Obama’s New Coal Regulations

I’ve been holding off commenting on the new coal regulations announced by the EPA this past Monday. The reason is because the regulation has nothing to do with the reality of global warming. The science remains the same with, or without the proposed regulations.

However, I also like to discuss actions we can take to address the problems we are facing and the emission of greenhouse gases is certainly a problem that needs to be addressed. So, the question is, does the new proposed regulations address the problem? I have been reviewing what is being said and, to no surprise, both sides of the argument are making extreme predictions, neither of which seems to be holding up to the light of day.

First, I really see no evidence this will make a significant change in our greenhouse emissions. Headlines are saying it will reduce our emissions by 30%, but that isn’t true. What it will do is cut emissions from new construction power plants by 30% compared to the 2005 levels. Power plants have already reduced emissions by about 13% compared to 2005 levels, so we are talking about an additional 17% reduction. These regulations apply only to new power plants and not to any existing power plants or other sources of greenhouse gas emissions, such as cars. In the total picture, that comes out to about a 6% cut. And, that is over a 15-year period. Notice that the 17% reduction occurred without any new EPA regulations. They occurred because of market forces, so it is reasonable to assume that further reductions would occur without these new regulations.

Also, it isn’t even necessary to actually make the cuts. States can make their own plans and combine the power plants with something else. So, if some industry is making reductions anyway it is possible to combine them with the power plants and the power plants can then go their merry way. To make it even worse, states are allowed to join together in one big plan. So, the reduction could be taking place in one state and the coal-fired plant could be in another.

Based on that, I have to say this is getting a lot more attention than it deserves.

But, what about the draconian predictions of the groups opposed to the proposed regulations?

Again, I just don’t see it. They are saying this will make electricity more expensive and cause a loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. The US Chamber of Commerce is predicting a loss of 224,000 jobs PER YEAR for the next 15 years. That comes out to 3,360,000 total jobs and that number is just not credible on the surface. I would want to see some serious estimates before I accept a figure like that.

Why am I so critical of that estimate? Simple. The demand for electricity is sky-rocketing in this country. If we are not building coal-fired plants, we will build something else. The electrical utilities will find a way to supply the electricity demanded because that is what they are in business to do. Supplying electricity means profit. They are not going to sit back and allow potential profits to go away without doing something about it.

And, as it turns out, we are developing better ways to generate electricity than burning coal. Natural gas is not great, but it is much better than coal and we have a very serious boom in natural gas production going on in this country. We have the ability to replace all of the coal-fired plants with natural gas alone.

But, that isn’t all. It now turns out that photo cells are becoming competitive with other forms of power production. A report by Barclays investment bank shows that photocells are already cost-competitive in Hawaii, and will be competitive in California by 2017 and New York and Arizona by 2018. By 2024, they say photocells will be cheaper than grid power in all but a handful of states.

Specifically, the report is looking at the issue of cells and storage on private homes – people going off the grid. But, if photocells are becoming that competitive, how long will it be before the utilities realize they can make efficient, competitive power plants using photocells?

In other words, we will be making electricity and I don’t see the cost sky rocketing. As for the jobs, there will likely be some job displacement, but losses will probably be minor if in fact, we don’t see an increase in jobs due to new technologies. Coal miners might see their jobs suffer, but I’m betting it won’t be as much as is claimed. Coal is something of a miracle power source, other than the fact that it is a terrible polluter. You just dig it out of the ground and use it. You don’t have to process it and it even comes in an easy to transport form. If we are not burning coal here in this country, there are world markets where it will still be cost effective to ship our coal. China alone is planning on opening a new power plant every week between now and 2050.

So, the way I view the regulation is that its pretty close to being much ado about nothing. The cost to the economy is not going to be anything like the dire forecasts being made. At the same time, the benefits to the environment are not going to be anything like the optimistic forecasts being made.

However, we must do something about the emissions. If this will help, then we should do it. And, it gives us the moral high ground to put pressure on other countries to take action on their emissions.

But, there is one dark side to this that needs to be addressed. As much as I, as a scientist, want to see politics stay out of a scientific issue, we all know that is not realistic. Politics is the driving force behind much of the debate. I really don’t believe the Republicans would deny global warming evidence so strongly if it was being proposed by a Republican. And, what Obama has done with his actions is to stir the pot and alienate Republicans even more. By his failure as President to work with the representatives of the People, including members of his own party, he is making future progress even harder to attain. By acting as an Imperial President, Obama is making it increasingly difficult to convince skeptics that this is a problem that needs to be addressed now.

In summary, I think the regulation is good one, even though it is over-hyped. But, I denounce the way it is being done.

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Solutions Aren’t Easy

Part of the problem with convincing a skeptical public that climate change is a problem is convincing them that there really isn’t an easy solution. We have been trained by TV shows to believe that scientists can solve any problem within 60 minutes and still leave time for commercials. If you ask someone if they believe that kind of scenario they will look at you as if you have lost your mind. ‘Of course not!,’ they’ll tell you. But, then they will turn right around and say that there is an easy solution to any given problem. We can solve the gas shortage tomorrow because scientists will come up with a car that gets 500 miles to the gallon. Everyone knows that and it is just the corporations that are preventing it. They don’t want to loose money. Right?

Wrong! But, if someone believes that you can never convince them otherwise. And, that is part of the problem with climate change. So many people believe an easy solution is out there, so they don’t believe we should worry about global warming. But, as this study shows, solutions are not nearly as easy as people want to believe.

