Back on Front Burner: Controlling Carbon

By Peter Galuszka

On frosty mornings, Virginia’s single largest-contribution to global warming can be seen belting out dense steam clouds from its three smokestacks near Interstate 95’s interchange with Route 288. The 1,600 megawatt Chesterfield Power Station provides owner Dominion Virginia Power with enough electricity for four million customers and represents 12 percent of all of the Richmond-based utility’s power generation.

The downside is that the power plant’s four coal-fired and two combined gas cycle units were the state’s top single source last year for carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change. Their output totaled 6.1 million tons of carbon dioxide, according figures recently released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

That’s not all. Dominion’s Clover Power Station and the Chesapeake Energy Center hold the No. 2 and No. 3 slots on the EPA list. All three produce 14 million tons of the 44.6 million tons of carbon dioxide tallied on EPA’s survey. In all, Dominion was responsible for 20 million tons or 46 percent of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

For Virginia-based environmentalists, the Chesterfield plant and its sisters are powerful examples of what needs to change as they prepare to attend a Feb. 17 rally in Washington to push President Barack Obama to take a harder stand on global warming. “Every year that Dominion delays moving away from fossil fuels and to wind, solar and energy efficiency raises the costs to all of us,” says Glen Besa, head of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.

In his state of the union speech Feb. 12, Obama said that weather phenomena such as Superstorm Sandy and their connection to climate change cannot be denied. He stated: “I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

Regarding Dominion’s role in carbon pollution, utility spokesman Dan Genest says that his firm has almost 700 megawatts in its portfolio, including biomass, hydroelectric and wind.  As for its Chesterfield plant, Genest notes that it is “one of the cleanest coal facilities” in the country. Dominion has invested $1 billion since 2000 to reduce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate pollutants, he says. Carbon dioxide, however, isn’t on the list.

It soon could be. Forgive the pun, but after several years of simmering, the campaign against global warming is again gathering steam, as Obama’s speech attests. The bad economy made it politically toxic. During last year’s election, Republican candidates tried to paint carbon-cutting rules as damaging conspiracies to cut kill jobs and the coal industry, the largest single source for electricity generation in the nation.

A contributing factor was the unexpected flood of cheap and less polluting natural gas, some of it produced through controversial hydraulic fracking drilling methods. Gas gives off half the carbon as coal, produces far fewer occupational fatalities and doesn’t cause massive environmental destruction that coal’s mountaintop removal surface mining does. Utility executives love natural gas’s low cost and its user-friendly image.

Obama’s big electoral left the deep-pocketed coal lobby licking its wounds The big questions now: Is Obama free to take big steps towards stemming greenhouse gases? Or, will the glut of cheap gas actually slow the advance of renewable energy such as solar, wind and thermal because they are more expensive and will require government subsidies to get rolling?

Some believe the timing is right for utilities to start engaging in setting rules to reduce carbon dioxide. So far, Obama has proposed new carbon-reducing regulations on new power stations that aren’t in operation yet, but hasn’t really addressed existing power plants that are the biggest polluters. Some foreign countries and the state of California have introduced “cap and trade” systems to control carbon but efforts to set up a similar national system or other solutions have fizzled in the United States. Obama alluded towards renewing setting up some market-based system to control carbon dioxide emissions in his State of the Union address.

From their point of view, utilities might want to join the rule-setting process now so they will have more of a say in what evolves, some environmentalists believe. “Dominion has a tendency to anticipate what the EPA would do and did it,” says Besa. Another big coal-burning power firm, Charlotte’s Duke Energy, “would sue” when confronting changes by EPA, Besa says.”

Manik Roy, vice president for strategic outreach at the Arlington-based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, says that if any progress comes, it will have come from EPA regulations since “we are not expecting Congress to be very active on this issue” because it has been sidetracked by “more fundamental things.” Roy expects the EPA to start considering carbon dioxide rules for existing power plants within a few months and utilities should start preparing for it.

Another unaddressed problem is that the system that sets goes regarding what percentage of power utilities should plan on getting from renewable energy sources is haphazard and piecemeal. There is no federal plan, at least not yet. States have set a mish-mash of mandatory and voluntary guidelines about what the goals should be as far as renewable power generation. The rules come under what is called the “Renewable Portfolio Standard,” but they vary widely.

In some states, moving to a certain percentage of renewable energy sources must be done but the utility will receive an incentive to do so. New Jersey, for instance, has a tough RPS and already has 900 megawatts from solar sources. That’s the power generated by a middle-sized coal or nuclear plant.

