Obama’s GHG reduction plan: kicking alcoholism by switching from wine to beer

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)… .”

What is the Grid CIPK, and how is it calculated?
CIPK stands for CO2 Intensity Per Kilowatt-hour. The Grid CIPK 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 within the jurisdiction responsible for that grid, divided by the total amount of electricity fed into that grid over a given hour. Of course, in order to calculate CIPK you have to know both of these figures.

So 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!

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.

12 comments for “Obama’s GHG reduction plan: kicking alcoholism by switching from wine to beer

  1. Steve Foster
    June 6, 2014 at 1:59 pm

    I think the Obama Admin. plan has been bought and paid for by the membership of the American Gas Association. They are obviously more influential that the coal lobby and infinitely more influential than any pro-nuclear voices. Nuclear wouldn’t just reduce emissions slightly, it would virtually ELIMINATE them from electricity generation sector. Big Oil can’t tolerate that…

    • June 6, 2014 at 4:12 pm

      I agree, this was written for the benefit of the gas industry and its allies in the “environmental” lobby. I’d argue that Big Coal still packs a big punch though. From thirty-seven to thirty percent? Yes that’s a hit but it’s no coal phaseout.

      And I have to agree with you also on the nuke lobby. They have no clout in this game. What a shame. They represent the easiest and cheapest way to, as you say, eliminate–not just tinker around the edges to slightly reduce–GHGs from power generation. Don’t blame them for not trying though–they’re working against a mainstream media that is likely consciously colluding with some of its biggest advertisers: Big Fossil.

      This EPA rule is pure zero-imagination, zero-leadership, inside-the-green-box thinking. What a shame.

  2. June 7, 2014 at 4:42 pm

    My suspicion is that we’ll see a bunch of the older, coal-fired plants with forced-draft furnaces augmented with gas-fired turbines as their air preheaters.  The furnace will be kept warm by the exhaust, and a combination of duct-firing of natural gas and powdered coal injected into the hot air stream can bring the furnace up to full power on demand.  It should not be too hard to get a 15% cut in carbon emissions while still running mostly on coal.

    • June 10, 2014 at 9:34 am

      Interesting point. My history as a nuclear advocate began with an analysis of the GHG impacts of keeping–yes, keeping–coal in Ontario’s electricity generation mix.

      I realized that an additional ~2000 MW of new nuclear could bring our electric-power related GHGs to well below the 1994 level, which was around 16 million tons annually, without our having to mothball a single coal-fired plant.

      The key was to shoot for a low SYSTEM-LEVEL CIPK.

      That would have given us cheap, clean power.

      • June 16, 2014 at 5:40 am

        Steve and E-P

        Let’s combine your thoughts. Coal business interests are still powerful, while nuclear industries have little lobbying clout.

        Coal is useful, but a little worse than natural gas on a CIPK basis. If combined with nuclear generation, it can beat natural gas.

        Therefore, why not develop an alliance with coal interests to combine the natural core competencies of our technology with the political clout that the combination would bring. That might derail the natural gas domination of the conversation. From a national security perspective, it is useful to remember that the natural gas industry is simply an arm of the world wide petroleum (oil and gas) industry and to remember who the dominant players in that industry are.

        I’d sleep much better at night knowing that North America was taking advantage of its natural richness in coal and uranium instead of depending on Russian, South American, or Middle Eastern petroleum while enriching some of our long-time enemies in the process.

        • June 16, 2014 at 6:39 am

          … why not develop an alliance with coal interests to combine the natural core competencies of our technology with the political clout that the combination would bring.

          Rod—great minds think alike. Ontario’s former regulated utility (now Bruce Power and OPG) resembled some of the big US utilities like Southern and TVA in that it made a lot of electricity with nuclear and coal. I would argue that OPG prior to 2007 was an exemplar in that field, and a model for how a low-carbon world could easily come into being without consumers noticing much of a difference on their power bills.

          Now, this would require utilities like AEP, and TransAlta/SaskPower in Canada, getting into nuclear, which at the moment is alien territory for them. Plus, coal would take a hit—the emphasis would have to be on uranium.

          A possible way forward would be to get the coal people into process-heat R&D à la NGNP. But for me the critical point to make right now, again and again in multiple venues to multiple audiences, is that power systems need to lower system-level CIPK. Tie that in with the global concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere—which I now publish just below CIPK on Tables 1 and 2—and maybe it’s a powerful point.

          • June 17, 2014 at 12:38 pm

            As I’ve written before, I don’t think the coal industry will sign on to this.  The most efficient way to turn nuclear power into road mileage isn’t with CTL, but batteries.  Coal mining would take a much bigger hit from displacement of base load than it would ever scrape back from conversion of off-peak power to motor fuels.  They know it, so searching for allies there is probably a waste of time.

  3. crf
    June 7, 2014 at 7:28 pm

    If the world is going to mitigate climate change, emissions have to be slashed by considerable amounts. Power companies may spend a lot to comply with these new regulations, and still end up with the electricity sector that emits far too much carbon to be compatible with any sensible mitigation policy (which is now 2 degrees and climbing …).

    So, what happens 10 years from now when much of this spending on more efficient fossil-fuel-fired plants is seen as wasted, since it is incompatible with carbon mitigation goals? A massive political fight is what will happen.

    These kinds of policies are not thinking about the future. They risk creating ever more intractible problems for future US governments.

  4. James Greenidge
    June 8, 2014 at 6:29 am

    Very good title analogy! Only how many people would “get it”?

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  5. SteveK9
    June 9, 2014 at 9:40 pm

    There is no guarantee that this rule won’t be enhanced. That really is the history of this sort of environmental regulation. I believe that starting is better than not starting. If the first Westinghouse reactors are successful in a few years, some more will be ordered. And, eventually utilities will decide it makes sense.

    Of course, if you want better news, China has announced that from 2015 to 2020 they will begin 6 new reactors … each year. That will be 30 more in addition to the 30 already under construction.

    Russia expects to build 40 reactors at home by 2030, and receive orders for 80 more outside the country.

    We may realize at some point along the way, that we are idiots. Also Ed Markey has to retire some day.

    • June 10, 2014 at 9:24 am

      “I believe that starting is better than not starting.”

      I agree totally. But, not to be facetious, the U.S. started in 1958 with Shippingport, Canada in 1962 with the NPD.

      What followed was, not just in Canada and the US but also in France and other countries, one of the most seamless and successful peacetime technology displacements in human history. It could have rivaled the displacement of sail- by engine-powered technology in marine shipping. Who knows, it still may rival that development.

      But Hollywood, pop culture, and comic books, in the hands of phony, self-styled custodians of my natural environment, persuaded the governments that initially supported nuclear that it’s better to be afraid of the dark than to shed light on it.

      You are right, the rule may be enhanced. I hope it firms up the idea of CIPK in the public mind. If it does, maybe then the brakes will ease up on new nuclear.

  6. June 18, 2014 at 7:09 pm

    Holy crap, what happened to the column widths in the comments?  Things became unreadable!

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