The following article of mine ran last month in the Houston Business Journal and is here reprinted in its entirety:
TXU Corp. plans to pour billions of dollars into power plants putting out emissions that may ultimately ruin the city of Houston and Texas. Is that really wise?
Texas utility companies including TXU have announced plans to build more than a dozen new coal-fired power plants. Coal plants put out far more heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions than any other type of power plant. Worse still, TXU will not be using the latest technology, which gasifies the coal and could allow carbon dioxide to be captured and stored.
The planet has already warmed nearly 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century and human emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide are the primary cause according to scientists from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and around the world. If we continue unrestrained emissions, the United States will suffer brutal consequences.
Few states are likely to suffer more from global warming than Texas, and Houston has a much as much at risk as any major U.S. city. What do Houston and Texas face?
The first impact is longer and stronger heat waves. On our current emissions path, Houston would experience temperatures exceeding 98°F for some 60 days a year, according to a 2005 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And some parts of Texas would be considerably hotter–and drier. The kind of unusually severe drought that large parts of the state been suffering is expected to become commonplace in this country by century’s end. A recent study found that one third of the entire world is at risk of desertification from global warming.
While heat and drought are the biggest threats to much of the state, ironically the biggest threat to Houston from global warming is water–water in the form of sea level rise and superhurricanes. The huge Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are disintegrating considerably faster than scientists had projected just a few years ago. How fast can sea levels rise? Following the last ice age, the world saw sustained melting that raised sea levels more than a foot a decade.
John Holdren, the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science now warns that on our current emissions path sea levels may rise 10 feet by 2100. And the nation’s top climate scientist, NASA’s Jim Hansen, recently warned that if we don’t reverse our emissions trends within ten years the planet will inevitably warm another 4 degrees Fahrenheit or more by century’s end–taking us to a temperature last seen on Earth when sea levels were 80 feet higher.
Protecting Houston with enormous levees from such sea level rise would be challenging enough by itself, but the devastation of hurricane Katrina showed what havoc a super-hurricane can wreak when it hits a city that’s largely below sea level. Since the 1970s, the number of intense Category 4 and 5 Atlantic hurricanes has nearly doubled.
While hurricane seasons vary in their intensity year-to-year because of factors such as the El Ni±o weather pattern, which tends to weaken Atlantic hurricane seasons, warmer seas inevitably mean stronger hurricanes in the future. And the higher seas rise, the more Houston will be directly affected by the powerful winds and storm surge of an approaching super hurricane.
To stop ever-more brutal droughts and floods, the nation must reduce carbon dioxide emissions 50 percent or more by mid-century. States like Arizona and California, along with countries like Great Britain, have already embraced the need for such cuts.
There are many solutions to cutting carbon dioxide emissions, but building traditional coal plants is not one of them. The first thing to do is energy efficiency, because technologies that save energy can pay for themselves. Consider that over the past three decades, Texas’s electricity per capita has risen 50 percent, while California’s strong efficiency efforts have kept per capita demand flat. And California’s efficiency investments cost 2.9 cents per kilowatt hour–far cheaper than new power plants.
Second, Texas should invest heavily in renewable energy. Vast areas of the state are excellent places for wind power, with a potential far in excess of 100 gigawatts. Since limits on carbon emissions are inevitable, the value of wind resources will only rise in the future.
That’s why the last thing Texas utility should be investing in is traditional coal plants. The state should not permit any coal plant to be built that does not gasify the coal and capture the carbon dioxide. Coal plants can last for many decades. But within a few years, those emissions will come at a cost, one Texas utility ratepayers are likely to swallow if they permit these plants.
The clean energy strategy not only helps avoid both higher cost electricity and catastrophic global warming in the future, but immediately delivers power to Texans power without emitting mercury and smog-forming pollutants. That’s why it’s the right strategy for the state.