As reported in Physics Today, this facility in Norway is working on carbon capture technology. Basically, the idea is the address global warming by removing the extra carbon dioxide we are putting in the atmosphere. However, they have found the process is very expensive. And, it uses a lot of energy. The generation of energy typically puts carbon dioxide in the air. You could use nuclear power or hydroelectric power, but unless you are building new power plants just for the carbon capture facilities you will be taking power away from other users and that power will have to be replaced with power from some other power plant. It is highly probable that the carbon capture facility will actually result in even more carbon dioxide being put into the atmosphere and doing it at great expense.

Then, there is the other extreme, the people that just say we need to stop putting greenhouse gases in the air. Sounds good, right? Wrong again! Just what are we going to do without so that we can stop putting greenhouse gases in the air? Are we going to do without electric power? Are we going to stop using cement? Are we going to stop putting fertilizer on our crops? All of these have serious consequences and would result in greatly decreased standards of living. And, the lower your income the more your standard of living would be affected. The rich will still live well. It is the middle class and the low-income people that would bear the burden.

So, what is the solution? I don’t know. But, I know we aren’t going to find it in 60 minutes and between commercial breaks.

Good News on Solar Power – Sort Of

An article in Reuter’s today stated that the world’s electrical generating capacity from solar cells is expected to rise to between 207.9 gigawatts and 342.8 GW by 2016. It is certainly good news to see we are developing solar capacity. But, there are drawbacks, as well.

The first thing to understand about solar energy is that it is not cheap. In fact, it is very expensive in comparison to other sources of electricity. In the U.S., the average rate for electricity is about $.09 per kilowatt-hour (kWh). But, not all generated electricity is equal. Currently, nuclear power is about $.10/kWh; coal is about $.08/kWh; and natural gas is about $.064/kWh. Solar power tops them all at about $.15/kWh. This is more than 66% higher than the average and almost 2 1/2 times what it costs to generate electricity with natural gas. To convert over to solar power would be a gigantic economic hit for the country.

The good news is all of this is the price of solar power has been dropping very rapidly over the last couple of decades. It has even dropped by about 25% since 2008. And, as more and more solar power plants are built and demand goes up, the price should drop even more. It is estimated that solar power will reach parity with other forms of power generation within the next decade.

But, the other bad thing about solar power is that the manufacture of solar cells is not environmentally friendly. The manufacture of solar cells involves using some extremely nasty chemicals. As the tonnage of the waste products from solar cell plants builds up we are experiencing a crisis with storage. And, unlike nuclear waste, this chemical waste will be poisonous for all eternity, it will not decay into something harmless. It is strange to note the similarities between the solar cell industry and the nuclear power industry, but environmentalists don’t seem to care about the solar cell industry problems.

The good news on this front is that the industry is working to reduce the hazards involved.

If we continue the way we are, we will reach the point where solar cells are safe and economical to manufacture and install. At that time, they will become a real competitor to traditional sources of power.

All of this illustrates the point that there are no easy fixes for the climate problems we find ourselves in. It took hundreds of years for us to get to this point, we are not going to fix it over night, or even quickly. We need to learn to agree on this, that we need to take steps, but those steps need to be rationale, well-thought out and not extremists.

Doing nothing and doing something very severe would both be extremists and both need to be avoided.

Climate Change Policies Cost Money

It is easy to come up with ideas of how to address climate change. Its harder to find ones that would actually work. It is harder still to find one that will work and is affordable. Governments work on ways to take our money away from us. We work on ways to prevent that. Since the public is more nimble than the government, the public almost always wins.

For instance, in 1990 Congress passed a luxury tax on things like yachts. The idea was that rich people buy yachts so this would be a good way to tax the rich. Of course, the rich are very good at avoiding things that take their money away, so they either didn’t buy yachts or bought them somewhere else. In a mere two years about 100 yacht builders were hit hard and laid off thousands of workers. Tax revenues plunged. The tax finally had to be repealed in 1992 before the entire industry was decimated.

It would be nice if governments would learn from their mistakes, but they don’t. The new luxury tax equivalent is climate change legislation. The idea is that a government can legislate some policy to fix climate change and we will all meekly follow along, no matter the cost. The truth is, the public will find a way to avoid the cost.

The latest example of this is in British Columbia. A carbon tax was initiated there in 2008 and was supposed to reduce BC’s carbon footprint. It would start small and get bigger over time to allow industry to adjust. This was all done with the expectation that other provinces, some U.S. states and maybe the U.S. as a whole would join in with similar legislation.

Well, the others didn’t join in and BC found itself the only player with this big tax on its industry, which they passed on to their customers, of course. Now, BC industry found itself at a economic disadvantage. Products from BC were too expensive and people bought more of their goods from other places. Places that didn’t have a carbon tax. The effect of the BC carbon tax was to transfer carbon emissions by transferring business to other locations that did not participate in the tax. The other places got the jobs and tax revenues. BC saw their rates decrease.

British Columbia has realized what is going on is looking at repealing the tax.

All of this serves to show that solving the climate change issue is not simple, it won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap. Which is one of the reasons why we can’t get it done. Simple economics has to be applied to any proposed policy before it is enacted. We could, in theory, replace our power plants with solar cell farms that would generate electricity during the day, store it and then release it during the night.

The problem is that it would be about three times as expensive as what we already have. Imagine poor and middle class families getting hit with a tripling of their utility bills. And, since the cost of electricity is factored into the cost of just about everything, we would see dramatic increases in prices across the board.

When we look at it in those terms, the idea just doesn’t seem as attractive.

But, we need to do something. We have to find a way we can come together and make something happen. If we don’t, we and our children will be in trouble.