Category Archives: Carbon dioxide

And Now, the Really Big Coal Plants Begin to Close

Old, small plants were the early retirees, but several of the biggest U.S. coal burners—and CO2 emitters-will be shuttered by year’s end

Scientific American, by Benjamin Storrow, E&E News, 16 Aug 2019
And Now, the Really Big Coal Plants Begin to Close
The Navajo Generating Station, near Page, Ariz., is scheduled to close this year. It’s one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the U.S. power sector. Credit: David Wall Getty Images

When the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona shuts down later this year, it will be one of the largest carbon emitters to ever close in American history.

The giant coal plant on Arizona’s high desert emitted almost 135 million metric tons of carbon dioxide between 2010 and 2017, according to an E&E News review of federal figures.

Its average annual emissions over that period are roughly equivalent to what 3.3 million passenger cars would pump into the atmosphere in a single year. Of all the coal plants to be retired in the United States in recent years, none has emitted more.

The Navajo Generating Station isn’t alone. It’s among a new wave of super-polluters headed for the scrap heap. Bruce Mansfield, a massive coal plant in Pennsylvania, emitted nearly 123 million tons between 2010 and 2017. It, too, will be retired by year’s end (Energywire, Aug. 12).

And in western Kentucky, the Paradise plant emitted some 102 million tons of carbon over that period. The Tennessee Valley Authority closed two of Paradise’s three units in 2017. It will close the last one next year (Greenwire, Feb. 14).

“It’s just the economics keep moving in a direction that favors natural gas and renewables. Five years ago, it was about the older coal plants becoming uneconomic,” said Dan Bakal, senior director of electric power at Ceres, which works with businesses to transition to clean energy. “Now, it’s becoming about every coal unit, and it’s a question of how long they can survive.”

Coal plant closures have been a feature of U.S. power markets for the better part of a decade, as stagnant demand, low natural gas prices and increasing competition from renewables have battered the coal fleet.

In previous years, most retirements were made up of smaller and lesser-used units (Climatewire, April 27, 2017). That means the emissions reductions were less substantial.

In 2015, the United States closed 15 gigawatts of coal capacity, or roughly 5% of the coal fleet. That still stands as a record amount of coal capacity retired in one year.

Yet the emissions reductions were modest by today’s standards. The units retired in 2015 emitted a combined 261 million tons in the six years prior to their retirement, according to an E&E News review of EPA emissions data. On average, they annually emitted about 43 million tons over that period.

Contrast that to 2018, when almost 14 GW of coal was retired. Those units emitted 511 million tons of carbon between 2010 and 2015. Their combined average annual emissions rate was 83 million tons.

The trend figures to be even more dramatic this year.

SMALL PLANTS ARE GONE

The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects almost 8 GW of coal to retire in 2019, or a little more than half the capacity retired in 2015. Yet the units retired this year emitted more than their 2015 counterparts. Between 2010 and 2015, their combined emissions were 328 million tons, giving them an annual emissions average of 55 million tons.

Other factors are also at play in the retirement of coal’s behemoths. In some cases, federal air quality regulations or an exodus of customers may have contributed to the closure, said John Larsen, who leads power-sector analysis at the Rhodium Group, an economic consulting firm.

The Navajo Generating Station is a case in point. The plant had already planned to shut down a unit to comply with federal smog regulations. Two utilities with a stake in the facility had either divested from the plant or plan to do so. And the plant’s largest customer announced it could buy power on the wholesale market for less.

“You notice the average size of retired plants going up over time. There are not a lot of small plants left, period,” Larsen said. “Once you’ve cleared out all the old inefficient stuff, it’s logical the next wave would be bigger and have more implications for the climate.”

There are several caveats to consider. Units scheduled for retirement generally produce less in the years running up to their closure, meaning the plants that closed in 2015 once emitted more than they did near the end of their lives.

