Last summer, in a hearing before a Senate Subcommittee on Climate Change
(as opposed to calling it global warming), politicians on both sides of
the aisle assured a panel of coal industry CEOs that the electric utility
fuel share of coal-fired electricity generation will be maintained. The
“safety valve” against increases in Chinese coal-fired generation in coming
years was also assured.
The latest Annual Energy Outlook (AEO 2007), produced by the U.S. Energy
Information Administration, predicts that regardless of the growth rate
in electricity generation until 2030 (ranging from 2.3 percent to 4.6 percent),
coal-fired generation will stay between 49 and 50 percent of total U.S.
electricity generation until 2020. Between 2020 and 2030, newly installed,
coal-fired power plants will increase the share to about 57 percent of
operating generation. Carbon emissions from U.S. coal-fired power plants
in 2010 are forecast to remain at about 20 percent of global carbon emissions,
down from about 22 percent in 2003. China, on the other hand, will have
increased its global share of carbon-based electricity emissions, and therein
lies the rub among conservative coal industry cheerleaders. What’s less
noted, however, is that in this same period China will also have more than
doubled its electricity generation from renewable fuel sources.
The per capita numbers show that with about 5 percent of the world’s population
in 2004, the U.S. consumed about five and a half metric tons of coal-fired
carbon emissions per person, while China, peopled with over 20 percent
of the world’s population, consumed less than one metric ton of carbon
emissions per person. The U.S. produced more carbon emissions per capita
in 2004 than Europe, China, and India combined.
The number 445 carbon parts per million in the atmosphere was cited last
spring at a United Nations Energy Program conference in Bangkok. That was
the proposed cap and point of contention between the major industrial polluters,
headed by the U.S. and China (who claimed we have “a century” to figure
out what to do about it) and much of the rest of UN member nations, who
cited figures by leading scientists arguing that 2015 will be the point
of no return—the year when no matter how many mandatory restrictions on
carbon emissions and punitive cap ultimatums are in place, global heating
will take its own course. The UN cited a 30 to 60 percent reduction in
carbon fuel use by 2015 to delay the ultimate meltdown of the polar caps—445
carbon parts per million in the atmosphere because 450 carbon parts will
trigger the complete meltdown of the Greenland and Arctic ice shelves,
submerging much of the U.S. east coast and “the island continents” below
sea level. This will result in between 50 and 90 percent of all species
becoming extinct—a phenomenon, noted by Jim Hansen, former head of the
National Ocean and Aeronautics Administration (in his July 2006 review
of recent environmental books for the New York Review of Books), roughly
equivalent to the impact on the globe at the onset of the Ice Age.
Between 1990 and 2004, global carbon emissions increased at an average
rate of about 1.7 percent a year. Additionally, the carbon parts per million
in the atmosphere, the emissions that did not escape the atmosphere, have
increased about half a percent a year. In 2005 the trapped carbon emissions
in the atmosphere was at about 379.1 parts per million. Assuming, as the
U.S. Annual Energy Outlook 2007 does in its “base case,” the carbon emissions
output continues at or around 1.7 percent until 2030, and assuming a steady
.5 percent annual growth rate in trapped carbon gases, the planet has until
2040 before the Arctic/Greenland meltdown. The .5 percent growth in atmospheric
greenhouse gases, however, is unreliable. An increasing percentage of the
trapped carbon emissions will result by factors independent of (though
heavily exacerbated by) manmade carbon emissions.
Since the 2005 premiere of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, environmental
scientists have discovered exogenous repercussions to the increased level
of trapped carbon dioxide. The most widely known include: the melting of
permafrost that results in the release of carbon emissions trapped in the
ice and the heating of oceans that results in the killing of plankton that
would otherwise absorb the CO. Also, the melting of the ice caps increases
heating when the reduction of the ice shelf’s mass results in less heat
reflected back into the atmosphere, increasing the warming of the oceans
and intensifying the reduction in ocean floor plankton.
By 2015, according to a wide consensus of international environmental scientists,
this augmentation of exogenous factors will be such that even with drastic
reductions in carbon emission output, secondary and tertiary releases of
trapped gases will begin an uncontrollable cascade of incidental and unforeseen
sources of global heating. And what of the human variable? If that .5 percent
growth in trapped gases were increased to .75 percent, which is possible
in the very near future, the meltdown would occur before 2040.
If U.S. and Chinese electricity demands remain robust, a one percent growth
rate in trapped gasses would trigger a meltdown before 2025. In the scientific
community, this is not in dispute. The dispute is the year 2015—many in
the science com- munity claim that it is already too late to stop the reinforced
augmentation in global heating.
Answers and Questions
The hybrid car and a new fleet of cars averaging over 35 miles per gallon
are a dangerous sedative. New cars represent, in any given year, roughly
one-sixth of cars on the road. And what percentage of purchased new cars
will be hybrids or have better than 35 mpg? U.S. carbon emissions from
“transportation” (including automobile, train, plane, and all other inter-
and intra-state transit venues) represent, on average, about a third of
total annual U.S. carbon emissions. If, next year, the average mpg for
all new cars on the road were over 35 mpg, this would reduce nationwide
carbon output by, at best, a single digit percentage.
The big changes will have to come from the places where there is the least
likelihood of change. Between 2003 and 2010, carbon emissions from U.S.
coal-fired electricity generation is forecasted to increase almost 10 percent,
while in Europe it is forecasted to decline by almost 10 percent and in
Japan it is expected to remain unchanged.
Renewable fuel-based electricity generation had its heyday after the Carter
administration’s landmark regulatory scheme to encourage a reduction in
fossil fuel electricity generation under the PURPA Act of 1978, formally
instituted in 1982 after much legal wrangling among utilities to gut it.
PURPA enabled non-utility industries to install their own, small-scale
cogenerators that utilized a diverse variety of combustible fuels. Paper
mills, for instance, could use their scrap wood chips to fuel their cogenerators.
These small scale generators doubled the fuel efficiency of conventional
large-scale electric utility generators. The local utility was obligated
to buy any surplus power capacity by the facility, to assure the industrial
and commercial users a return on their costly generator, and provide the
community with a greater share of alternative electricity generation. Previously,
at the turn of the century in Manhattan, before Edison invented the centralized
electric power plant (the first use of which set JP Morgan’s home library
on fire), all electricity was provided by cogenerators. The city housed
over 100 independent steam-powered electric companies.
The Carter administration’s energy initiatives played a large part in the
decline of international oil prices, which bottomed out in 1992. Between
1980 and 1990, renewable energy generation increased over 12 percent. Electric
utilities nationwide saw a threat to their market share and feared a functional
transition from power producer to merely distribution grids for decentralized
It was during the Bush senior and Clinton years that electric utility lobbyists
saw to it that non-utility electricity generation would become an open
market for utilities to compete for PURPA production. Earlier landmark
regulatory policies that forbade anti-monopolistic interstate activities
were also gutted. By the late 1990s, for the first time in its history,
utility generation was largely unregulated and renewable energy generation
was on the decline. Even with the recent 6 percent spike in renewable energy
consumption in 2006, it is still 8 percent below its peak in 1997.
Many people scoff at President Bush’s disingenuous platitudes to sustain
a monumentally disastrous and costly (over $300 million a day) war in Iraq.
But the results of his environmental non-policy are increasingly more palpable,
tragic, and close to home. Judging by the confluence of stridently conservative
greed-is-good market crusaders in the House and Senate, it is not clear
that we, as a society, are capable of either fathoming the extent of—or
accepting responsibility for—a catastrophic environmental disaster many
of us may witness in our lifetimes.
Jon Berg is a former energy analyst, now freelance writer.