Don’t freak out, but there’s a problem with green roofs: They’re not necessarily greener than ordinary roofs. Soooooo kind of a major problem. With a little extra effort, though, green roofs can be efficient AND locally sourced — you just can’t take the easy way out.
[R]ooftop vegetation has to be able to survive the high winds, prolonged UV radiation and unpredictable fluctuations in water availability. To resist these harsh environments, a majority of green roofs are planted with sedum, a non-native species that can survive wind and long periods without rainfall. A roof planted with sedum, however, is no greener, from the standpoint of sustainability, than is ordinary tar or asphalt.
Sedum, it turns out, absorbs sunlight, just like a tar roof would, and isn’t particularly good at absorbing water. Planting your green roof with sedum is like hiring employees based on how long they can physically sit in an office chair instead of how good they are at doing the work. Sedum plants are hardy, but they don’t do anything: “They’re just there,” one scientist studying the plants told SciAm.
But, hey, there’s another way of doing this: Plant diverse groups of native species. Only problem with that is that it might take a little bit of effort to keep them thriving. Someone might have to visit the green roof of the corporate office building every once in a while. Sounds terrible.
Plants talk to each other. They don’t use their words, like our moms and dads taught us to do instead of making faces and grumping around. But when they need to—particularly when they’re under threat—they let each other know. Scientists have known for awhile that plants will send out chemical signals in the air as a warning system, but now they’ve discovered that plants have a secret underground network of communication, too.
Many plants grow in partnership with mycorrhizal fungi, and, as the BBC reports, a new study found for the first time that those fungal system transit messages for the plants whose roots they grow on. When aphids attack one plant in the network, the fungi let the other plants know, and those plants start mounting their defenses.
It works just like any alliance, explains the BBC. Each party gets something out of it:
“Mycorrhizal fungi need to get [products of photosynthesis] from the plant, and they have to do something for the plant,” explained John Pickett of Rothamsted Research.
“In the past, we thought of them making nutrients available from the [roots and soil], but now we see another evolutionary role for them in which they pay the plant back by transmitting the signal efficiently,” he told BBC News.
Last summer, clean-air activists celebrated the shutdown of Chicago’s notorious Fisk and Crawford coal power plants, which ended the Windy City’s distinction as the only U.S. metropolis to house two operating coal facilities. The victory came thanks to a dogged grassroots battle waged by residents of Little Village and Pilsen, the predominantly Latino, working-class neighborhoods bearing the brunt of the plants’ pollution. Today, the woman who spearheaded that battle, lifelong Little Village resident Kimberly Wasserman, becomes North America’s recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, one of the highest honors in the world for grassroots green activism.
Wasserman was 21 when her infant son suffered his first asthma attack. She had just started working for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), doing door-to-door surveys gauging neighbors’ environmental concerns, so she started asking around about asthma and respiratory issues, which turned out to be common problems in the community. Soon after, a Harvard School of Public Health study confirmed LVEJO’s suspicions that the coal plants might have something to do with the high rates of asthma in the neighborhood, and Wasserman started organizing.
We got a chance to talk with Wasserman about what it took to kick Big Coal to the curb.
Q.Tell me about what motivated you to take on this issue. How long had you lived in Little Village, and how aware were you of environmental health issues before?
A. I was born and raised in Little Village. I’ve lived here 32 out of the 36 years that I’ve been on this lovely planet. I didn’t know a whole lot about air quality or environmental issues before entering this job [at LVEJO]. [When] my baby was about two months old, he had his first asthma attack. I started focusing my door-to-door conversations to try to understand how many other people had family members with respiratory issues. We found that an alarming number of people in our neighborhood had asthma. So we started to look at, what is in our neighborhood? We found the coal power plants. A lot of folks didn’t know what they did there; the smoke was white and very unassuming, and so a lot of young people called it the cloud factory because they thought that’s where clouds came from.
