Here’s a plan for kicking alcoholism. I’m curious to know what you think. Let’s say that in order to meet the Mayo Clinic’s recommendation to drink three liters of beverages per day, I drink 90 litres of wine per month. Nothing exceeds like excess, and 90 litres of wine per month is clearly excessive. So, under my new plan, I’ll continue to drink 90 litres of alcoholic beverages, but only 63 litres of that will be wine. The other 27 litres will be beer. How can I sell this cockamamie plan to people who are concerned about my excessive drinking? I’ll tell them this: I aim to kick alcoholism by cutting wine consumption by 30 percent.
(I’m kidding of course. In real life, 90 litres of wine is more than 90 times my normal monthly consumption.)
But the new U.S. plan to wean itself off its addiction to fossil fuels in power generation is pretty much analogous to my alcohol reduction plan. This is why I laughed when I listened to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency head Regina McCarthy tell PBS’s Gwen Ifill on Monday that coal’s 37 percent place in America’s electricity mix would decline to 30 percent by 2030. I had to laugh, to prevent myself from crying. That is what got all the headlines and praise? Read between the lines, and you realize that the new EPA rule just calls for shifting a rather small part of America’s generator fleet from one fossil fuel, coal, to another, natural gas. That is how America will wean itself off fossil fuels? That’s like curing alcoholism by switching from wine to beer. It starts with the premise that a significant portion of America’s electricity must be from fossil fuels. Just like my alcohol reduction plan starts with the premise that a significant portion of my daily liquid requirements must be met with alcoholic beverages.
The EPA draft rule which McCarthy and Ifill discussed notes, with approval, the efforts of a number of states, including California, New York, Oregon, and Washington to reduce the CIPK (CO2 intensity per kilowatt-hour) of the generators feeding the grid. For example it says (p. 100): “New York requires new or expanded baseload plants that are greater than 25 Megawatts (MW) to meet an emission rate of … 925 pounds CO2/Megawatt hour(MWh) (based on output)… .”
Well, 925 pounds per megawatt-hour is 419 grams per kilowatt-hour. Have a look at Table 1 in the left-hand sidebar of this blog: the bottom row gives last hour’s CIPK of Ontario grid electricity. At the time of writing, Ontario’s CIPK of grid electricity was 50.2 grams—not even one-eighth the amount the EPA thinks is worth emulating. Table 1 shows you instantly why Ontario’s CIPK is so low. Most of our power comes from non-emitting sources. And the biggest of those, by far, is nuclear.
You’d think that anybody who considers 419 grams good enough would be ecstatic over an energy source that packs so much punch that it powers most of a grid and keeps that grid’s CIPK at the freakishly low level of 50 grams. But EPA Administrator McCarthy did not even mention the word nuclear in her interview with PBS.
This though atomic power reactors make a fifth of America’s electricity, and are typically among the cheapest power providers in every grid in the country. Think about that for a second. Nuclear reactors provide one-fifth of America’s electricity? That works out to over 700 billion kilowatt-hours every year. Bear in mind that those 700 billion kWh are produced in plants that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for hundreds of days at a time. This is called baseload power. Besides nuclear, no other class of generators provide baseload power except coal, gas, and hydro. And because hydro is maxed out in America, it really means that only coal or gas can replace nuclear. Coal is, sort of, according to the new EPA rule, not in the cards. Which means gas, which emits slightly less CO2 per kWh than coal. And if gas-fired generators were producing nuclear’s 700 billion kWh, then each of those 700 billion kWh would come with at least… 419 grams of CO2.
And instead of those 700 billion kWh coming with zero tons of CO2 per year, they would come with more than 293 million tons per year. I say this because those who most loudly support the new EPA rule support natural gas over nuclear. One organization that supports this is the Natural Resources Defense Council (NDRC). Here’s an NRDC position paper on nuclear.
It gets even more comical (if you can call it comical). The EPA administrator repeated several times to Gwen Ifill that America would meet these new CO2 targets using renewables and by using less power. But the EPA draft rule undercuts this fantasy by allowing for less-stringent CO2 rules on what it calls “non-baseload plants.” Here’s one of the rule’s approved examples, New York. New York’s standard for the CIPK of non-baseload plants rated at higher than 25 megawatss is: 1,450 pounds of CO2 per MWh, or 657.7 grams per kWh (see the same page, p. 100, of the EPA draft rule).
Again, compare Ontario’s current grid-level CIPK, given on the bottom row of Table 1, with 657.7 grams.
That is called kicking alcoholism by switching from wine to beer.