There’s also this: The vast majority of super-polluters have no closure date in sight. That’s because massive coal plants generally benefit from large economies of scale. Because they crank out power around the clock, their cost of generating electricity is relatively cheap.

“The coal plants remaining have generally installed all the environmental controls,” Larsen said. “There are no additional regulatory threats, or they are cost-effective in a world where gas is $2.50 per MMBtu.”

Another caveat: Coal plant closures don’t guarantee power-sector emissions reductions on their own. In 2018, power-sector emissions increased for the first time in many years because electricity demand rose, prompting natural gas generation to spike (Climatewire, Jan. 14).

But if there is a notable trend with the current round of plant closures, it is this: The large coal plants closing today are in places like Arizona, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

“You’re not seeing climate policy close these plants,” said Mike O’Boyle, director of electricity policy for Energy Innovation, a nonprofit that advocates for a transition to clean energy. “Coal plants are becoming more expensive to operate over time.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.
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    Atmospheric CO2 Levels Just Hit a Scary New Milestone

    By Brian Kahn, May 13, 2019
    EARTHER, Giamodo.com
    Illustration for article titled Atmospheric CO2 Levels Just Hit a Scary New Milestone
    Photo: AP

    It’s a foregone conclusion that as long as the world keeps emitting carbon dioxide, we’ll keep setting records for how much ends up in the atmosphere. But that doesn’t make the recent high water mark of carbon dioxide any easier to swallow.

    On Saturday, scientists recorded the first ever carbon dioxide reading above 415 parts per million (ppm) at the Mauna Loa Observatory. They’ve been measuring carbon dioxide levels continuously since 1958 at that location, but ice cores and other data show that it’s not just the highest carbon dioxide has been in 61 years of data. It’s the highest its ever been 800,000 years of data, and that should give us pause about the unsettling planetary experiment we’ve initiated.

    Plot atmospheric carbon dioxide measurements and you’ll see they follows a sawtooth pattern over the course of a year. Carbon dioxide dips from summer into early fall as northern hemisphere plants suck it out of the atmosphere, and rises from late fall into spring as plants decompose and release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. This was all going on largely unchanged from year-to-year until humans started using the atmosphere as a dump for carbon dioxide.

    Now, the sawtooth pattern has been set on edge, rising year over year and setting new records each spring. The resulting graph—one of the most iconic data visualizations in science—is known as the Keeling Curve. In February, the world passed the record set last year. And on May 11, carbon dioxide cracked 415 ppm for the first time in human history.

    Natural fluctuations like El Niño—marked by a warming of the waters in the eastern tropical Pacific—can speed up the rise but human activities are what have driven carbon dioxide to its new milestone. Sure, it’s just a number. The climate is only slightly more screwed at 415 ppm than it was at 414 ppm. And next year, we’ll rocket past 415 ppm.

    But it’s worth taking stock of what it took to get us here and the choices in front of us. The world has known for decades carbon emissions have put it on a path toward dangerous climate change. The greenhouse effect was established long before that. And yet rather than tap the brakes, carbon emissions have sped up. At the start of the Mauna Loa Observatory record, it took 16 years for atmospheric carbon dioxide to rise 15 ppm. It took 6 years to do the same from 2010-2016. It feels like only a few years ago we were worried about crossing the 400 ppm threshold, which wait. We were.

    The great carbon acceleration has created an atmosphere unlike one any human has ever seen. And it means the climate is turning into one we’ve never known either, one with super charged heat wavesviolent rising seas, and ecosystem failure. But that’s not even the scary part.

    These are the changes we’re seeing now with about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming. Because carbon dioxide sits in the atmosphere for centuries, the climate will warp even further. And with emissions hitting a new peak in 2018, the world isn’t backing away from the brink anytime soon. Instead, we’re racing toward it.

    None of which is to say we need to keep running toward catastrophe. The world’s leading scientists have laid out a series of choices we can make to avert it. It’s up to the world and world leaders in particular to look at that map and chart which roads they want to travel.