It made us want to understand, well, how do you burn coal? The more we researched, we were surprised that our local government would allow such dirty and outdated technology. In 2000, Harvard School of Public Health released a study about coal power plants in Illinois, and the information about the Crawford and Fisk plant[s] was very astounding. There were over 3,000 asthma attacks, 1,500 emergency room visits, and 41 deaths a year attributed to these coal power plants. And then on top of that, we found out the coal power plant didn’t supply electricity to the city of Chicago or the state of Illinois.
Q.How did you share what you’d found out with the neighborhood and organize people to fight for change?
A. We shared this door-to-door. We had block meetings in which we would talk about what is asthma and how do you develop it and what are some of the contributing factors. [People aren’t] just dealing with a child or an adult or a senior with illness, they’re also having to miss work, people are missing school, and all those [things] have an impact on the community. People were upset when they found out that the city wasn’t willing to do anything about it. Why is it that our community is being sacrificed for the sake of making money for this industry? It was on us to make sure that we funneled that anger and resentment in a positive way.
At first we sent a letter to city hall and requested a meeting, and nobody wanted to talk to us. Our young people wanted to show what this meant in real life. So they did an action on the fifth floor of city hall, in front of former Mayor Daley’s office. Forty-one young people laid on the floor and zipped themselves up in body bags and put inhalers in their mouths. We got a phone call from the mayor’s media office that basically yelled at me and said, you embarrassed the mayor, this is not appropriate. And our response was, well, this coal power plant in our neighborhood is not appropriate. So we knew that we struck a chord.
Q.How did the culture and sense of community in Little Village contribute to your campaign?
A. A lot of what helped us was looking at the history of where our people come from. Taking the lessons we learned from both Mexican and Mexican-American history, and looking at movement building and murals and art and street theater, and how all of those things played into communication of a struggle and a solution — we tried to incorporate posters and art and murals. We did street theater; we held clean-power elections where we would have folks on one corner with wind and solar power, and on the other corner we had coal barons dressed to the nines in tuxedos. It helped us educate people in nontraditional ways, but ways that have been shown in our history and culture to be very effective.
Q.What was the turning point that led to your eventual success?
A. In creation of the [clean power coalition, a partnership with big green groups], we were able to leverage a lot of resources that organizations like ours don’t have. Greenpeace scaled the smokestack in Pilsen and camped there for two days, which is amazing because our community members are like, I can’t afford to get arrested, I have no papers.
The second thing was that Mayor Daley announced that he was retiring and would not be seeking reelection. The opportunity to make this part of the election campaign was instrumental. Every time there was a debate or an interview, we tried our best to get this issue included in that conversation. So when Rahm Emanuel won, we were able to hold him to his promise of saying if I win, I’m going to deal with the issue. A year into office he was like, all right, you guys have garnered enough support. He let [the coal plants] know what was happening and gave them 90 days [to either comply with required upgrades and lower their emissions or shut down]. Ninety days later they came back and said we’re going to voluntarily shut down.
Q.Mainstream green groups like the Sierra Club often get criticized for not working well with grassroots organizations. Why do you think that is? What was your experience building the clean power coalition?
A. Unfortunately I think a lot of it has to do with money and power. [Environmental justice] organizations get less than 5 percent of environmental funding out there. There has to be pushback on that, but there also has to be a conversation. When we came together as a coalition, one of the first things we did was have a conversation on power, on race, on class. It’s the communities of color that are being impacted [by climate change and pollution]. We created a memorandum of understanding to make sure that we as smaller organizations weren’t thrown under the bus, that we weren’t excluded from negotiations.
Luckily, both the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club and the local Greenpeace office were willing to [agree]. I think the staff they have are young people who understand the privilege they come from and are willing to humble themselves enough to have these difficult conversations and find authentic ways to work together. That’s the reality of doing this work — you have to have these uncomfortable conversations.
Q.What are you tackling next, now that the coal plants have been shut down?
A. We have brownfield legacies in our community, and we don’t want another one. We don’t want to be looking at an abandoned coal power plant for the next 20 years. So we’re looking at the remediation and redevelopment of that.
