Monday, June 30, 2014

Flaring Fracking Gas

Some oil companies are flaring gas and using diesel to fuel the pumps.

Excess natural gas is burned off at a Bakken Shale site.
Minneapolis Star Tribune/Zuma

Thousands of wells in the Bakken Shale area dot the landscape and are producing gas as a byproduct of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling for oil.   Because North Dakota lacks adequate infrastructure, drillers are forced to burn off whatever they can't capture and ship to market. In April alone, such wells burned 10.3 billion cubic feet of natural gas, according to the state, valued at nearly $50 million.

North Dakota's regulations have struggled to keep pace with the drilling and flaring.  Burning off natural gas degrades air quality. And it is being reported that some producers aren't paying all the royalties and taxes owed on the gas that is flared. Energy companies lose out on gas revenue, too, but that is offset by what they generate from Bakken crude oil.

Stung by criticism that it has allowed oil producers to flare wells indefinitely, the North Dakota Industrial Commission on June 1 adopted rules requiring that gas-capture plans be submitted for companies to get a new drilling permits. The rules require producers to identify gas-processing plants and proposed connection points for gas lines but don't affect permits that already had been issued. The commission, which promotes as well as regulates the drilling industry, on Tuesday is expected to announce measures to limit flaring of existing wells. The federal government also is considering new limits on flaring.

In the past five years, North Dakota has climbed from the country's sixth-largest oil producer to the only state after Texas to produce more than a million barrels of oil a day. That has brought investment and job growth to a state economy once largely dependent on agriculture. While Texas captures all but 1% of the natural gas produced, North Dakota burns 30% of its output. Oil companies can ship crude, which fetches 20 times more than gas per barrel of oil equivalent, in tanker trucks to pipelines or rail terminals. Transporting natural gas requires a pipeline connection at the source, however, and North Dakota has far fewer of such pipes and less processing capacity than other oil-producing states.  (WSJ, 6/30/2014)

Monday, June 23, 2014

Supreme Court Puts Minor Limit on Obama EPA Global Warming Rule

The Supreme Court on today placed a limit on one part of the Obama administration's global warming proposals.  Though narrowing one Clean Air Act program (the "prevention of significant deterioration" permit program), the Court confirmed that the permit program does limit carbon emissions from the biggest polluters. The justices said that the Environmental Protection Agency lacks authority in some cases to force companies to evaluate ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. This rule applies when a company needs a permit to expand facilities or build new ones that would increase overall pollution.

The decision does not affect EPA proposals for first-time national standards for new and existing power plants. The most recent proposal aims at a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, but won’t take effect for at least another two years.
The outcome also preserves EPA’s authority over facilities that already emit pollutants that the agency regulates other than greenhouse gases.  Carbon dioxide is the chief gas linked to global warming.

The Clean Air Act's "prevention of significant deterioration" permit program requires that new and modified major stationary polluters such as power plants and factories use the best available technology to control their air pollution. Industry and its allies filed lawsuits seeking to exempt carbon pollution from this safeguard. While today's Supreme Court ruling does excuse some pollution sources from this requirement, the requirement will remain in effect for the worst carbon polluters, which account for roughly 83 percent of U.S. stationary source greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to limit carbon pollution.  Of crucial importance, the Court also left undisturbed other key Clean Air Act provisions authorizing EPA to issue "performance standards" limiting carbon pollution from sources such as power plants, refineries and cement kilns. Also preserved is the EPA's authority to set limits on carbon pollution from cars and trucks, including the limits EPA has already set in 2010 and subsequent years.

In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are pollutants under the Clean Air Act. The EPA officially determined in 2009 that carbon pollution endangers public health and welfare, contributing (among other impacts) to heat waves that worsen smog and sea-level rise that threatens coastal communities. In 2010, the EPA issued the first-ever federal carbon pollution standards for cars and trucks, and in 2012, a federal court of appeals upheld these standards against industry challenge.

The Supreme Court's action leaves in place key portions of the 2012 decision, as well as the following:
  • The EPA's 2009 finding that carbon pollution endangers public health and communities;
  • Emission standards the EPA issued in 2010 (and subsequent years) limiting carbon pollution from cars and trucks;
  • The EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act to adopt emission standards ("performance standards") for power plants and other stationary sources of carbon pollution; and
  • Key portions of the EPA's regulations (under the "prevention of significant deterioration" permit program) requiring major new and modified pollution sources such as power plants and factories to use the best available technology to limit carbon emissions.
History Of Supreme Court's Rulings Confirming EPA's Authority To Regulate Carbon Pollution

In a 2007 case about motor vehicle emissions, the Supreme Court ruled that carbon pollution and other greenhouse gases are air pollutants under the Clean Air Act, and that the EPA must limit carbon pollution if such pollution contributes to climate change. Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007).

