World economy grew, but carbon emissions didn't

In a sign that low-carbon policies may finally be gaining traction, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions leveled off last year even while the world economy grew.

Preliminary data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) indicate that energy-related CO2 emissions (from burning fossil fuels for electricity, transportation, industry, space heating and so on) remained unchanged from the previous year at 32.3 billion metric tons. Meanwhile, economic growth increased 3.3 percent.

One year’s data doesn’t necessarily translate into a trend. Even with much stronger efforts, it will be some time before we can truly announce that we have turned the corner on reducing carbon dioxide emissions. But 2014 is notable in that it’s the first time since the IEA was established in the early 1970s that a levelling off or a drop in global carbon emissions didn’t accompany an economic downtown.

Historically, energy-related CO2 emissions have moved in lockstep with economic growth. They’re being decoupled due to policy changes and market forces affecting two factors – energy intensity and fuel mix – both in China and in the developed economies.

Power can be both clean and reliable

A number of analysts have raised concerns that the proposed Clean Power Plan, aimed at reducing power plant carbon emissions, could threaten the reliability of electric power. But a closer look at the U.S. power system and the safeguards in place suggests that these reliability issues are manageable. The greater threat to reliability, in fact, is the rising incidence of extreme weather driven by climate change.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which is overseen by the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and government authorities in Canada, is responsible for keeping our power system reliable. NERC develops reliability standards and assesses the power system to anticipate and minimize the risk of disruption. It was established after a 1965 multi-hour Northeast blackout. Since then, the U.S. population has increased by 65 percent and power generation is more than 3.5 times greater with only one comparable blackout, in 2003.

Last fall, NERC issued an initial report identifying reliability issues under the Clean Power Plan that required further investigation. NERC and other analysts have questioned whether our natural gas system can handle more demand if more power plants switch from coal to natural gas. NERC also questioned how the power system will respond to less 24/7 baseload coal generation and more intermittent renewable generation.

Since the NERC report was issued, the Department of Energy, The Analysis Group and the Brattle Group have offered analyses that suggest power plant emissions can be reduced under the Clean Power Plan without compromising system reliability.

US-China climate goals go well beyond business as usual

The climate targets announced this month by the United States and China will require a significant effort beyond a business-as-usual scenario for both countries. More details will likely follow in the weeks and months ahead, but here is what we know so far for each country.

China

China announced a goal for its greenhouse gas emissions to peak by 2030 or sooner. This marks the first time that China has pledged a peak or absolute target for greenhouse gas emissions, rather than an intensity-based target. In business-as-usual scenarios, China’s emissions wouldn’t peak until 2040 or later.

China also announced it would boost its share of zero-carbon energy, which includes nuclear, hydropower and renewables, to 20 percent – up from about 13 percent today. Meeting that goal will require a substantial build-out of nuclear power stations, hydroelectric stations, wind turbines, and solar panels, as well as transmission and other infrastructure. In a separate announcement, China said it plans to cap its coal consumption by the year 2020.

China can’t, as critics claim, sit idly by for 15 years and reach these targets. It will need to significantly restructure its energy system. China will have to add more than 1 GW of zero-carbon power a week for the next 15 years – an amount roughly equal to the entire installed electricity capacity of the United States.

SaskPower unveils first commercial-scale, coal-fired power plant to capture carbon

For the first time ever, a large-scale, coal-fired power plant is capturing carbon dioxide to keep it from being released into the atmosphere – a milestone for a technology critical to addressing climate change.

Canadian electric utility SaskPower has switched on unit 3 at its Boundary Dam power plant, about 10 miles from the North Dakota border, and will hold an official grand opening Oct. 2. Following a $1.2 billion retrofit, the 46-year-old, 110-megawatt coal unit is now on course toward capturing 90 percent of its carbon emissions. Other upgrades reduce nitrous oxide emissions and capture 100 percent of the unit’s sulfur dioxide emissions.

Numerous commercial-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology projects have been deployed in the industrial sector. In the power sector, demonstration-scale projects have been deployed, but this is the first commercial-scale project.

We will need to construct hundreds of such projects (along with other zero- and lower-emitting technologies) if greenhouse gas emissions are to be reduced to levels that avoid the worst effects of climate change. According to the International Energy Agency, more than 440 terawatt-hours (TWh) of CCS must be generated between 2020 and 2035 to give us a chance of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. To get a sense of that scale, SaskPower’s unit 3 can produce up to 1 TWh of electricity per year.

The Boundary Dam project is important not just because it’s the first of its kind, but because it demonstrates a way to help make carbon capture technology economically viable -- by turning unwanted pollutants into valuable commodities. SaskPower has agreed to transport and sell its captured carbon dioxide (CO2) to an oilfield operated by Cenovus for use in enhanced oil recovery (EOR) operations. The captured CO2 helps coax additional production from declining oil fields and results in the permanent storage of the CO2 underground. (In addition, captured sulfur dioxide emissions will be used to produce 50 tons per day of sulfuric acid for industrial customers, and SaskPower will sell the plant’s coal combustion residuals, also known as coal ash, for use in construction products like drywall and concrete.)

No single solution to nuclear’s troubles

A range of tools, including state action and power market changes, are needed to ensure that existing nuclear power plants help keep the United States on track to meeting its climate goals. That was the consensus of experts C2ES convened this week at the National Press Club to discuss nuclear’s role as a zero-carbon energy source.

In a new brief, Climate Solutions: The Role of Nuclear Power, C2ES laid out some of the factors that led to the premature retirement of five nuclear reactors. Nuclear power provides more than 60 percent of zero-carbon emission electricity in the United States. So further closures will make it harder to reduce U.S. carbon emissions.

C2ES assembled a group of experts, including Peter Lyons, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy; Carol Browner, Center for American Progress Distinguished Senior Fellow and former EPA Administrator; and Bill Mohl, President of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, to suggest potential remedies for preserving the existing nuclear fleet.

Notably, not all of the 100 operating nuclear reactors are at risk, only the 46 that operate as “merchant” generators and compete in wholesale power markets. Pressures they face include low natural gas prices, renewables policy, a slowdown in demand for electricity, unfavorable power market structures, and the absence of a price on carbon.