[Editor's note: When this post was originally run, the phrase "100 miles by 100 miles" was changed to "100 square miles," which is very different. The article has now been corrected (or rather, unmiscorrected) and the appropriate intern flogged; our apologies to Ted and Alex.] This post was coauthored with Alex Carlin, organizer of Let's Go Solar and instigator of the recent Environment America study (PDF), "On the Rise: Solar Thermal Power and the Fight Against Global Warming." Every day more people are finally hearing about what Joe Romm calls "the solar power you don't hear about" -- solar thermal power, utility-scale arrays of mirrors that create heat (and then electricity) so efficiently that they can do everything a coal plant can do except melt the South Pole. Without any special promotion, solar thermal (concentrating solar power, or CSP) will eventually grow into a major supplier of our electric grid, simply because, according to the California Energy Commission, it is an increasingly economical technology with per kilowatt-hour costs estimated to be 27 percent lower than new integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) coal plants with carbon capture-and-storage -- 12.7 cents/kWh for CSP versus 17.3 cents/kwh for IGCC plus CCS. The technology is moving forward, with five plants already operational, eight under construction, and 20 more announced. Several of these plants include on-site thermal storage, an option that makes CSP a reliable source of baseload power. The problem is the timeline of global warming. If we take seriously what the science is telling us, we must conclude that CSP has arrived in the nick of time. James Hansen's latest team effort (PDF) tells us that earth has had many eras with ice-free North and South Poles. The report concludes: "If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed ... CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm." On the other hand, if we continue to burn coal for our electric power, those poles will melt, sending sea levels so high that cities like New York and Miami would have no chance to survive. You probably already knew that, but did you know this? Just 100 miles by 100 miles of CSP installations would supply 100 percent of the U.S. electric grid. That's being conservative: Ausra's chairman David Mills pegs the figure at 92 miles by 92 miles. Put similar installations in Morocco for Europe and the Gobi desert for China and we have our golden opportunity -- our last chance -- of keeping those poles under ice and our cities above water. How much land is 100 miles by 100 miles?
One of the most controversial coal plant proposals in the country just took yet another big hit. Minnesota's two administrative law judges on the hearings for the Big Stone II plant in South Dakota, Steve Mihalchick and Barbara Neilson, recommended today that the state Public Utilities Commission deny a certificate of need for the plant's transmission lines in western Minnesota. If adopted by the PUC, the ruling will kill the highly controversial project. According to the ALJs' recommendation [PDF], the sponsors of the plant "have failed to demonstrate that their demand for electricity cannot be met more cost effectively through energy conservation and load-management measures ..." In September 2007, two of the co-sponsors of Big Stone II, representing about 27 percent of the plant's capacity, pulled out of the project. The withdrawal rocked the project, but the remaining sponsors announced plans to redesign it and continue seeking permits. Today's ALJ recommendation, which has been closely watched by the broad multi-state coalition that had gathered against the plant, is not curtains for Big Stone II -- but we may be in the final act. The demise of the plant promises to unlock the huge wind potential of the Upper Midwest region, which to date has scarcely been tapped.
Greenpeace's body slam of the core "clean coal" technology known as carbon capture and storage (CCS) may take a while to sink in. Not so long ago, groups like NRDC were writing glowing accounts of the technology, and it's safe to say that much of the environmental movement is still sipping the Kool-Aid. So it was heartening to read that at least one person attending the Carbon Capture and Sequestration conference in Pittsburgh seems to have her head screwed on straight and her ear to the grassroots: Becky Tarbotton of Rainforest Action Network. Becky writes:
Bill Gates. Unlike his bridge buddy Warren Buffett, who recently canceled six planned coal projects, Bill Gates is still pushing coal. Cascade Investment Management, his personal investment company, is the largest stakeholder (9 percent) in Otter Tail Corporation, the lead sponsor of the controversial Big Stone II coal project. Last week, eight Minnesota legislators, led by Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL) of Minneapolis and Sen. Ellen Anderson (DFL) of St. Paul, wrote to Gates, asking him to visit Minnesota in order to investigate green investment opportunities that would "align the values of your foundation with your investment strategy." In April, NASA's James Hansen appealed to Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to oppose Big Stone II: "You can help inspire your state and the rest of the country to take the bold actions that are essential if we are to retain a hospitable climate."
