It seems like the world is on fire, but also flooding. The latest report from an expert indicates that there’s little time left to prevent more serious climate change. This should prompt us to look for economic and rapid ways to reduce carbon emissions.
A paper that examines the contribution of individual power plants to global carbon dioxide emissions has recently been released. This is some good news. The study finds that many countries have facilities that emit carbon dioxide at rates well above either the national or global average. Shutting down the worst 5 percent of plants would immediately wipe out about 75 percent of the carbon emissions produced by electricity generation.
Power generation can be described in simple terms: “renewables are good and coal is bad.” This statement can be trusted to a certain extent. It also combines all forms of power generation, from the “somewhat poor” to the “truly atrocious” into one category. The situation is much more complicated, as a range of studies have shown. Different plants can convert fossil fuels into power with different efficiency levels depending on the age. Some plants that are less efficient only come online when there is a high demand. The rest of time they remain idle and emit no emissions.
These factors interact to determine whether or not a power plant contributes significantly to a country’s emissions. We could make an efficient target list by using data from the global inventory of all power plants’ emissions and output.
We did actually have one, with emphasis on the past tense. Someone had created the Carbon Monitoring for Action Database (or CARMA) using data starting in 2009. Nearly a decade later Don Grant, David Zelinka and Stefania Mitchella of the University of Colorado Boulder have used 2018 data for an updated version of CARMA. This provides emissions data likely to be much more up-to-date.
It was much more challenging than you might think. Some countries have detailed data about their emissions at the per-plant level. This data can be easily imported into CARMA. Many other countries do not. These countries were not included in the research. The researchers used everything, from the production data of the International Energy Agency to the engineering specifications of individual plants.
Researchers found the most significant sources of uncertainty within their data. They discovered that they concentrated in smaller plants which had the lowest impact on overall emissions. The data for large facilities, which are most likely to contribute significantly, is generally very good.
No one should be surprised to learn that coal plants are the most harmful. The distribution of high-polluting plants may include some surprises. For example, despite its reputation as the home of coal, China has only a single plant in the top-10 worst offenders. India and South Korea have two each.
China has a lot of plants that aren’t particularly bad. This is partly because many were constructed during the industrial boom. There is little variation in efficiency from one plant to the next. However, the US, Germany, Russia and Indonesia all experience a great deal of variation, which means that they are likely to have inefficient plants.
The authors looked at the country’s polluting power plants and ranked them by their carbon emissions. China’s worst five percent produced about 25% of its total carbon emissions. The US saw the US’ worst five percent produce about 75 percent carbon emissions from the power sector. South Korea saw similar results, with Australia, Germany and Japan seeing their worst 5 per cent of plants accounting for approximately 90 percent of carbon emissions from their respective power sectors.
The worst five percent of power stations account for 73% of global carbon emissions. This 5 percent produces 14 times more carbon pollution than if it were just average.
It is obvious that the best way to reduce emissions in the power sector would be to close down the most harmful plants, and then replace them with emission-free options. This would result in a reduction of the total number of emissions and a drop in emissions for the entire industry by around 73 percent. However, this is not always feasible so the authors explored several options for these plants while still producing electricity.
The average efficiency of each plant would reduce power sector emissions 25%, and as high as 35 percent for countries such Australia or Germany. Global emissions would be reduced by 30% if they were switched to natural gas. Natural gas produces less carbon dioxide for every kilowatt of energy, and many other countries, including the US, will see drops in their emission levels of up to 40%. These switches, which would only have a tenth of the impact of the original switch, will not be able to reduce China’s emissions by allowing for little variation among plants.
But the big winner is carbon capture and storage. The most inefficient plants would be equipped with an 85 percent efficiency capture system, which will cut the global power sector’s emissions by half. It also reduces global total emissions by 20%. Australia, Germany and other countries would have their power sector emissions fall by more than 75 percent.
These are huge gains considering the fact that these modifications can be made in less than 10 years. These gains show that the easiest wins are the best when it comes down to lowering carbon emissions. That could be accomplished by governmental planning, but placing a significant price on carbon could also force the private sector to plan based on emissions efficiency–something it currently has little or no incentive to do in many countries.
Original publication: Ars Technica.
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Publited Sat, 14 August 2021 at 13:26:33 +0000