Sunday, April 29, 2007

Fishin’ for suckers: Richard Branson lands Liberal whopper in Toronto
This week, the Ontario Liberals jumped onto Richard Branson’s latest campaign to save mankind and the planet.

Called Flick Off, the campaign is yet another attempt to convince people that electricity is bad for the environment. This notion is laughably spurious (see article), but common sense vanishes in the presence of celebrity. Hoping some of the cool shine would rub off on them, the McGuinty Liberals elbowed their way into the Green Living Show to announce their new partnership with Branson.

It has been clear for some time that McGuinty & co. have run out of ideas about how to peddle their environmental record to bored Ontario voters. And their enthusiasm for Flick Off suggests they’re more than a little star struck by Sir Richard—hey, it happens to teenagers all the time. But are they really going to hang their environmental “repositioning” on a pseudo-edgy ad campaign commissioned by a zillionaire celebrity? Why don’t they just point to the massive emission reductions that have occurred under their watch (see article)?

Flick Off is an obvious attempt to divert attention from the exhaust emissions that spew out of the jet engines of Virgin Airlines planes during every flight. Branson, desperate to remain both super-rich and super-cool, wants to avoid the same bad publicity that plagues the predominantly coal-fired British power generation sector.

Greenhouse gases (GHGs) from aviation, already significant, are projected to rise dramatically, and the European Union wants to include them in the Emission Trading Scheme (ETS). This would add costs to airlines, forcing more consolidation in the industry. So Flick Off is Branson’s way of pre-empting the bad publicicity, by handing responsibility for lowering GHGs to ordinary electricity consumers.

If Branson is really worried about GHGs, maybe he should curtail his own jet-setting and get out of the airline business. Or at least look at an electricity system before exhorting people to use it less. As I have pointed out in this blog, the environmental effects of electricity consumption have everything to do with where you get your electricity from. Ontario Environment Minister Laurel Broten apparently still doesn’t understand that most electricity in this province comes from non-emitting sources. Ever eager to please the radical greens who have taken over her ministry, she lunged at Branson’s cheap lure and swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.

That’s just one of the howlers that occurred at the Green Living Show this week. Others included the David Suzuki and Al Gore tag-team berating federal Environment Minister John Baird with yet more righteous green blather (and Baird pretending to listen respectfully). I hope Simpsons and Family Guy writers attended the Toronto celebrity-fest; they would have gotten plenty of new material.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Who’s to blame for Canada’s Kyoto impasse?
Canada’s environment minister, John Baird, said yesterday that implementing the Kyoto Treaty in its current form will harm the economy. The opposition and green lobby insist that Canada implement the treaty anyway, in the name of living up to our international commitments.

This is Baird’s way of telling the green lobbyists—who have had a decade to put forth a climate change implementation plan that doesn’t amount to economic penance—that they’re becoming irrelevant in the debate. These lobbyists captured the Liberals, who during the Chrétien and Martin years dithered on Kyoto implementation for exactly the same reason Baird scoffs at the Treaty today: because the greens’ policy advice is geared more to punishing emitters than actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Conservatives are gambling that (1) Canadians’ affection for Kyoto is not as strong as the opposition and greens want us to think, and (2) the plan they release next week will position them as more serious and practical about climate change than the opposition.

Is it a smart gamble? The first part, heralded by Baird’s dustup with Liberal senators yesterday, hasn’t produced too much of a storm in the media. So unless next week’s green plan is a complete fiasco, it looks like the answer is yes: it’s a smart gamble.

The greens essentially have themselves to blame for this. They’ve been the most vocal advocates of Canada’s involvement in Kyoto. And they’ve achieved impressive success: both in getting climate change front and centre on the public agenda, and in framing it as a zero-sum economy-versus-environment issue. But the success comes at the price of damage to their credibility. They’ve had a decade to produce a workable alternative to the status quo, and their prognostications are the same today as they were in 1997—stop driving, stop using electricity, put on a sweater, and turn down the thermostat.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Nuclear renaissance in California? Prospect puts pressure on B.C. regulator to approve Alcan-Hydro deal
Back in February, I mentioned the juicy opportunities open to low- or zero-emission electricity generators who aspire to sell power to California. The utility regulator in British Columbia had shot down a power purchase deal between Alcan and BC Hydro because, it said, Alcan’s price was too high.

