If Obama stops dirty coal, as he must, what will replace it? Part 1

A year ago I wrote a post “Old coal’s out, can’t wait for new nukes, so what do we do NOW?” where I hypothesized:

Suppose the leaders of this country were wise enough to put a moratorium on traditional coal (the most urgent climate policy needed, as discussed here)? How will we meet our steadily growing demand for carbon-free power over the next decade? And to get on the 450 ppm path, we don’t just need to stop U.S. emissions from rising — we should return to 1990 levels (or lower) by 2020.

Well, we now appear to have leaders that wise (see “Obama EPA to act on global warming emissions from new coal plants“). And we need real reductions by the end of next decade (see “The U.S. needs a tougher 2020 GHG emissions target“).

Also, while my original post focused on the key strategies of efficiency and recycled energy (i.e. cogeneration or combined heat and power), wind, and concentrated solar thermal, I left out one of the most crucial — biomass cofiring, which is almost certainly the cheapest, easiest, and fastest way to provide new renewable baseload power without having to build any new transmission lines!

I think it is incumbent on progressives to propose a realistic alternative to new coal plants — and a path to reduce emissions from existing ones. That’s especially true since it is increasingly clear carbon capture and storage will not be a major player by 2020 (see “Is coal with carbon capture and storage a core climate solution?“). So I will revise and extend my previous analysis:

NUCLEAR: Nuclear is an obvious possibility, beloved of conservative Francophiles like McCain and Gingrich, but energy realists understand that it is very unlikely new nuclear plants could deliver many kilowatt-hours of electricity by 2020, let alone affordable kWhs. Indeed, back in August 2007, Tulsa World reported (here):

American Electric Power Co. isn’t planning to build any new nuclear power plants because delays will push operational starts to 2020, CEO Michael Morris said Tuesday….

Builders would also have to queue for certain parts and face “realistic” costs of about $4,000 a kilowatt, he said….

I’m not convinced we’ll see a new nuclear station before probably the 2020 timeline,” Morris said.

And that in spite of the amazing subsidies and huge loan guarantees for nuclear power in the 2005 energy bill (see here).

As for the $4,000 a kw capital cost — and the related electricity price of about 10 cents per kwh — mid-2007 has already turned into the “good old days” for nukes. Utilities are now telling regulators that nukes will cost 50% to 100% more than the AEP estimate (see “Exclusive analysis, Part 1: The staggering cost of new nuclear power” and “The Self-Limiting Future of Nuclear Power“).

So what do we do in the near term to meet the projected 1% annual increase in demand over the next decade while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions?

The answer is we do energy efficiency (including cogeneration), wind power, concentrated solar power (CSP), and biomass cofiring. These are the low-carbon power sources capable of delivering power affordably and quickly — and that means having no obvious production bottlenecks (unlike, again, say, another well-known power source, see “Look up nuclear bottleneck in the dictionary….“).

The goal is to fund technologies and boost industries that are capable of scaling up to deliver hundreds if not thousands of GWs of carbon free power by mid-century. No surprise that these sources account for a (slight) majority of the wedges I propose for 2050 (see “Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 2: The Solution“).

EFFICIENCY: Energy efficiency is the cheapest alternative (see “Energy efficiency is THE core climate solution, Part 1: The biggest low-carbon resource by far“). California has cut annual peak demand by 12 GW – and total demand by about 40,000 GWh — through a variety of energy efficiency programs over the past three decades. Over their lifetime, the cost of efficiency programs has averaged 2-3¢ per kW. If every American had the per capita electricity of California, we’d cut electricity use some 40%. If the next president aggressively pushes a nationwide effort to embrace efficiency and change regulations to encourage efficiency, then we could keep electricity demand close to flat through 2020.

That is particularly true if we include an aggressive effort to push cogeneration aka combined heat and power (see “Recycled Energy — A core climate solution). I will revist it in a later post, since cogen is a ready source of low-carbon baseload power that has been even more neglected in policy discussions than efficiency.

One very good source of apples-to-apples comparisons of different types of low- and zero-carbon electricity generation is the modeling work done for the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) on how to comply with the AB32 law (California’s Global Warming Solutions Act), online here. AB32 requires a reduction in statewide greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

A May presentation of the CPUC modeling results (here) shows that energy efficiency could deliver up to 36,000 Gigawatt-hours of “negawatts” by 2020 (that is the equivalent of more than 5 GW of baseload generation operating 80% of the time). At the same time, the state could build 1.6 GW of small CHP and 2.8 GW of large CHP. So that is nearly 10 GW of efficiency by 2020. If this were reproduced nationwide, efficiency would deliver more than 130 GW of efficiency by 2020.

WIND: Wind has been growing at a staggering pace (see “U.S. becomes the global wind leader“). And its potential for growth is even greater (see “ITC to build $12 billion in wind farm power lines, JCSP study finds $50+B savings from 20% wind“).