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      Emissions at four Alberta tar sands mines 64% higher than previously reported

      Oilsands CO2 emissions may be far higher than companies report, scientists say

      By Mitchell Beer, The Energy Mix, April 23, 2019 | Full Story: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation @CBCNews

      Carbon pollution from four major tar sands/oil sands mines in northern Alberta is 64% higher than their owners reported using the United Nations’ standard emissions measurement framework, according to a study released this morning in the journal Nature Communications.

      “The researchers, mainly from Environment Canada, calculated emissions rates for four major oilsands surface mining operations using air samples collected in 2013 on 17 airplane flights over the area,” CBC reports. The study found gaps from 13 to 123% between reported and actual emissions at the four facilities, a finding that “could have profound consequences for government climate change strategies”.

      As for the fossils that submitted the data, “they’re just doing exactly what they’ve been told to do,” said John Liggio, an aerosol chemist at Environment and Climate Change Canada. “They’re not doing anything on purpose.”

      But that doesn’t make the research finding any less significant. Accurate numbers on carbon pollution “inform national and international climate policies,” the study states. “Such anthropogenic GHG emission data ultimately underpin carbon pricing and trading policies.”

      “The bottom line is we still have more work to do in terms of really determining how much is being emitted,” Liggio told CBC.

      The findings of this one study place Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions about 2.3 higher than they were previously believed to be, CBC notes. “If research eventually shows that other oilsands sites are subject to similar underreporting issues, Canada’s overall greenhouse gas emissions could be as much as 6% more than thought—throwing a wrench into the calculations that underpin government emissions strategies.”

      On CBC, Liggio explained the standard, “bottom-up” method by which fossils are required to report their production emissions is fraught with uncertainty, factoring in everything from the carbon intensity of the fuels they use to whether plant maintenance activities may have driven a temporary spike in emissions.

      With their flyovers, Liggio and his colleagues took “a ‘top-down’ approach involving hundreds of air samples taken during more than 80 hours of flights over four major surface mining operations in northern Alberta: Syncrude Canada’s Mildred Lake facility, Suncor’s Millennium and North Steepbank site, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s Horizon mine, and what was then Shell’s Albian Jackpine operation, now majority owned by Canadian Natural,” CBC explains.

      “Left out of the study, notably, are emissions from all oilsands operations that use in-situ extraction, pumping steam into the ground to get the petroleum out. About 80% of oilsands reserves, and the majority of current production, require in-situ extraction,” which means “the overall amount of underreported greenhouse gas emissions could be significantly higher.”

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        America’s 2018 carbon emissions – the biggest increase in eight years

        Repost from The New York Times

        U.S. Carbon Emissions Surged in 2018 Even as Coal Plants Closed

        By Brad Plumer, Jan. 8, 2019
        Passenger planes at the Phoenix airport in July. Greenhouse gas emissions from airplanes and trucking increased sharply in 2018. Credit: Angus Mordant/Bloomberg

        WASHINGTON — America’s carbon dioxide emissions rose by 3.4 percent in 2018, the biggest increase in eight years, according to a preliminary estimate published Tuesday.

        Strikingly, the sharp uptick in emissions occurred even as a near-record number of coal plants around the United States retired last year, illustrating how difficult it could be for the country to make further progress on climate change in the years to come, particularly as the Trump administration pushes to roll back federal regulations that limit greenhouse gas emissions.

        The estimate, by the research firm Rhodium Group, pointed to a stark reversal. Fossil fuel emissions in the United States have fallen significantly since 2005 and declined each of the previous three years, in part because of a boom in cheap natural gas and renewable energy, which have been rapidly displacing dirtier coal-fired power.

        Yet even a steep drop in coal use last year wasn’t enough to offset rising emissions in other parts of the economy. Some of that increase was weather-related: A relatively cold winter led to a spike in the use of oil and gas for heating in areas like New England.

