Sunday, June 03, 2012

Improving existing coal plant efficiency is the political sweet spot

UPDATE;  Management strongly encourages readers to look at the bottom of the comments, a very interesting and informative discussion of electrical power distribution and generation has broken out.  Whoda thunk.

Nice post by Brad Plumer about unglamorous low-tech fixes for the climate:
Catherine Wolfram, an economist at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, says that we too often ignore simpler solutions, such as wringing more efficiency out of our existing fossil-fuel and nuclear plants. Many of those power plants, after all, are likely to stick around for decades to come.... 
Wolfram described what happened in the 1990s after some U.S. states began deregulating their electricity sectors. Utilities sold off their nuclear reactors to private operators. And, Wolfram found in a recent paper with Lucas Davis, electricity output at these newly privatized reactors increased 10 percent compared with those that stayed in the hands of tightly regulated utilities.
....Even today, Wolfram notes, many U.S. power plants still don’t have incentives to operate as efficiently as possible. There are many coal plants in the Southeast that are regulated under “cost-of-service” rules, in which power plants can pass their fuel costs onto consumers. That means there’s less reason to operate as efficiently as possible. And a carbon tax wouldn’t necessarily fix this — not if utilities could just pass costs onto consumers. 
Bruce Buckheit, a former EPA official, concurs. He notes that the efficiency of the U.S. coal fired fleet has remained flat since the 1970s. And a variety of research (pdf) suggests that small improvements in operations could boost the overall efficiency of the U.S. coal fleet by as much as 5 percent. (Wolfram, for instance, has found that a coal plant’s efficiency can vary as much as 3 percent depending on the skill of the guy sitting at the controls.) That may not sound like much, says Buchkeit, but spread across hundreds of coal plants, there are real carbon savings to be had here.
A mandate requiring the utilities to get off their lazy butts, improve coal plant efficiency to match the best-in-class levels, and pass the savings on to customers sounds like a political winner to me.  The Republicans will call it a slippery slope, but if you can't fight them on this then the game's over.  Seems like a nice initiative to move forward this fall.

It might be too expensive for the oldest plants to convert and shut them down instead, as if that's a sad story, but overall this should save people money.  I suppose the new investment might be used against an effort to shut the plants down in a few years, but for the vast majority of them, I think Brad is right that they're going to be around for more than a few years.  Anyway, it doesn't sound like it needs much of an investment, just some willingness to hire trained people.

UPDATE:  one possibility would be to exempt coal plants if the owners commit to shut them down or otherwise make them as efficient as natural gas within a certain period, say 5-10 years.  If the grandfathering that's found throughout the Clean Air Act came with time limits, we'd be much better off.