While we were struggling to shut down the coal power plant for 12 years, we were also advocating for a new park to be built in our community. We won that victory as well last year. We’ve been working with the community to develop a design for the park, and make sure that adequate funding is given to this park, being that it’s going to be the first one built in our neighborhood in over 75 years.
And then the last thing that we’re working on is our public transit campaign. We find ourselves in a public-transit desert in our neighborhood. You have to go about a mile north to get the train; it used to go three miles south before you could find a bus. Last year, we won the installation of a new bus line in our neighborhood, so now we have a bus smack-dab in the middle of that three-mile gap. They only gave us a third of the full route we wanted, so we’re going to be advocating for the rest of the route until we get it.
Q.What’s your advice for other communities facing similar battles?
A. Definitely don’t give up. And definitely arm yourself with as much research as possible. There is tons of capacity in our communities to do research, to do surveys, to collect and analyze data. We have to be arming our young people to be thinking about careers in math and science and engineering to be able to bring those skills back and help us tackle some of these environmental-justice issues. When our campaign started, some of our young people were in first or second grade, and those young people are now in college, getting their masters in environmental justice, because this had such a resonating effect on them.
Watch a video about Wasserman below, and read more about this year’s other Goldman winners here.
This photo’s sepia-toned because coal plants are history. Get it? Har.
Despite what the coal industry would have you believe, the days of affordable coal-fired power are over. That’s the conclusion of the Sierra Club’s recent ”Locked In,” a report that analyzes the wide array of financial risks coal plant investments face.
We looked into these risks because while the environmental and human health impacts of coal plant investments are increasingly well-known, the financial impacts are not. What we found was eye-opening: Some of the world’s largest coal plants are on the verge of bankruptcy, but an emerging Organization of Coal Exporting Countries (OCEC) is on the rise. As the title of our report suggests, avoiding locking ourselves into this risky environment is tremendously important because, social and environmental damages aside, new coal plants are just lousy investments.
Here are the biggest risks coal plant financiers face:
Plant construction costs are rising and increasingly unpredictable: Over the past decade, in the U.S. and abroad, plant costs have increased by up to 100 percent. Add to that lengthy design and construction periods (five to seven years) and you get cost projections that are both wildly out of date and significantly understate the cost of new plants.
Coal prices are volatile, increasing, and exposed to an emerging OCEC: Just like oil prices, coal prices have trended sharply upward around the world. Worse, just like the oil market, the international coal market is highly concentrated. The top two producers alone — Australia and Indonesia — are responsible for roughly 50 percent of all internationally traded steam coal. That leaves new coal plants at the whim of this emerging Organization of Coal Exporting Countries that is increasingly — directly or indirectly — acting to maintain high prices.
Competing clean, renewable energy sources are coming down in price, further increasing market uncertainty: Most reliable estimates put the cost of new wind power between $0.05 and $.10 per kilowatt-hour — at or below the cost of new coal-fired power in the United States. The same is true for solar photovoltaic in the sunniest parts of the U.S., where it now competes for peaking power applications with the cheapest fossil fuel — natural gas. While high in capital expenditure, clean energy sources like wind and solar are not exposed to fuel price volatility. In essence, investors lock themselves into the ever-increasing costs of coal while competitors increasingly offer attractive returns that are both environmentally and economically preferable.
“Too big to fail” coal projects like India’s Tata Mundra can and should be avoided: Despite significant coal price increases, many new projects routinely underestimate price volatility, the cost of construction, and the risk of cost overruns. Way too often the optimistic scenarios predicted by coal proponents fail to materialize, leaving financial wreckage in their wake.
For example, even before construction of the four-gigawatt Tata Mundra project in India is complete, coal prices are three times those cited in its bid. The problem is that Tata Mundra is bound by a contract that fixes prices for decades to come, forcing the government and investors to face billions in losses if they do not pass on significant price increases to average Indian consumers.