Ironically, the regulator’s decision could end up proving just the opposite: that Hydro got an excellent price from Alcan. And this proof could come in the form of a deal between Alcan and a California buyer.

A proposal to reverse a legislative ban against nuclear power in California recently went to the state legislature. Its immediate chances of success are not good, but nuclear proponents might find another way of breaking through the ban. Nuclear generation may again be permitted in the Golden State.

This leaves other purveyors of zero-emission power with a small window of opportunity to set up long-term power supply deals before nuclear generators figure out a way to market the atom to skeptical left coast power consumers. They’d better get a move on. More and more polls in California show increasing public support for nuclear power as a way to fight climate change.

Don’t think that the long lead-time for nuclear construction means no power sales until a plant is built. Imaginative nuclear proponents could finance new nuclear construction projects, at least partially, with future power sales. They would likely begin lining up sales the minute new nuclear build gets the go-ahead, which could come either in the form of the just-mentioned legislative proposal or a successful ballot initiative in next year’s election.

Alcan knows that the time is ripe to market clean, green hydro power from pristine British Columbia. So does BC Hydro. Does the regulator?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Ottawa waste pilot project: greens don’t know from plasma
Some environmentalists, including the Pembina Institute and Sierra Legal, are opposed to Ottawa’s new high-tech waste disposal pilot project on the grounds that incineration is as dirty as coal combustion.

Right off the bat, they’re wrong. The technology underpinning the Ottawa project is not incineration. It is thermal plasma gasification/vitrification. Pembina and Sierra have been loudly advising the government about how it should meet Kyoto targets. Their position on the Ottawa project makes you wonder how far off the mark their Kyoto advice is. (Hint: it’s pretty far.)

A thermal plasma furnace does use heat to dispose of waste, but the heat is far more intense than what is involved in conventional incineration—so intense that it turns the matter to which it is subjected into gas and glass.

The gaseous byproduct of thermal plasma treatment, which in the case of carbon feedstocks is predominantly a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, can, theoretically, be further processed or burned in a combined-cycle generator. The emission intensity of this combustion is, again in the case of gasified carbon feedstocks, similar to that of natural gas–fired combustion.

But bear in mind that the Ottawa pilot project won’t necessarily be dealing with predominantly carbon-based feedstock. Municipal waste is heterogeneous. This means the process gas will vary in composition, making it difficult to generalize about its performance as combustion fuel in a CC generator.

Nevertheless, supporters of the Ottawa plasma project tout it as a waste-to-power project. This is an unnecessary claim. Even if it did work, the system would dispatch such a minuscule amount of power to the grid that it wouldn’t even warrant a mention on the IESO’s monthly generator reports.

Rather, the project’s proponents will make their main money from the tipping fee—i.e., what they charge Ottawa to dispose of the waste. If the fee is comparable to what Ottawa currently pays to simply landfill an equivalent amount of waste, and if the proponents can make a profit on that amount, then it’s a good deal.

Instead of chasing the waste-to-power red herring, it may prove more economical to separate the process gas into its constituents and sell them to an industrial gas company. After all, the major players in this field—Praxair and Air Products, especially—have over the past few years been on a patent-filing binge to protect processes that do just that.

Has this led anywhere? In 2003, Praxair teamed up with a plasma furnace manufacturer to test the viability of purifying gas from municipal waste. So far the company has been coy about the results. This suggests that the results have been less than impressive, and that the main value of plasma gasification is the clean disposal of waste.