        But, just as important, as the United States economy grew at a strong pace last year, emissions from factories, planes and trucks soared. And there are few policies in place to clean those sectors up.

        “The big takeaway for me is that we haven’t yet successfully decoupled U.S. emissions growth from economic growth,” said Trevor Houser, a climate and energy analyst at the Rhodium Group.

        As United States manufacturing boomed, for instance, emissions from the nation’s industrial sectors — including steel, cement, chemicals and refineries — increased by 5.7 percent.

        Policymakers working on climate change at the federal and state level have so far largely shied away from regulating heavy industry, which directly contributes about one-sixth of the country’s carbon emissions. Instead, they’ve focused on decarbonizing the electricity sector through actions like promoting wind and solar power.

        But even as power generation has gotten cleaner, those overlooked industrial plants and factories have become a larger source of climate pollution. The Rhodium Group estimates that the industrial sector is on track to become the second-biggest source of emissions in California by 2020, behind only transportation, and the biggest source in Texas by 2022.

        There’s a similar story in transportation: Since 2011, the federal government has been steadily ratcheting up fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks, although the Trump administration has proposed to halt the toughening of those standards after 2021.

        78 Environmental Rules on the Way Out Under Trump.  This is the full list of environmental policies the Trump administration has targeted, often in an effort to ease burdens on the fossil fuel industry. Oct. 5, 2017
        There are signs that those standards have been effective. In the first nine months of 2018, Americans drove slightly more miles in passenger vehicles than they did over that span the previous year, yet gasoline use dropped by 0.1 percent, thanks in part to fuel-efficient vehicles and electric cars.

        But, as America’s economy expanded last year, trucking and air travel also grew rapidly, leading to a 3 percent increase in diesel and jet fuel use and spurring an overall rise in transportation emissions for the year. Air travel and freight have also attracted less attention from policymakers to date and are considered much more difficult to electrify or decarbonize.

        Demand for electricity surged last year, too, as the economy grew, and renewable power did not expand fast enough to meet the extra demand. As a result, natural gas filled in the gap, and emissions from electricity rose an estimated 1.9 percent. (Natural gas produces lower CO2 emissions than coal when burned, but it is still a fossil fuel.)

        Transmission towers near the coal-fired Will County Generating Station in Romeoville, Ill.CreditDaniel Acker/Bloomberg

        Even with last year’s increase, carbon dioxide emissions in the United States are still down 11 percent since 2005, a period of considerable economic growth. Trump administration officials have often cited that broader trend as evidence that the country can cut its climate pollution without strict regulations.

        But if the world wants to avert the most dire effects of global warming, major industrialized countries, including the United States, will have to cut their fossil-fuel emissions much more drastically than they are currently doing.

        Climate Change Is Complex. We’ve Got Answers to Your Questions. We know. Global warming is daunting. So here’s a place to start: 17 often-asked questions with some straightforward answers. Sept. 19, 2017

        Last month, scientists reported that greenhouse gas emissions worldwide rose at an accelerating pace in 2018, putting the world on track to face some of the most severe consequences of global warming sooner than expected.

        Under the Paris climate agreement, the United States vowed to cut emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The Rhodium Group report warns that this target now looks nearly unattainable without a flurry of new policies or technological advances to drive down emissions throughout the economy.

        “The U.S. has led the world in emissions reductions in the last decade thanks in large part to cheap gas displacing coal,” said Jason Bordoff, director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, who was not involved in the analysis. “But that has its limits, and markets alone will not deliver anywhere close to the pace of decarbonization needed without much stronger climate policy efforts that are unfortunately stalled if not reversed under the Trump administration.”

        The Rhodium Group created its estimate by using government data for the first three quarters of 2018 combined with more recent industry data. The United States government will publish its official emissions estimates for all of 2018 later this year.

        For more news on climate and the environment, follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.
        Brad Plumer is a reporter covering climate change, energy policy and other environmental issues for The Times’s climate team. @bradplumer
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