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How About a CAFE Standard for Utilities?

RP Siegel | Friday July 27th, 2012 | 0 Comments

Atlanta-based utility giant Southern Company is set to fire up its 100 MW biomass Nacogdoches Generating Facility. This power plant will become the largest biomass facility in the US.

Located on 165 acres in Northeast Texas, the plant will provide clean electric power to Austin Energy. The boilers will be fired by non-saleable wood waste from saw mills, forest waste, pre-commercial thinnings of cultivated trees and diseased and other non-commercial tree species. It could also use wood waste from surrounding towns and cities in the form of tree limbs and branches produced by storms and other non-commercial logging-derived biomass.

This is a big positive step for the company, which, as one of the top five carbon emitters among utilities worldwide, was ranked 494th out of 500 on Newsweek’s green ranking list and was rated the dirtiest of the Dirty 7 by Green America. Health impacts due to all of this coal burning are estimated at $9 billion annually.

Although it has a very long way to go, this new plant will improve Southern’s overall emissions profile. The impact of 100 MW out of 43,000 is clearly quite small, though it is a step in the right direction. The company also owns a 30MW solar facility in New Mexico and is in the process of acquiring another. Two subsidiaries are also buying wind power.

Last November, the Obama administration announced new rules for corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards impacting the years 2017-2025. By the end of this period, thirteen years from now, the average fuel economy of all new cars and light trucks will by 54.5 MPG. Fuel savings projected by NHTSA, over the period 2017-2060 are estimated to be in the neighborhood of one trillion gallons. This translates to roughly 10 million tons of CO2 emissions avoided or as much as 1.8 PPM over that same period.

In order to meet these more stringent requirements, automakers, who are still currently selling lots of SUV’s and trucks, will have to improve the efficiency of these vehicles, while injecting many more higher efficiency vehicles, such as electric and hybrid vehicles into the mix, to bring their overall average efficiency up. Last year, the average US vehicle economy hit a new high of 23.8 MPG.

If the government were to develop a carbon emission standard, let’s call it a corporate average carbon emission standard (CACE), comparable to its CAFE standard for cars, it would encourage utilities to increase the amount of renewables in their mix while phasing out the dirtiest fossil fuel plants, or face serious fines if they don’t.

Special consideration would have to be given to nuclear plants that, while allowing those in service to remain operational, would not encourage new construction, unless it was for a new type of relatively clean reactor such as liquid thorium that could potentially be exempted.

While not as comprehensive as a carbon tax, or a cap-and-trade system, since utilities only contribute about 30% of carbon emissions, it would go hand and hand with the EPA fuel economy standard. Utilities and transportation combine to generate 70% of GHG emissions.

Perhaps it’s “another way to skin the cat.” What do you think?

[Image credit: Ecotist: Flickr creative commons]

 

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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