But regardless of the useful value of the gas, the mainstream greens’ loud opposition to the Ottawa project proves they need to do more homework.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Combined heat and power: friendly to the environment, or just the gas industry?
Two weeks ago, on The Agenda with Steve Paikin, I participated in a debate on the pros and cons of nuclear power expansion in Ontario. One of the other debaters, Dave Martin of Greenpeace, suggested that industrial power users could reduce their environmental footprint by using combined heat and power. Also called cogeneration, combined heat and power (CHP) involves using heat from one source to provide both electricity and space heating to the same facility.

The concept of combined heat and power appeals to some people because it implies efficiency. We use the same heat to do two jobs: wouldn’t this produce less emissions than separate processes? It sounds like a no-brainer.

Well, it’s a brainer. CHP almost invariably means using natural gas. Emission intensity from generating power solely with natural gas is more than double that of the power coming from Ontario’s grid (550 grams per kWh for gas, versus 222 from the grid; see Environment Canada’s GHG Inventory).

This means that for CHP to work in Ontario, a facility would have to reduce space heating requirements drastically in order to reduce the total emissions that result from separate processes. These requirements would have to be reduced even more drastically if and when Ontario adds power from new nuclear or hydro plants to its system.

So CHP looks good at first glance, but falls down in jurisdictions where the emission intensity of electricity is already low. You still need way more fuel in CHP than you would if you generated power or heat separately. This means that gas-based CHP is only favourable, emission-wise, when you compare it with power or heat generated separately entirely with fossil fuel.

Which means in turn that CHP might work in jurisdictions like Alberta or Ohio, where electricity is generated primarily using coal. But as I have stressed on this blog, this doesn’t apply to Ontario. More than three-quarters of our electricity comes from emission-free sources. And CHP would be an obvious non-starter in Quebec, British Columbia, Manitoba, or Newfoundland-Labrador—none of these provinces has power emission intensity over 31 grams per kWh.

Nice try, gas industry.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Should Ontario trade carbon with the U.S.?
There has been speculation recently that Ontario is mulling over the prospect of joining an emission trading scheme. The scheme in question, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), covers power generation in nine northeastern states, and is America’s first mandatory cap-and-trade system.

Should Ontario join the RGGI? It is definitely worth looking into. Let’s set aside for a moment the financial opportunities (though they are significant, as I pointed out last week), and focus on the legal ramifications. It is just a matter of time before an emissions-related lawsuit against an emitting company is successful in the U.S. Some of those recently before the courts—e.g., Connecticut v. American Electric Power and California v. General Motors; see article—rested on the tort doctrine of public nuisance. Don’t let the innocent-sounding phrase “public nuisance” fool you into thinking these actions are frivolous. The implications of a successful public nuisance lawsuit will be profound (see article).

Most big American coal-based generating companies understand this, which is why they’re demanding federal leadership on the issue, including carbon caps through either taxation or a carbon market (see article). They want a framework in place so they can respond, in both legal and PR terms, when the inevitable verdict comes down.

What does this have to do with Ontario? Our biggest coal-fired generating plant, the 3,900-megawatt behemoth at Nanticoke, sits on the north shore of Lake Erie. Its emissions often drift south and east, i.e., right into New York State. New York’s current governor, Elliot Spitzer, was the attorney general before he won the gubernatorial election last November. In that capacity he filed numerous legal complaints against power companies, some of which were directed at Ontario. Nanticoke is one of his favourite targets. He knows exactly what he’ll do if and when a public nuisance complaint succeeds in the U.S.

Spitzer is also a big RGGI supporter. He believes in making life harder for emitters by forcing them to purchase carbon permits rather than granting permits for free (as the European Emission Trading Scheme did in its first year of operation; see my post). If this is the case, then he and his fellow RGGI governors might agree to favourble terms on which Ontario could sell its low-emission power into the northeastern power markets.

Such an agreement would have to acknowledge that Ontario’s power-sector emissions have dropped, sharply, in recent years. This would help our legal case, and wouldn’t hurt in the PR department either.