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What is the way forward for power plants?

Published by marco on

The article Fossil fuels doomed in New York as regulator blocks new gas power plants by Tim De Chant (Ars Technica) writes,

“New York’s climate law requires polluters to account for two sources of emissions: from the plants themselves and from the natural gas supply chain. Once the latter was included—figures which in the past were nearly always ignored when determining a power plant’s pollution—the emissions quickly exceeded the DEC’s thresholds, the decisions say.”

I think that this is a good way of looking at it, and I’m glad that they’re finally forced to consider these pollution vectors. It makes no sense to consider only the point-of-use without considering how much methane is loosed during production and transport of natural gas. E.g. fracking produces quite a bit of methane in all but the most optimal of scenarios, and that’s even without considering what fracking does to the environment where it’s employed.

“In that time, scientists and regulators became increasingly aware of the lifetime carbon footprint of natural gas, particularly along its supply chain. While natural gas burns cleaner and produces less carbon pollution than other fossil fuels like coal, leaks from wellhead to turbine tip the scales. Methane, a major component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas, with one ton warming the atmosphere 84 times more than one ton of carbon dioxide over 20 years. The potency means that leaks along the supply chain represent a significant fraction of natural gas users’ carbon pollution.

There is, however, the niggling issue that current energy requirements are for a grid that is always-on and provides steady energy night and day. That means that, if the primary source of energy becomes intermittent, then there still needs to be some form of energy that can be put online on-demand (in a way that solar and wind cannot).

Current battery storage capacity doesn’t even come close—nor are any estimates of what we could build with the resources available on the planet and current technology even remotely feasible for covering humanity’s current needs, despite the claims of techno-evangelists who would try to sell us these solutions. (I.e. “you have to start somewhere—why not start by giving me a ton of money!”)

Natural-gas power-plants are one way of doing this that have, to date, been deemed far less polluting than coal (also not as on-demand as many think) or diesel generators (very good on-demand features; horribly polluting, though).[1] However, if the honest evaluation of the CO2 impact of natural gas is less rosy than heretofore imagined, that leaves the world without an on-demand source to fill the gaps left by solar and wind.

This implies that we might have to—horror of horrors—seriously consider a world where the grid works differently and, perhaps, less reliably than it does now. Or, we would have to consider reducing our energy demands so that the intermittent and clean energy sources together with realistic—and non environmentally impacting or CO2-impacting—storage mechanisms would be sufficient.

The article continues, detailing how companies will say pretty much anything in order to make the books balance in their favor, regardless of the actual environmental impact.

“The DEC also faulted the logic both companies used to suggest that the new plants would displace emissions elsewhere on the grid. The problem, the agency said, was that their modeling relied on too many assumptions—particularly “projected reductions that could occur at other GHG emission sources across the State” (emphasis in the original). In other words, since neither company can control the actions of other polluters, they don’t get to count speculative reductions elsewhere as their own.

This is just fraudulent and they should be lucky to get away with only having their request denied instead of being fined heavily—or having their corporate charter taken away for trying to defraud the government and trying to waste the common resource that is our environment for their own gain.

In the near term, though,

“Both Danskammer and NRG were proposing to upgrade some of New York State’s dirtiest power plants. They’re older, producing many times more NOx emissions than newer gas-fired power plants.”

This may sound noble, but the reasoning is, though, that no-one should be replacing dirty natural-gas plants with less-dirty natural-gas plants. We have to find another solution. Unfortunately, no-one really has a scalable one yet. This is almost certainly for lack of trying because the incentives in our economy are still very, very strongly biased toward just using fossil fuels.

Hey, maybe when power finally gets more expensive, the economy will finally be confronted with the reality that it will have to use less of it, which would satisfy the climate-change-combatting goals we actually should have. We would have to be careful, though, because using austerity to limit use has, historically, backfired—or ended up harming the most vulnerable either first or exclusively. The wealthy get what they want anyway, more or less by definition.

On the other, other hand, the currently very dirty fossil-fuel plants are almost certainly already located in the neighborhoods of the most vulnerable, so the temporary fix of building less-polluting gas plants would help those people, in the short term. The supply-chain pollution of delivering natural gas affects people along the way—and all of us, generally, in that methane warms the planet—but that pollution does not specifically impact the people who live near the power plant that uses the natural gas.

Question: Couldn’t the existing plants be made less polluting without rebuilding them completely? I would imagine they could, but no-one wants to do it—because where’s the money in that?


[1]

Nuclear power is not an on-demand power source. I’ve gone back and forth on its viability and place in the energy infrastructure, but the article Is Nuclear Power Our Best Bet Against Climate Change? by Samuel Miller McDonald (Boston Review) finally convinced me that nuclear just isn’t going to work, for similar reasons to natural gas: if you take the CO2 impact of the entire chain leading up to a nuclear power plant—for example, it uses a tremendous amount of cement and uranium mining is notoriously dirty—then nuclear isn’t anywhere near the “clean” fuel that supports claim that it is. See Links and Notes for October 15th, 2021 and search for “McDonald” to see a selection of citations from that article. In particular,

“[…] the ecological crises that get worse every day threaten to fracture political orders and make those regulatory frameworks—at state, sub-state, or intergovernmental levels—incapable of maintaining safe facilities.