Ultimately, it’s quite clear to us that international coal markets are far riskier than most think. These risks are wide-ranging — from soaring fuel prices to coal cartels — and they are not easily mitigated. Luckily a grassroots rebellion in the U.S. and a growing clean energy revolution in the E.U. have helped us avoid new coal plant lock-ins.
But as the Euro Zone crisis rages and contributes to a slowing Chinese and Indian economy, a significant lock-in threat looms as investors seek to finance a new era of coal. But can these economies really afford to lock themselves into billions of dollars in financially risky new coal plant investments? The only rational answer to come to is a resounding “NO.”
Plucking seemingly random weeds out of the dirt and sticking them in your mouth may be disconcerting to most city dwellers, but that’s exactly what a group of New Yorkers traveled to New Jersey to do recently.
Squinting in the sun on a patch of meadow, we watched as our fearless guide, Tama Matsuoka Wong, author of the new cookbook and guide Foraged Flavor, expertly scavenged delectable weed after delectable weed. From dainty yellow wood sorrel to aromatic garlic mustard, we smelled the newly picked shoots, and then gingerly took a nibble. Our taste buds were rewarded by flavors that were bright, fresh, and alive. And by the time we’d made our way past the meadow and into the forest, we were like a pack of hungry rabbits, chewing away at whatever tasty morsel Wong handed us.
A professional forager, Wong co-authored Foraged Flavor with Eddy Leroux, chef at the New York restaurant Daniel. The book offers up detailed instructions on the when, where, and how of foraging and presents dishes centered around 72 of Wong and Leroux’s favorite wild plants. Their resulting recipes are easy yet unique, and include dishes like dandelion flower tempura and grilled daylily shoots.
Of the approximately 300,000 wild plants in the world, experts say that between 4,000 and 7,000 are known to be edible. Compare that with the measly produce selection in your local grocery store (where it’s rare to see more than 60 types of fruits and veggies) and it’s clear your taste buds are missing many an opportunity.
“The way we farm has become so industrial and seems to focus less on the flavor and variety of food,” Wong says. It’s only in the last century that small, local subsistence agriculture has given way to large-scale commercial food production. Along with this shift, most traditional foraging knowledge has disappeared. The result is a loss of variety, but also of biodiversity — a crucial element of food security.
While Wong’s not suggesting we raze the big farms and return to the caves, she does encourage readers to open their eyes to the medley of dinnertime opportunities that may be growing smack in their own backyards. (As many as 20 different plant species can be found in one nine-inch square patch of meadow, she says.)
Wong wants to introduce the crazy and unique to the dinner table, but she also points out that many wild plants are highly nutritious. For example, purslane, a Persian herb that appears in the book’s eggplant caponata recipe, is a little known source of omega-3, while sumac, a bright red berry that makes for a mean jelly or tart, comes locked and loaded with vitamin C.
In addition to all of these priceless benefits, foraged foods are, well, priceless. Nutritious, yummy, and free — what more could an adventurous diner want? Spring and early summer are some of the best times to hunt for your favorite wild foods (it’s pineapple weed, lamb’s quarters, and wild garlic season in New York), so get ye to a meadow or vacant lot for some quality foraging.
In my post on the new EPA carbon pollution rule, I drew attention to an important distinction: The rule issued today governs new power plants only; carbon pollution from existing power plants has not yet been regulated.
This matters a great deal. Today’s rule effectively means there will be no more coal plants built in the U.S., but that was more or less a fait accompli due to market forces. What to do about existing plants is in many ways a more fraught and important question. It could have much larger effects on near-term pollution from the power sector.
On a conference call with reporters this morning, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said, “We have no plans to regulate existing sources.” That caused me a few moments of panic (and, um, a few outbursts on Twitter). If there are really not going to be any existing-source regulations, that would make this whole process a massive, massive fail.
But I’ve talked to a few people and gotten a better sense of the lay of the land, and I’m here to tell you, in the words of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Don’t panic.