Virginia is one of the few states where the RPS is “voluntary.” The lack of results are predictable. “Virginia is one of only nine states where there is no utility-based wind or solar,” says Dawone Robinson, Virginia Policy Coordinator of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. Maryland and North Carolina have mandatory RPS goals, leaving Dominion in the peculiar position of having “voluntary” renewable goals in the Old Dominion but facing mandatory ones in northeastern North Carolina where it also provides power.

The complex world of setting goals also leads to what some say are abuses. Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli, who is running for governor, issued a scathing report last November charging that Appalachian Power received $15 million and Dominion got $76 million in incentives charged against ratepayers for supposedly using renewable energy sources. In one case, Cuccinelli said, these involved counting an 80-year-old dam that produced hydroelectric power as a “renewable.”

The green community praised Cuccinelli then damned him when he announced a deal with the two utilities to do way with the incentives. Cuccinelli’s office says the goals to promote renewable energy sources remain in place. But the system remains voluntary and ”if you repeal incentives in a voluntary program, why would utilities participate,” asks Robinson.

Meanwhile, the power companies’ firms, along with other sources such as chemical plants and landfills across the state, still pump out carbon dioxide. Some of the sources such as some of Dominion’s power plants in Chesapeake and Yorktown, are due to be shut down because they are decades old and are too expensive to upgrade. “Dominion has a reputation of being pretty constructive,” Roy says.

But unless something serious happens at the federal level, attrition of old and polluting power stations and factories will be the only protection against greenhouse gas emissions.

 Note: Portions of this posting appeared in Style Weekly article.

4 Responses to Back on Front Burner: Controlling Carbon

  1. Good article Peter.

    I try to view this controversy – and it is from a couple of points of view:

    1. – first – what are the realities for the Obama administration? You have the enviro weenies on the left with their agenda but how far is it going to go if a majority of American people do not support it?

    Isn’t this how we got to this point of virtual gridlock on virtually every issue? we choose up sides – and there is no middle.

    2. – I ask this: What if this issue was instead a return to the ozone hole issue a few years back?

    what if we once again were dealing with the issue of whether or not banning CFCs was necessary to avert ozone disaster over the poles?

    would we TODAY, act in the same way we did in the past or would we end up with the same situation we have today with GW and a serious number of people who don’t trust the science or the scientists?

    if we had the Ozone hole today, would we refuse to ban CFCs until we had “absolute” proof and not just a bunch of slimy, lying scientists telling us we had to act?

    My view is that the world has changed and science is no longer really trusted especially when it says we must act or face serious downstream consequences.

    We, as a nation, too many of us – totally reject such scientific advice these days.

    are we doomed? I don’t know but it don’t look good….

  2. The Republicans in Virginia are always at the front of the line to complain about federal overreach. However, they allow Dominion to make unlimited campaign contributions at the state level. What’s an average citizen to think? They think the General Assembly is a wholly owned subsidiary of Dominion and the crook-clowns we elect can’t be trusted to regulate Dominion.

    So, we welcome the feds.

    Maybe there should be a cap on what highly regulated companies are allowed to give in campaign contributions?

  3. A lot of people … well maybe not.. say that both parties are like two crime bosses who agree amicably to “share” the bounty by laying out boundaries and rules for operation…

    … and that the GA is basically like a police force that can be successfully bribed

    … and that voters are schmucks who can easily be fooled and in some cases actually prefer to not know how things actually work…

    so a 3rd party is needed – even if it leads to even more chaos and gridlock in the short term – because in the long term it, in theory, loosens the stranglehold that the current two parties have on the political process.

    we had a bit of a local version of that in my county last week when the Conservative members of the board voted to allow chickens in subdivision back yards while the liberal members of the board (from denser districts said their constituents were opposed).

    it appeared the Conservatives were going to win the day 5-4 until one of their number agreed with the argument that each BOS should be able to represent the interests of their district – and thus supported a law that only applied in certain districts and not others.

    This threw the whole proceedings into a tizzy as one of the Conservatives asked rhetorically if future issues where there was disagreement were instead of being resolved with majority vote of the entire board – would be handled on a district-by-district basis according to the elected BOS of that district.

    and the answer was swift and certain – if it meant derailing the conservative majority on some issues – yes.

    not sure what I think about the overall downstream merits except the Sheriff said if future laws applied differently in different districts, it would be a nightmare to enforce and might need to assign deputies on a per district basis.

    but the bigger thing that happened IMHO – was the traditional “majority party wins” dynamic got shot in the proverbial butt and, at this point, rearranged the political landscape.

    what say you guys? would you do this on a local basis? How about a State – per county basis?

    I think I already know DJ’s answer.

  4. I would still like someone to explain the very warm period of the Middle Ages and the very cold period that followed. Also, why does anyone believe that any “carbon control” policy would not be manipulated somehow by Wall Street? Finally, how does raising energy costs significantly help the middle class?

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