Yesterday, Maine Gov. John E. Baldacci signed LD 2126, "An Act To Minimize Carbon Dioxide Emissions from New Coal-Powered Industrial and Electrical Generating Facilities in the State." The law, which was sponsored by Rep. W. Bruce MacDonald (D-Maine), requires the Board of Environmental Protection to develop greenhouse gas emission standards for coal facilities. It also puts a moratorium in place on building any new coal plants until the standards are developed. Three states (Calif., Wash., and Maine) as well as New Zealand now have laws effectively blocking new coal plants that don't meet a carbon dioxide emission standard roughly equivalent to that of a combined cycle gas plant (i.e., 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour). That standard could be met with even a moderate level of sequestration, but so far no utilities have stepped to the plate. As a result of Washington state's standard, Energy Northwest's proposed Pacific Mountain Energy Center in Kalama was rejected by regulators in November because its plans for carbon capture and sequestration were judged to be merely "a plan to make a plan." Laws such as Maine's LD 2126 are valuable in blocking plants that merely declare themselves "carbon capture ready." As NRDC's David Hawkins told Congress (PDF): "A 'carbon sequestration optimized' coal power plant is not defined and could mean almost anything, including a plant that simply leaves physical space for an unidentified black box. If that makes a power plant 'capture-ready' Mr. Chairman, then my driveway is 'Ferrari-ready.'"
One of the biggest climate stories of 2007 never made it to the business pages. It's about how Warren Buffett, with no fanfare, quietly walked away from coal, cancelling six proposed plants. Warren Buffet. Buffett used to love coal. His involvement with it began when Berkshire Hathaway bought MidAmerican Energy Holdings in 1999. MidAmerican was a big operator of coal plants, and with natural gas prices edging toward a huge leap upwards -- bringing coal back into favor -- it appeared to be a typically savvy Buffett move. In 2006, Buffett picked up another utility, PacifiCorp, which includes Rocky Mountain Power and operates in Calif., Idaho, Ore., Utah, Wash., and Wyo. Again, it seemed like a smart play, bringing MidAmerican's expertise with building and running coal plants to a region of the country with lots of coal. Sure enough, in the fall of 2006, PacifiCorp presented regulators with plans [PDF] for six (or, in some scenarios, seven) coal plants in Utah and Wyo. over the next 12-year time period, representing approximately 3,000 megawatts of new capacity.
Check out Clean Up Dynegy, the brand new website for the Sierra Club's campaign against the company Sierra calls "America's Coal-Fired Polluter Number 1." The campaign is significant in that it represents the first attempt by anti-coal forces to single out a single company on a nationwide basis. It kicked off in late February with mass call-ins to Dynegy headquarters originating from twenty states -- "thousands of calls," according to the Sierra Club. Already, the campaign seems to have hit a nerve, with Dynegy's CEO, Bruce Williamson, lashing out that his company is being unfairly picked on. It probably didn't help Williamson's morale that he was also just picked as one of five executives to receive 2008 "Fossil Fool of the Year" awards.
Earth Policy Institute just released this revelatory chronology of really sad, horrible, and depressing events in the life of the coal industry since February 2007. What's next -- will Santa be switching to lumps of dirt? Feb. 26, 2007: James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a leading climate scientist, calls for a moratorium on the construction of coal-fired power plants that do not sequester carbon, saying that it makes no sense to build these plants when we will have to "bulldoze" them in a few years. Feb. 26, 2007: Under mounting pressure from environmental groups, TXU Corporation, a Dallas-based energy company, abandons plans for eight of 11 proposed coal-fired power plants, catalyzing the shift from coal-based to renewable energy development in Texas. April 2, 2007: The U.S. Supreme Court rules that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide and that EPA's current rationale for not regulating this gas is inadequate. May 3, 2007: Washington Governor Christine Gregoire signs a bill that prevents new power plants from exceeding 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per megawatt-hour of electricity generated, creating a de facto moratorium on building new coal-fired power plants in the state.
Rainforest Action Network's Matt Leonard provides this roundup of Fossil Fools Day actions targeting coal plants, coal minings, and the banks funding it all. Rising Tide (North America, U.K., and International units) spearheaded these efforts and others. Cliffside: 8 Arrested as North Carolina residents shut down construction at Cliffside coal plant At 6:30 a.m., North Carolina residents locked themselves to bulldozers to stop the construction of Duke Energy's massive Cliffside coal-fired power plant being built 50 miles west of Charlotte, N.C. "In the face of catastrophic climate change, building a new coal plant is tantamount to signing a death sentence for our generation," said local farmer Matt Wallace while locked to a bulldozer. The concerned citizens also roped off the construction site with "Global Warming Crime Scene" tape and held banners that read "Coal Fuels Climate Change" and "Social Change, not Climate Change." (more)