Here’s the story: Once something is deemed a pollutant under the Clean Air Act (which, in the case of CO2, was settled by the Mass v. EPA Supreme Court case), then it must be regulated under Section 111 of the act, the New Source Performance Standards program.
Section 111b governs new sources. That’s what was issued today. But when EPA regulates under 111b, that triggers a legal obligation for it also to regulate existing sources under 111d.
Which is a nerdy way of saying: EPA is legally obligated to regulate existing power-plant sources of CO2.
All that remains is to determine the timing. A bunch of green groups sued EPA over their delay on CO2 several years back. The settlement that was reached obligated EPA to issue CO2 regs by last September. Obviously that didn’t happen. Green groups then agreed to a few extensions. They have taken the issuance of the rule today as a sign of good faith from EPA that it’s on track.
Regulation of existing sources under 111d is a much trickier, more difficult matter than regulation of new sources. There are genuinely novel questions of law and technology involved. EPA has been grappling with these questions, but it’s not easy and there are a great many interested stakeholders, to say the least. Even if it wanted to, EPA probably couldn’t get that rule done and issued before the election.
Given that, EPA doesn’t really want to talk about it. More to the point, the Obama administration doesn’t want to force Midwestern Senate Democrats to talk about it. Here’s the thing: The rule itself is probably going to be pretty mild. It will mainly involve efficiency upgrades and demand-side measures. However, until there’s an actual rule on the table, the void will be filled by the lurid fantasies of conservatives, who warn that EPA is determined to shut down the entire U.S. coal fleet. Suffice to say, Obama doesn’t want the airwaves filled with Midwestern Senate Dems worrying over the closure of coal plants in their states.
That, I think, is why Jackson is saying EPA has “no plans” for existing sources. It’s not that they’re not going to regulate existing sources. They have to, by law. Right in today’s proposal [PDF] it makes reference to rules “EPA would promulgate at the appropriate time, for existing sources under 111(d).” When Jackson says “no plans,” what she basically means is, “no schedule.”
The existing-source rule is obviously well behind schedule, but from my conversations with green group folk, it sounds like they’re keeping their powder dry. It looks to them like EPA is working in good faith and they expect the new rule in the first year or so of Obama’s second term — assuming he has one.
If it drags out much longer than that, green groups might go back to court. But for now, they seem moderately satisfied with how things are proceeding.
It goes without saying, of course, if Republicans win the Senate and the presidency this year, all EPA regulations of CO2 will go out the window. Indeed, the EPA as we know it will cease to exist. But there’s not much Lisa Jackson can do about that.
Man, I can barely raise a plant from a seedling without killing it, and scientists have managed to grow viable plants out of seeds from 29,000 B.C.? So unfair.
Russian scientist David Gilichinsky and his research team thawed out fruits that were buried by squirrels on the banks of a Siberian river 31,800 years ago. The fruits have been profoundly frozen for millennia, but as it turns out, they can still grow plants — and the plants can still flower. Which means that the scientists can cultivate a new line of this plant, Silene stenophylla, which will essentially be a time capsule from a prehistoric biome.
The ancient S. stenophylla plants are slightly different from modern ones — their roots grow more slowly, they produce more buds, and their flower petals are wider. So these unfrozen caveman flowers can teach us something about plant evolution. Or possibly they’ll just teach us what happens when seeds are exposed to low-level radiation for millennia; the mild radioactivity of the rock they were buried in mean that these seeds are not only the oldest, but also the most radioactive ever to bear fruit.
As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) prepares to release new mercury and air toxics standards, some people
may be wondering about the history and timeline for these standards. One senator recently claimed that EPA is
“charging ahead” with them.
These standards, however, have been in
development for over 20 years. These are standards that many plants are already
meeting. Furthermore, 11 of the 15 largest coal utilities, roughly half of the
nation’s coal fleet, have informed their shareholders [PDF] that they are well positioned to meet them.