In 2011, the Supreme Court confirmed EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act to issue "performance standards" limiting carbon pollution from stationary sources such as electric power plants. American Elec. Power Co. v. Connecticut, 131 S. Ct. 2527 (2011).

In the case decided today, the Supreme Court vindicated the EPA's endangerment finding and the agency's ground-breaking limits on carbon pollution from cars and trucks when the Court declined to take up challenges to those critically important actions. The Court also left undisturbed EPA's authority to set "performance standards" for power plants and other carbon emitters, and in addition confirmed that a separate Clean Air Act safeguard (the "prevention of significant deterioration" permit program) requires use of the best available technology to limit carbon pollution from the worst polluters. (EarthjusticeWash Post, AP, 6/23/2014)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Railroads Provide Majority of Coal To Utility Plants

graph of coal shipments to the electric power sector by transit mode and year, as explained in the article text
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Form EIA-923, Power Plant Operations Report
Note: Sum of components may not equal 100% because of independent rounding. Other includes Pipeline, Other Waterway, Great Lakes Barge, Tidewater Pier, and Coastal Ports. Data for 2013 are preliminary.
Note: Intermodal transit uses multiple modes of delivery. Intermodal rail includes some movement over railways, while intermodal nonrail signifies multiple modes that do not include railway.

In 2013, electric power generators consumed 858 million tons of coal, accounting for 93% of all coal consumed in the United States and 39% of electric power generation.

Two-thirds of the coal (67%) was shipped either completely or in part by rail. The balance was moved by river barge (especially over the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and their tributaries), truck, and—for power plants located at the coal mine—by conveyor.
The coal transportation network is most densely concentrated in the eastern portion of the United States. This area contains many relatively small coal mines, most of the country's coal-fired power plants, and also rail infrastructure and suitable waterways. In the western United States, coal mines are often large, and a small number of routes handle large amounts of coal.

To better comprehend the amount of coal that a power plant consumes, consider that the largest coal-fired plants in the country receive 1 or 2 unit trains of coal each day. Each train has approximately 115 cars, and each car carries an average of 116 tons of coal. Some plants receive more than 26,000 tons of coal in a single day.

The primary mode by which a power plant receives its coal is largely determined by its location and access to the rail system. River barge is the most cost-effective method of transporting large quantities of coal over long distances, but the option is limited to plants located on a suitable river. Transporting coal by rail is more expensive, but two related facts result in its dominant market share of transportation: first, the United States is covered by an extensive railway network; and second, coal is produced in a relatively few parts of the country—predominantly in the Powder River Basin (Wyoming and Montana), the Illinois Basin, and Central and Northern Appalachia—while it is consumed by power plants in 46 of the 48 contiguous states.

After rail and river barge, the third most common method of receiving coal is by truck. This method, however, is typically employed only by plants that are located relatively close to a coal mine because of the higher cost on a per-ton-mile basis. Those plants that are located directly at or very near a mine can also have their coal delivered by conveyor, but, taken together, truck, barge, and conveyor movements make up less than 30% of the coal shipments in the country.
Although coal consumption in the electric power sector decreased by 18% from 2008 to 2013, and the number of coal-fired generators dropped from 1,445 to 1,285 units during that same period, the share of shipments made either exclusively by rail or with rail as the primary mode has remained effectively unchanged.

Between 2008 and 2013, the share of coal shipments made by river barge increased from 7% to 12%. In contrast, truck shipments fell from 12% to 10%, and shipments made by other modes (i.e., nonriver barge waterways, pipeline, tidewater piers, and coastal ports), fell from 7% to 1%. These changes occurred because many of the plants that received their coal by one of the other modes in 2008 either retired or shifted to another mode.  (DOE-EIA)

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Concentrating Solar Power

Solar  provided record-breaking growth and reached a total of more than 4,700 megawatts of new installed capacity in 2013 and 2014 will mark a major milestone for a different form of solar energy: concentrating solar power (CSP).

CSP technology uses mirrors to focus and concentrate sunlight onto a receiver from which a heat transfer fluid carries the thermal energy to a power block to generate electricity. The technology can generate energy even when the sun isn’t shining, helping to provide clean power at times of peak demand.

The Energy Department’s new report, 2014: The Year of Concentrating Solar Power,  focuses on five of the most innovative CSP plants in the world. All of these projects are expected to be switched on in the southwestern United States by the end of the year as a result of sustained, long-term investments by the Department and committed solar industry partners.

These five new utility-scale CSP plants will have the capacity to generate power for more than 350,000 average American homes.

Loan guarantees are an instrumental way the Energy Department helps technologies like CSP get the financing they historically have trouble accessing for their first few commercial projects. Through successful public-private partnerships, it is being proven that CSP is a commercially viable energy source in the U.S.

