By Robynn Andracsek, P.E., Burns & McDonnell and Contributing Editor
I don’t understand environmentalists. At first, the Sierra Club wanted to move the country “Beyond Coal” and “Beyond Oil.” Their initiatives supported a myriad of lawsuits which attacked proposed coal-fired boiler construction. Combined with the plummeting price of natural gas and confusing, stalled regulations, dozens of new coal projects were cancelled.
Today’s economics support the construction of simple and combined cycle natural gas plants, as well as natural gas-fired reciprocating engines built specifically to support renewable generation. Instead of endorsing this new paradigm, the Sierra Club has begun a campaign to move America “Beyond Natural Gas.”
Utilities are stuck between the rock of environmentalists constantly decreasing the energy sources that they will allow and the hard place of providing affordable, base load power to maintain our country’s economy and standard of living.
We need a better breed of environmentalist.
- One who will fight hypocrisy. Don’t build coal, build natural gas; don’t build natural gas, build wind and solar but without building new transmission lines or harming bats and turtles; reduce demand but don’t raises costs so much that the economy is harmed. This series of arguments is self-defeating. Our culture’s energy demands require a mix of technologies. Base load power generation is the foundation of our electricity needs. The wind does not blow constantly or consistently and can therefore only be a supplement to the energy mix. Seattle and Phoenix have very different solar potentials. Compact fluorescent and LED light bulbs only go so far in reducing demand. Not every member of our society can afford to pay their heating bill, much less to buy a more efficient heater.
- One who will face reality. Our global culture depends on electricity. Two hundred years ago, electricity was absent and yes, humans thrived. But today is today. We now have mass produced food, advanced medicine, and secure housing structures. Space travel, supermarkets, and the internet help define our civilization here in the United States. Electricity makes all these modern necessities possible and the removal of electricity from our daily lives would cause social panic. The truth to this can be seen in any recent widespread blackout. The reality of wind generated energy is that a 100 MW turbine does not generate 100 MW for each hour of the year. The wind cannot be used for base load energy demands for the simple reason that the wind does not blow all the time.
One who will focus on making a difference. The bigger picture is in the order of magnitudes of reduction between today’s power plant designs and yesterday’s, not the difference between BACT levels of 2 ppm and 2.5 ppm. Currently, it is harder to permit a new, modern coal plant than it is to retrofit a grandfathered coal plant. However, environmentalist lawsuits create a disincentive to build modern base load coal-fired boilers and increase the value in an existing, albeit dirtier, facility. Similarly, attempting to increase the efficiency of an existing facility leads to “routine maintenance” enforcement frustrations. In fact, the Clean Air Act promotes pollution in the very way that the regulation gives you credit for replacing old equipment with new.
The Clean Air Act needs to be revised to promote efficiency, streamline compliance requirements, and reduce litigation. In 2002, President Bush’s EPA tried to do this; however, “New Source Review Reform” was a litigated, back tracked failure. Regulations affecting the power industry are still confusing, ever-changing, and contradictory.
Natural gas is a vital part of the generation solution, as is base load coal and nuclear. Renewables alone do not provide enough stability for the current electric grid infrastructure. Rebuilding the grid from scratch is not a viable option. Diversity is an important component of the energy mix.
Environmentalists have an important role in our society, as yin does to yang. But the result of a balance of ideas should not be conflict but rather synergism. Extremism has no part in real world solutions.