This post unwraps the history, standards,
and timelines for compliance.
Why regulate mercury and air toxics?
Power plants are significant emitters of
mercury, a neurotoxin that is particularly harmful to children and
developing fetuses. Power plants are also significant emitters of a
variety of other hazardous air pollutants, such as arsenic, nickel, cadmium,
chromium, lead, selenium, hydrogen chloride, and hydrogen fluoride, which can
cause a variety of cancer and non-cancer effects (such as irritation of the
lung, skin, and mucus membranes, nervous system damage, and kidney damage).
When EPA issued the proposed version of
these standards in May, it projected [PDF] that they would
have public health benefits in the range of $53 billion to $140 billion, and
would come at a total cost of only $11 billion. Thus, the health benefits
would be five to 13 times greater than the economic costs of compliance.
History of mercury regulation in the
Clean Air Act
The path towards regulating toxic emissions
from power plants began in earnest back in 1990, when President George H.W.
Bush signed the Clean Air Act amendments that had been passed by
overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress.
Those amendments required EPA to assess
where mercury emissions were coming from, their impact, and the viability of
reducing emissions. After much delay (and a lawsuit), EPA finally issued that study [PDF] in 1998, and two years later concluded [PDF] it is necessary, in the interest of
public health, to regulate mercury emissions from coal-fired plants.
In 2004, EPA proposed the first national
mercury standards. Shortly after those regulations went into effect, however,
the federal Circuit Court of Appeals threw them out. The court found that EPA had
improperly attempted to treat mercury as a non-hazardous pollutant, and
directed the agency to follow the statutory requirements for hazardous air
Later this week, EPA is expected to
finalize rules consistent with the hazardous air pollutant provisions. The
new rules will require reductions beginning in 2014, 24 years after EPA was
first directed to investigate regulating mercury emissions from power plants.
The act requires EPA to establish limitations that are no less stringent than the
“average emission limitation achieved by the best-performing 12 percent of the
further requires that sources comply within three years. That timeline can be
extended by one year if the state, or EPA, determines that it is necessary for
the installation of controls.
is possible to further extend these deadlines in rare cases in which the president determines that the technology is not available and that it is in the
national security interests of the United States to extend the deadline.
or the state implementing the regulations may also exercise its discretion
when enforcing the act in specific circumstances. Enforcement discretion may
buy some plants additional time in the form of administrative consent decrees
that put the plant on a schedule for compliance or shutdown.
It is also worth noting that EPA’s rules
will be effective this January, more than six months before electricity demand [PDF] starts
to rise in most regions, thus providing additional compliance time for some of
the high emitting plants that run infrequently.
The electricity system can handle new mercury standards
The hazardous air pollutant provisions have
been used more than 50 times since
the passage of the 1990 amendments, on everything from semiconductor
manufacturing to petroleum refineries and dry cleaning.
In addition, the reductions that EPA is
requiring are realistic:
recently conducted an information collection request to assist the rulemaking
process, and found that [PDF] nearly 60 percent of
the 178 coal respondents were already meeting the proposed standard.
Six of those states [PDF] have
standards more stringent than those proposed by EPA, and several of them have
timelines more stringent than those imposed by the Clean Air Act.
In the event a company decides that it is
uneconomic to install controls at a particular plant, there is reason to
believe that these plants can be replaced in the necessary time frame. For
example, both ISO-New England and PJM (who are responsible for ensuring the
reliable operation of the electric grid in all or most of 13 states in the
Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest) have forward-looking markets designed to
ensure that there are adequate generation resources in their regions. These are
known as capacity markets.
Both of these markets address generation
needs three years out, as that
was determined to match the lead time required for the construction and
development of new capacity. As discussed previously, three years is the
minimum amount of time provided under the Clean Air Act, and there are several
ways in which these deadlines can be extended if necessary.
Keep in mind that retirement isn’t
necessarily a bad thing either. Many of the uncontrolled plants are more than 50 years old [PDF], and
will eventually need to be replaced with newer, more efficient plants.