The five CSP plants:
  • Solana near Gila Bend, Arizona, was developed by Abengoa Solar, Inc., and opened in October 2013. The plant can dispatch energy to customers as needed during cloudy periods and after sunset. As the first power plant in the U.S. to use molten salt thermal energy storage, Solana generates electricity well into the evening to help meet the summer peak demand for air conditioning.
  • Genesis in Blythe, California, was developed by NextEra Energy Sources, LLC, and opened in April. Genesis expects to produce renewable electricity annually from more than 500,000 parabolic mirrors to power 60,000 average American homes.
  • Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in Ivanpah Dry Lake, California, was developed by BrightSource Energy and opened in February. The system uses over 300,000 software-controlled mirrors to track the sun across the sky and reflect the sunlight onto three towers. Ivanpah has the capacity to produce 392 megawatts of power and is expected to serve nearly 100,000 average American homes.
  • Crescent Dunes in Tonopah, Nevada, is being developed by SolarReserve and is expected to open by the end of the year. When completed, approximately 10,000 heliostats will be installed, and Crescent Dunes will be the nation’s first commercial-scale solar power tower facility with energy storage.
  • Mojave Solar One near Barstow, California, is being developed by Abengoa Solar and is expected to open later this year. The plant is expected to produce 250 megawatts of power and is one of the largest projects of its kind in the world.
Read the 2014: The Year of Concentrating Solar Power report to learn more about each of these plants and find out how the SunShot Initiative is advancing CSP technologies through six new energy storage projects. (DOE)

Monday, June 02, 2014

EPA Proposes CO2 Regulations For Existing Power Plants

Proposed Rule

Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released the Clean Power Plan proposal, which for the first time cuts carbon pollution from existing power plants, the single largest source of carbon pollution in the United States. Today’s proposal will protect public health, move the United States toward a cleaner environment and fight climate change while supplying Americans with reliable and affordable power.

Power plants account for roughly one-third of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. While there are limits in place for the level of arsenic, mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particle pollution that power plants can emit, there are currently no national limits on carbon pollution levels.
With the Clean Power Plan, EPA is proposing guidelines that build on trends already underway in states and the power sector to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants, making them more efficient and less polluting. This proposal follows through on the common-sense steps laid out in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan and the June 2013 Presidential Memorandum.
By 2030, the steady and responsible steps EPA is taking will:
  • Cut carbon emission from the power sector by 30 percent nationwide below 2005 levels, which is equal to the emissions from powering more than half the homes in the United States for one year;
  • Cut particle pollution, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide by more than 25 percent as a co-benefit;
  • Avoid up to 6,600 premature deaths, up to 150,000 asthma attacks in children, and up to 490,000 missed work or school days—providing up to $93 billion in climate and public health benefits; and
  • Shrink electricity bills roughly 8 percent by increasing energy efficiency and reducing demand in the electricity system.

The Clean Power Plan will be implemented through a state-federal partnership under which states identify a path forward using either current or new electricity production and pollution control policies to meet the goals of the proposed program. The proposal provides guidelines for states to develop plans to meet state-specific goals to reduce carbon pollution and gives them the flexibility to design a program that makes the most sense for their unique situation. States can choose the right mix of generation using diverse fuels, energy efficiency and demand-side management to meet the goals and their own needs. It allows them to work alone to develop individual plans or to work together with other states to develop multi-state plans.

Also included in today’s proposal is a flexible timeline for states to follow for submitting plans to the agency—with plans due in June 2016, with the option to use a two-step process for submitting final plans if more time is needed. States that have already invested in energy efficiency programs will be able to build on these programs during the compliance period to help make progress toward meeting their goal.

Since last summer, EPA has directly engaged with state, tribal, and local governments, industry and labor leaders, non-profits, and others. The data, information and feedback provided during this effort helped guide the development of the proposal and further confirmed that states have been leading the way for years in saving families and businesses money through improving efficiency, while cleaning up pollution from power plants. To date, 47 states have utilities that run demand-side energy efficiency programs, 38 have renewable portfolio standards or goals, and 10 have market-based greenhouse gas emissions programs. Together, the agency believes that these programs represent a proven, common-sense approach to cutting carbon pollution—one in which electricity is generated and used as efficiently as possible and which promotes a greater reliance on lower-carbon power sources.

Today’s announcement marks the beginning of the second phase of the agency’s outreach efforts. EPA will accept comment on the proposal for 120 days after publication in the Federal Register and will hold four public hearings on the proposed Clean Power Plan during the week of July 28 in the following cities: Denver, Atlanta, Washington, DC and Pittsburgh. Based on this input, EPA will finalize standards next June following the schedule laid out in the June 2013 Presidential Memorandum.

In 2009, EPA determined that greenhouse gas pollution threatens Americans' health and welfare by leading to long lasting changes in our climate that can have a range of negative effects on human health and the environment. Taking steady, responsible steps to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants will protect children’s health and will move our nation toward a cleaner, more stable environment for future generations, while supplying the reliable, affordable power needed for economic growth.  (EPA)
Fact sheets and details about the proposed rule   

More information on President Obama’s Climate Action Plan