Monday, October 20, 2014

Emissions Fuzzy Math

When the Montana Department of Environmental Quality released its Options for Montana’s Energy Future white paper last month, I was expecting to hear a vast sigh of relief from just about every corner of the state. 

Back in June, the EPA  proposed, for the first time, regulations to limit carbon emissions from existing coal and gas fired electric generating plants, and assigned to each state an emissions reduction goal to be met between 2012 and 2030. For Montana, the goal was 21%, and while that meant Montana had to do less than most states, we certainly had to do something and we had to puzzle out how to do it. So DEQ sat down to solve that puzzle, and what they came up with in the white paper was a set of scenarios that complied with the EPA goal (or even more than complied with it) and which allowed all the existing coal fired power plants in the state* to continue to operate at current or even higher levels of output and to burn the same or a little less coal than they do right now.

What was there not to like in that?

For the folks at Count on Coal and the Chamber of Commerce and for legislators from coal country who had predicted that the EPA regulations would kill the coal industry and plunge the Montana economy into eternal darkness, this had to be good news. Producing more coal would have been better, of course, but at least these regulations were going to allow for business as usual.

It was good news as well for the politicians and editorial writers and other pundits who regularly offer us the bland assurance that we can “develop our natural resources” and at the same time enjoy a “clean and healthy environment.” The Missoulian doubled down on this possibility when it editorialized that we could reduce emissions and still maintain coal’s current share in electrical generation. Since our need for generation is presumably going to grow over time, maintaining coal’s share would mean burning more coal in the future. So, more coal, lower emissions!

But there seemed to be in all this an element of having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too. After all, haven’t guys like Steve Running been telling us for years that we’re never going to address the problem of climate change without sharply reducing our use of coal?  If almost every single pound of CO2 we pump into the atmosphere when we generate electricity comes from burning coal, is it really possible to burn more and pollute less? Isn’t this this just too good to be true? Well, yes it is. Kind of. Here’s what happened. This gets a little wonkish, but it’s important, so stick with me.

The 21% goal that the EPA proposed for Montana was not for a reduction in emissions, but for a reduction in the emissions rate, which is measured as the amount of emissions (in pounds) per megawatt hour of electricity generated. In 2012, Montana pumped about 35.9 billion pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere in the course of producing 16 million MWhs of electricity (included in that total is about 1.3 million MWhs from renewables).** So taking the ratio of those two numbers - (35.9 billion lbs. CO2)/(16 million  MWh) - you can calculate our 2012 emissions rate as 2,246 lbs/MWh. And what EPA wants us to do is take that rate down by 21%, to 1,771.

Now applying a little arithmetic it’s clear that you can take the rate down either by reducing actual emissions (the number in the numerator of the rate calculation) or by increasing total generation (the number in the denominator) or by some combination of the two.  What DEQ sketched out in its white paper were some of those possible combinations, which typically involve reducing emissions a little, by getting power plants to use coal more efficiently, while significantly increasing electrical generation from renewables and efficiency.*** That means we can meet the EPA target for a rate reduction without actually meaningfully reducing the mass of emissions. And while that’s good news for the coal industry, it’s bad news for Montanans concerned about climate change and who worry that we will in effect be doing almost nothing to reverse it. After all the fanfare that accompanied the EPA’s roll out of the regulations – finally, finally we were doing something about climate change – that's a bitter pill to swallow.

If it sounds like I am accusing DEQ of hoodwinking us here, forget it.  What EPA wanted us in Montana to do is figure out is how we can modestly reduce our emissions rate and that is what DEQ has done. And while the technical wonks at DEQ have made it clear as a bell that they were working with rates, they have also gone out of their way to calculate the (always small) change in the actual mass of emissions entailed in each of their rate reduction scenarios. They have also made available a handy dandy little planning model that allows you to design and test any emissions reduction scenario that suits your fancy. You tell the model what you want to see (carbon sequestration, nuclear plant, a fivefold increase in wind power, whatever) and it will spit out how far both the rate and mass of emissions will fall. You can download the model here, so get cracking. Even if EPA can't figure out how Montana can make a difference, maybe you can.

* All the scenarios did anticipate that the Corette power plant in Billings would be mothballed in 2015 as previously planned by PPL Montana.

** Not including hydro. EPA does not allow hydropower to be included in the total of generation from renewables.

*** The EPA allows power saved by increasing efficiency in transmission and end use to count in total generation.

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