There are a number of underutilized [PDF] clean
plants, and there is some evidence that they are
not running because the older, less efficient plants have been able to skirt
It is time that we correct this. These
rules are long overdue. A number of states have already taken action. Many
plants are already in compliance with the new standards. Most importantly,
these are standards that will bring considerable public health benefits. We
should not delay action any longer. It is time that the rest of the plants
As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prepares the first-ever national standards for carbon
pollution from new fossil-fuel power plants, the coal industry is
embarking, predictably, on its latest disinformation campaign to try to
block these desperately needed public health and climate safeguards. New coal plants are dirty, risky, and expensive. No wonder the smart
money won’t touch them.
Flacks for the coal lobby have their hair on fire about the rumored
content of draft EPA standards that haven’t even been released. They
say the standards will kill new coal plants. Haven’t they been paying
attention? No one wants to build new coal plants. Except for a handful
already underway, no more are planned for the foreseeable future. We
don’t know what the EPA draft standards say, but we should all be asking a
simple question: Exactly why should the EPA write a standard that is
gerrymandered to make room for dirty power plants that the private sector
does not want to build?
Let’s look at the facts. Starting about 10 years ago, there were
waves of announcements for scores of new coal plants. In all, nearly
200 coal plants were proposed. Now only a handful of these projects are
technically alive and they are on life support. A small number of
proposed plants have permits, but like many previous plants with such
permits, most, if not all, of these proposals will turn out to be
vaporware. A permit may get a developer a meeting with project
financiers but it will not get their money. The finance community
understands new coal plants are simply not economic, given the
alternatives that are available.
Other than a few plants under construction, there is virtually no
prospect of new conventional coal plants being built in the next quarter
century, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). EIA reports [PDF] no new conventional coal plants coming online after 2012, and only two
gigawatts of coal plants with carbon capture and sequestration
coming online around 2017; then nothing more through 2035, the end of
the EIA forecast period.
Are the rumored new EPA CO2 standards responsible for the collapse of
the new coal plant boom? No. Market forces have rejected new coal
plants. Abundant supplies of natural gas have produced lower prices for
that fuel and those low prices seem here to stay. Materials costs have
risen substantially, and that makes capital-intensive coal plants a bad
bet. Energy efficiency is increasingly recognized as the smartest way
to balance power supply and demand and is enabling economic growth with
lower electricity demand. Cost reductions in renewable resources like
wind and solar, along with supportive policies, have resulted in rapid
growth of these cleaner energy sources to meet new demand and replace
retiring dirty coal plants.
The market is also penalizing proposals for new conventional coal
plants due to their very high CO2 emissions. Financiers know that
denying the fact of global warming will not make it go away. So a
project with high CO2 emissions has a large built-in financial risk that
only grows over time. And that risk is unbounded, since without a
clear policy roadmap it is impossible to make a reliable estimate of
what it will cost to mitigate a conventional coal plant’s high CO2
The long lead time for coal plants underscores the conclusion that
these projects are bad bets. It takes about 10 years to build a coal
plant from initial conception to start-up. Then it takes another 15-25
years for investors to get their money back. Even without low gas
prices, investors would have to believe that no action to address CO2
pollution will be taken over the next quarter century for them to put
their money at risk in new conventional coal plants. This is not a risk
that sensible investors are willing to take. So it should be no
surprise that plans for new coal plants have been abandoned right and
left in the United States.
As for a new EPA standard for CO2, we won’t know what it says until
early next year, according to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. But let’s
assume the EPA were to propose a fuel-neutral standard for new fossil
plants, one that could be met by new natural gas combined-cycle plants
or by new coal plants with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Such a
standard would not prevent the construction of new coal plants (if and
when the private sector decides such plants are a better option than
alternatives). No, such a standard would just provide a level playing
field for the two leading fossil fuels in the power sector: coal and
natural gas. (Such a standard would not create a truly level playing
field for electric resource investments since it would still heavily
favor fossil fuels over zero-emitting options like efficiency,
renewables, or nuclear if the latter’s many problems could be solved.)
