How Clean is Clean?

With the demise of climate change legislation last year, attention has shifted to the possibility of a patchwork of other rules that would have the effect of cutting carbon dioxide emissions. On the state level, one popular step is a renewable energy standard for the electricity sector.

A coal scraping machine at a plant in New Haven, W.Va.. Owners installed technology to capture carbon emissions as the plant generates electricity. A coal scraper at a plant in New Haven, W.Va. The plant captures carbon dioxide emissions as it generates electricity.

Generally the renewables standard is expressed as a percentage of the electricity generated by all energy sources, often with sub-quotas for solar power or geothermal energy.

A few years ago, there was talk of a national renewable energy standard, but in his State of the Union address in January, President Obama called for something slightly different — a “clean energy standard,” with 80 percent of the nation’s electricity coming from clean sources by 2035.

“Clean” is a broader category than “renewable,” but just what is it?

Mr. Obama wants nuclear energy, natural gas and “clean coal” — or  plants that burn coal more cleanly or use their technology to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions — counted in the total.

In March, Senator Jeff Bingaman, the New Mexico Democrat who is the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, and Senator Lisa Murkowski, the ranking Republican, put out a white paper on the question and asked for public commenton what should be counted.

The paper said that renewable energy standards had been talked about before but that “the concept has not yet been seriously considered or analyzed.’’

The public comments were requested over a three-week period beginning in February, and they came in so fast that the committee’s e-mail server crashed. About 250 were substantive, according to a committee spokesman. Senator Bingaman has said he hopes the Congress will act on the idea by this summer.

One factor that makes a national standard for clean energy or renewable energy much trickier than a state standard is that the state standards set limits on how much electricity can be imported to meet the quota. A national standard, however, implies free trade in wind and solar power, in which case the Plains States and Southwest desert states would make money exporting to states in the East and Southeast.

One party with a foot in almost all camps is General Electric, which makes wind turbines and conventional turbines that run on natural gas or fuel oil as well as reactors. Walk through an old-fashioned coal plant, and chances are good you will see General Electric equipment there, too.

At a meeting with reporters on Thursday, Darryl L. Wilson, head of a division of the company that makes small gas turbines, extolled the virtues of wind. One reason is that his turbines can be used for “wind firming.”

A 100-megawatt machine, which is small by power-plant standards but large by the standards of wind farms, can go from 0 to 100 percent power in 10 minutes, he said. That is far faster than a coal or nuclear plant, and thus makes gas turbines a good dance partner for wind turbines.

“It’s emerging as a solution for renewables backup,” he said.

The company also makes nuclear reactors, of course. Another G.E. official, Rob Wallace, who handles federal relations, said he thought that Mr. Obama’s proposal was achievable precisely because “it incorporates the broadest number of technologies.”

“The debate last year didn’t include gas, and four or five years ago, it didn’t include nuclear,’’ he said. “It has to be a standard that has a chance of passing.”

But including “clean” coal, gas and nuclear power risks losing some support, too.  Many advocates of wind and solar power are adamant that coal can never be clean, even if burned cleanly, because of the environmental damage from mining.

Lately the damage from drilling for natural gas in shale formations has also become a concern. And conventional ways of burning natural gas are too dirty for the goal set by Mr. Obama for 2050 of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent.

Is Mr. Obama right to pull gas, coal and nuclear into the clean energy tent? Is the political calculus behind that — the idea that traditional renewable sources lack enough political support to get a national standard adopted — correct? Your comments are invited.

New York Times

http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/05/how-clean-is-clean/

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