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Climate Goals – Focus on Power Plants Misplaced

Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists and former head of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection in the Patrick Administration, made a disturbing statement to Boston Globe reporter David Abel in a lead story May 16 on carbon emissions in Massachusetts.  

In reporting that the state would have trouble meeting its legally required target to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, Abel quotes Kimmel saying, “The electricity sector is by far the lowest-hanging fruit…. We need to make disproportionately large cuts there to meet our overall goals.” 

It apparently doesn’t matter to Kimmel that carbon emissions from electric power generation are already 50 percent below 1990 levels thanks to natural gas and renewables.  Nor does it seem to matter that the electricity generation sector now produces less than a quarter of the region’s carbon emissions. 

Nevertheless, Ian Bowles, former secretary of energy and environmental affairs in the Patrick Administration chimed in saying “We need steep, sustained declines in emissions here (in the electricity sector), and not a step back.”

The shutdown of the carbon-free Vermont Yankee nuclear plant is one reason for the uptick in carbon emissions last year.  Its power had to be replaced by plants burning natural gas, a relatively clean fossil fuel, but still a fossil fuel.  Another reason is that because natural gas pipelines are inadequate, some power plants during cold spells often switch to dirtier oil.

There’s no mention in the story of the warnings from ISO New England, the organization responsible for keeping the lights on, that nearly one-third of the region’s oldest and largest power plants are at risk of shutting down in the coming years and will need to be replaced regardless of whether demand for electricity grows or not.  Fueling new plants with natural gas is the only realistic option for now.  There’s no mention of study after study -- with the exception of one from the MA Attorney General’s office, paid for by private funds, not the state -- that have concluded that the region desperately needs additional natural gas supplies. 

There’s no mention of the challenges facing electric transmission line construction in New Hampshire that makes imports of Canadian hydro by 2020 uncertain and speculative.   And there’s no mention of the low capacity factors of wind and solar, and the lack of energy storage technologies today. 

While not mentioned in the story, these are realities and addressing them will require highly reliable, relatively clean-burning natural gas power plants to provide backup to intermittent sources while also meeting the around the clock energy needs of businesses, manufacturers and other employers.

No.  Instead, we have Kimmel calling for “disproportionately large cuts” in the power generation sector and we have Bowles saying, “We need steep, sustained declines in emission here, and not a step back.” 

It’s no doubt blasphemes, at least to those who see molecules as a bigger threat to our future than loss of jobs and a weak economy, to suggest that maybe we do need to take a step back – or at a minimum a pause. Maybe, just maybe, 25 percent is too much too soon.  The least we could do is shed more light on the relationship between affordable and reliable energy, and the sources that make a major impact today and those that are growing but remain more aspirational than currently dependable.