Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Clean technologies in power generation

I have blogged earlier about how entrenched ideological positions on important public issues comes in the way of achieving even the "second-best" solutions, leave alone the "best". The best becomes the enemy of the good!

Gregg Easterbrook points to another example of this in the context of clean technologies for power generation.

"Companies including General Electric have already perfected technology to reduce emissions substantially, called 'integrated gasification combined cycle' power. Current coal-fired power plants burn pulverized coal using a combustion process that hasn’t changed in a half a century. The new approach turns coal into a gas similar to natural gas, which runs through a device similar to a jet engine. Such plants can achieve near-zero emissions of toxic material and chemicals that form smog, and they require about a third less coal than regular coal-fired power plants to produce an equal amount of energy, which means about a third lower greenhouse gases.

Beyond that, the promising technology of 'sequestering' carbon dioxide — pumping it back into the ground to keep it out of atmosphere — appears for technical reasons to be impractical for conventional pulverized-coal power plants. But gasification plants have technical characteristics that should make 'sequestration' of carbon feasible. A gasification power plant with sequestration would have around two-thirds lower greenhouse gases than a conventional coal-fired generating station. The first commercial gasification power plant, designed by General Electric for Duke Energy, is being built in Indiana."

Absurdly enough, this technology continues to languish at the margins. Power generation companies are deterred by the higher up-front cost of a gasification plant and environmentalists reject any coal-based power generation solution. As Easterbrook writes, "Much of the environmental movement clings to a fairyland notion that coal combustion can soon be eliminated, and therefore no coal-fired power plant of any kind, even an advanced plant, should be built... We have two choices: do nothing and wait while coal-caused carbon emissions continue unabated; or start building improved coal-fired plants that reduce the problem."

Governments can make such technologies attractive for generation utilities by making the power generated from conventional coal-based plants expensive. This can be achieved by either imposing carbon emission caps and/or taxing the carbon emissions. The Waxman-Markey Climate Change Bill, with all its flaws, passed by the US Congress recently, after resisting such restrictions for over twenty years, is a step in this direction. At the heart of the legislation is a cap-and-trade system that sets a limit on overall emissions of heat-trapping gases while allowing utilities, manufacturers and other emitters to trade pollution permits, or allowances, among themselves. The cap would grow tighter over the years, pushing up the price of emissions and presumably driving industry to find cleaner ways of making energy.

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