Monday, February 16, 2009

Coal (and California)

The New York Times had a story on Sunday about the fight it perceives that the coal industry is in with regard to future power generation ,
As a result, utilities’ plans for new coal plants are being turned down left and right. In the last two-and-a-half years, plans for 83 plants in the United States have either been voluntarily withdrawn or denied permits by state regulators. The roughly 600 coal-fired power plants in the United States are responsible for almost one-third of the country’s total carbon emissions, but they are distinctly at odds with a growing outlook that embraces clean energy.
Initial plans had been that the aging power plants in the country would be changed to more modern, cleaner facilities and there were over one hundred new plants in some form of planning or another. Obviously there are additional constraints at the moment because of the fiscal condition of the country and the lack of a clear picture of demand change in the next few years. But there is also a recognition of the increasing hostility (that the article refers to) from Environmentalists, and the new power that they have with the current Congress and Administration. One should not, however, forget the statement made (about another fuel) by the Saudi Oil Minister last week
“A nightmare scenario would be created if alternative energy supplies fail to meet overly optimistic expectations while traditional energy suppliers scale back investment due to expectations of declining demand for their products,” he said.

And the industry itself feels it is healthy. One of the last panels at the CERA meeting last week in Houston considered coal.
Jone-Lin Wang, CERA managing director, said there is 17,000 MW of new coal capacity currently under construction in the US, the highest level in the last 20 years.

"New builds in coal have been attacked on two fronts -- capital-cost escalation and [carbon dioxide] emissions," Wang said. "Despite these problems, we have seen a surge in new coal plants. Coal is resilient." She said, however, that there are still hurdles for building new coal projects.

A weak economy has hurt the demand for coal, said Anna Belova, vice-CEO of strategy and corporate development for Russian energy company SUEK. Lower natural gas prices are also making that fuel option more attractive for builders, she said, adding that increased energy efficiency and a strong push for renewable energy have made the future of coal seem uncertain.
But with the focus on the environment, and the increasingly strident tones of James Hansen, who seems bent on continually raising the rhetoric, as he seeks to lead the world away from coal, many utilities are having second thoughts about their current plans. Yet the reality remains.

The states that currently use coal do not all have the option of switching to the immediately available alternatives of wind and solar. Reference to a wind map shows a swath of states from Arkansas to Pennsylvania that have few and limited sites for siting wind turbines where they would do any good. Similarly solar power availability is less where states see high precipitation and snow in winter. So what are they supposed to use instead? The retort seems to be that they should rely on the above alternatives where they can, and where they are not available then the use of energy efficient appliances and conservation and gas-fired plants will be the answer.

In times where the economy is not strong expecting or mandating folk to change appliances, other than when the old ones wear out, will require a considerable incentive. So will expecting them to undertake considerable investment in insulation and changing doors and windows to reduce power loss through the walls.

And without that drop in demand, when the economy seeks to rebound, then it will be calling on additional power from the existing utility base. Reducing the size of that base, means only that power will not be available, given the lack of alternate supplies. It is also interesting to go back and look at some numbers. California is required to list, each year, where its power comes from. This it does through an annual Commission Report (pdf). When they did this survey in 2005 they initially came up with this table:
Which was an interesting change from the same table from 2001 (pdf).
And which has now led the individual power suppliers in CA to have to list from where they get their power.

The latest labels include the 2007 CA Power Mix (this particular table comes from the City of Palo Alto Utilities)

California power demand can rise as high as 50,000 megawatts , but at that level the utilities start to look for “volunteers” to cut their power demand.

If the droughts reduce the ability to produce hydro-electric power, and they don’t want to use coal, seems to me someone had better start building solar panels fast, since wind is starting to have a little more problem growing in that state.
California was the early leader in wind power — it installed several big projects in the 1980s (one of which, Altamont Pass, has been criticized for harming birds). Not much has happened since, however, and the fact that California moved early “means that the easy projects are already in,” said Mr. White.

Other projects run into significant transmission constraints, Mr. White said, and an intensive permitting process has also proved an obstacle to growth in California.

There are other recent posts that suggest that coal generation is in trouble. But, without a suitable alternative at a reasonable cost, at the scale required and in a timely replacement strategy, I rather suspect that someone will remember the Oil Ministers words before it is too late, and change may be a little longer in coming than is sometimes anticipated.

As the NYT article concluded
"You cannot solve the climate change problem without dealing with coal," said Howard Herzog, principal research engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Killing coal is not a real option. Carbon capture and sequestration is the only real alternative."

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