Such a fuel-neutral CO2 standard would permit a new coal plant
designed to capture about 60 percent of its CO2 to be built. The coal lobby
will complain about the cost of CCS, but that cost will never get lower
if standards are rigged to ensure no new coal plants will ever have to
employ CCS. Why spend money to improve a technology for which there is
The bottom line is that it is not the cost of CCS that is blocking
new coal plants today; it is the cost and risks of plain old dirty coal
plants compared to the alternatives that are shelving these proposals.
Of course, no one should be surprised that the coal lobby thinks that
a level playing field standard is the policy equivalent of the swine
flu. But should we build new power plants in order to prop up the coal
industry? We want new power resources, not to help burn more coal, but
to provide heat, light, comfort, and convenience, and to do so reliably and
in a manner that does not send our kids to the emergency room with
asthma attacks, our parents to an early death, or condemn our
grandchildren to a planet with a climate so disrupted that their lives
will be an unending torment.
Despite the coal lobby’s rhetoric, building new conventional coal
plants is a bad economic bet for society as well as for individual
investors. Even in countries where building a new coal plant appears to
be cheaper than investing in cleaner energy, the International Energy
Agency (IEA) reports that going down such a path will produce huge net
economic losses. IEA reports [PDF] that for every dollar “saved” by investing in a dirtier power plant
before 2020, countries will wind up spending more than $4 after 2020 to overcome the impact of those dirty investments.
So let’s have the debate. The market has walked away from
conventional coal plants. Should the EPA try to hold back the tide of
market forces? Should the EPA set CO2 standards for new power plants that
are twisted to make the coal industry happy? Or should the EPA follow the
law and good policy and set standards that provide a level playing field
for coal and natural gas and avoid locking us into another round of new
multi-billion dollar old coal technology that will cost us more and
damage our health and the only climate we have?
Remember way back, uh, two days ago when I wrote a post arguing that new EPA rules will not threaten electric system reliability? Well, just in the last day or so, more evidence has emerged to support that position. I enjoy being right, so I’m doing a follow-up post. Hopefully this will not be a daily thing.
First, as Inside EPA reports, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), a trade group for investor-owned utilities, has done its own internal study on coal-plant shutdowns. Now, you have to keep in mind that EEI and other industry groups have, in public anyway, been making hysterical predictions about a huge wave of immediate plant shutdowns that will cast whole regions of the country into darkness. So what do they find when they study the matter internally?
There will be far fewer shutdowns than industry shills are predicting — around 321 plants, or 48,000 megwatts’ worth (roughly 14 percent of current coal capacity, or 5 percent of total generation capacity).
The shutdowns will take place over a much longer period of time than industry shills are predicting — over a decade rather than in the next two or three years.
Most of the closures are happening for other reasons, unrelated to EPA rules — the plants are old, they’re uneconomic to run, they’re getting beat by cheap gas.
So the fear mongering of right-wingers and industry PR flacks is belied by the industry’s own estimates. For lots more on this, I recommend John Hanger’s blog posts here and here.
Second, the Dept. of Energy (DOE) has just released its own in-depth study [PDF] on the reliability question. It’s interesting because DOE deliberately analyzed a worst-case scenario, a “Stringent Test Case” that the agency acknowledges is more severe than what’s actually anticipated when the rules are implemented.
Even using that extreme case, DOE found that “the overall supply-demand balance for electric
power in each region examined would be adequate,” and furthermore, that “mechanisms exist to address such reliability concerns or other extenuating
circumstances on a plant-specific or more local basis.” This is more or less what other analysts have found as well.
In short, there’s a growing — at this point overwhelming — body of evidence that it is perfectly possible to shut down the nation’s dirtiest coal plants and still keep the lights on. This won’t stop industry shills from fear mongering, but it should fortify the spines of wishy-washy moderates in Congress.