the Kyoto targets, to be reached in 2020.

    With the yearly 1.5-2% greater share of renewable, further reduction of CO2 will take steam after all NPP’s are closed in 2022.
    Until then still small reductions of CO2.
    Check the priority of the Energiewende targets, that I posted earlier in this thread.

    • December 30, 2013 at 09:17

      So what is your point? It sounds like you are offering up a litany of irrelevant items to explain away Germany’s embarrassing 500-600 gram CIPK, which is what they have to show for (1) the second-highest electricity prices in the EU, and (2) their endless talk of how they are going green.

      Clearly, Germany’s approach is a failure. Its CIPK is six to seven times France’s, and German electricity is twice as expensive as French.

      Expensive, dirty power. Quadrant II. End of story.

      • Bas
        January 27, 2014 at 09:33

        So France is now following Germany.
        Started with the stimulation of solar and wind.
        Fixed the plan to Close the 2 reactor NPP of Fessenheim next year.

        Has a target of 50% nuclear share in electricity (now ~70%) for 2025.
        Btw.
        I do not think that they will reach that target, as the French have a good history regarding missing their targets.
        Just as the Germans have a good history with reaching their targets (a matter of culture).

        Still it indicates the direction of France.
        No new NPP planned after Flamanville is ready, etc.

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