After public pressure, Chicago will shut two aging coal-fired power plants, and the owner of one of the power plants, Midwest Generation, may shut its other four coal plants in Illinois. Since the start of 2010, more than 100 coal plants have been slated for early retirement.
A major reason for coal plants shutting has been public opposition to pollution from coal. Also, looming requirements by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for stringent pollution controls could take a toll on the coal industry, while boosting the market for pollution control devices. One huge coal plant in New Mexico lost a legal battle with the EPA to avoid having to install a more effective type of pollution-control equipment.
But what really has the coal industry “frightened” is cheap natural gas, the result of a boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of shale deposits. But demand for natural gas may soon grow, since more natural gas vehicles are already in the works, and an announcement by President Obama that he’ll expand tax credits for alternative vehicles to include those powered by hydrogen and natural gas.
How Clean is the Clean Energy Standard?
Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Bingaman introduced the Clean Energy Standard Act of 2012, which would force the largest utilities to meet targets starting in 2015 that by 2035 would ramp up to require 84 percent clean energy—defined as sources that create less greenhouse gases than modern coal plants. If enacted, which analysts rated as unlikely, the law would benefit natural gas, at least initially, but several renewable energy groups endorsed the bill.
However, last month a study led by former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold found that switching from coal to gas would lead to only a slight drop in warming by the end of the century, so achieving “substantial reductions in temperatures” compared with use of coal would require “rapid and massive deployment” of very low-emissions energy such as solar and wind.
This fits with an analysis last year from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, whose lead researcher concluded switching to natural gas “would do little to help solve the climate problem.” Such findings led activist Bill McKibben to argue natural gas is not a “bridge fuel,” but rather “a rickety pier extending indefinitely out into a hotter future.”
Meanwhile, plans are under way to expand exports of U.S. coal with new shipping terminals in the Pacific Northwest and a “tremendous increase” in capacity at a Louisiana port. At CERAWeek, a major meeting for the oil and gas industry, the most popular discussion about U.S. natural gas is the “prospect of exporting it,” an issue Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman said the administration is “looking at closely.”
China Puts on the Brakes
The growth of China’s coal production is expected to slow down—part of a general slowing for the country in 2012.
In the annual meeting of China’s parliament, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced a lower target for economic growth—7.5 percent, the lowest in seven years—and would shift from an export-focused economy to instead emphasize domestic consumption.
Wen also said the country will “put an end to blind expansion in industries such as solar energy and wind power”—possibly referring to oversupplies of wind turbines and solar panels. China’s wind industry has exploded from six turbine manufacturers in 2004 to more than 100 today, leading to manufacturing capacity that’s larger than the demand and a large number of projects awaiting connections.
China had “imbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable development,” Wen said. The country had missed half its major targets for energy conservation and environmental protection, largely because they “have not transformed the economic development model,” said Zhang Ping, minister of the National Development and Reform Commission.
The government also announced it will create stricter laws for air pollution, and an official said two-thirds of Chinese cities would likely fail to meet the new standard.
Hockey Stick in a Knife-Fight
Climate researcher Michael Mann has been under attack by Virginia’s Attorney General, Kenneth Cuccinelli, who has been trying to force Mann’s former employer, the University of Virginia, to release documents on Mann’s work so he could “determine whether or not fraud had been committed.” But the Virginia Supreme Court turned down Cuccinelli’s request, which the Union of Concerned Scientists called “a victory for science in Virginia.”
Mann has become a lightning rod for his research on ancient climates and for creating the famous “hockey stick” graph showing rising temperatures in recent decades—a tale recounted in his new book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars.
He said scientists are in a tough position, because they’re in a “knife-fight” with climate change skeptics, but scientists “can’t play by the rules of knife-fighting ourselves.”
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday for National Geographic’s News Watch by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.