Power purchase agreements for wind power are currently averaging 4.5 to 7.5 cents a kilowatt hour, including the federal wind tax credit, which is a fair comparison in the near term to new nuclear, which itself gets huge subsidies, loan guarantees, and liability protection. Even unsubsidized, and with the recent price rise that most power sources have seen, wind power is delivering power at 7.5 to 10 (this does not include transmission costs). The country has thousands of gigawatts that could be delivered for under ten cents unsubsidzed. Just 300 GW by 2030 would provide 20% of U.S. electricity. America added over 8 GW just last year.

Yes, wind power is intermittent, but the country has a great deal of baseload power, and many regions of European countries integrate up to 40% wind power successfully. An August 2007 review of actual windpower integration by utilities in this country, “Utility Wind Integration and Operating Impact State of the Art,” found that the integration cost in eight different major wind projects, ranged from 0.2 to 0.5 cents per kWh.

Wind is a core climate solution and even the Bush DOE said wind can be 20% of U.S. power by 2030 with no breakthroughs. Moreover, as we electrify transportation over the next two decades with plug-in hybrids, the grid will be able to make use of far larger amounts of intermittent, largely night-time zero-carbon electricity from wind. So post-2030, windpower should be able to grow even further.

CSP: Concentrated solar power I have previously written about at length (see “Concentrated solar thermal power — a core climate solution“). It has come roaring back after more than a decade of neglect with more than a dozen providers building projects in two dozen countires (see “CSP update” and, more recently, “CSP outshines ‘clean coal’ — and it always will“).

As of November, “some 60 plants are either under construction or under contract worldwide — with most in either Spain or the United States — for a total capacity just north of 5,700 megawatts.” As they say in Sourthern California, CSP is ready for its close up (see “Biggest CA utility contracts for world’s biggest solar power deal — 1300 MW solar thermal“).

Utilities in the Southwest are already contracting for power at 14 to 15 cents/kWh. The modeling for the CPUC puts California solar thermal at 12.7 to 13.6 cents/kWh (including six hours of storage capacity) — and at similar or lower costs in the rest of the West. A number of players are adding low-cost storage that will make the power better than baseload (since it delivers peak power when demand actually peaks, rather than just delivering a constant amount of power 24/7). More importantly, CSP has barely begun dropping down the experience curve as costs are lower from economies of scale and the manufacturing learning curve (see experience curve discussion here). The CPUC analysis foresees the possibility that CSP could drop 20% in cost by 2020.

A 2006 report by the Western Governors Association “projects that, with a deployment of 4 GW, total nominal cost of CSP electricity would fall below 10¢/kWh.” And that deployment will likely occur before 2015. Indeed, the report noted the industry could “produce over 13 GW by 2015 if the market could absorb that much.” The report also notes that 300 GW of CSP capacity can be located near existing transmission lines. As an aside, wind power is a very good match with CSP in terms of their ability to share the same transmission lines, since a great deal of wind is at night, and since CSP, with storage, is dispatchable.

Finally, a report from Environment America, Solar Thermal Power and and the Fight Against Global Warming, explains how the United States could achieve 80 GW of CSP by 2030, which is not even what I would consider to be a true stretch goal given how dire the climate situation is.

The bottom line is that even without a WWII-scale effort, we could start making significant reductions in grid GHG emissions by 2020 that would not raise the nation’s energy bill!

And that is without even considering the major contribution that we could get over the next decade from biomass cofiring, the subject of Part 2.

44 Responses to If Obama stops dirty coal, as he must, what will replace it? Part 1

  1. David B. Benson says:

    DOn’t overestimate the supply of inexpensive biomass. Turns out that transportation costs are going to limit the avalability, along with other matters.

    This might be alleviated by torrefying wood or making biochar from whatever biomass one chooses. In both cases the resulting material is at least as high a percentage of carbon as the best grades of fossil coal. If one can afford the cost of traniloads of fossil coal, the same ought to apply to these forms of “biocoal”.

    Still, it will take a lot of land to grow enough biomass to make a major dent of coal use. Maybe growing algae for converstiin to biochar is less land intensive. It will at least have the advantage that brakish or even sea water can be used.

  2. I’m not a fan of biomass co-firing. I think it should be 100 per cent biomass. The problem with co-firing is that you muck up the equipment and increase maintenance costs. Also, the fly ash from coal is used for industrial purposes. The ash from pure biomass burning can be used for fertilizer. But there’s no use for the ash from a blend of coal and biomass. Ontario Power Generation is laying the foundation for a move to 100 per cent biomass for some of its coal-fired units. But bear in mind it would be difficult to operate these things as baseload, just because of the immense amounts of biomass you’d need to collect (and the transportation costs of collecting it). Practically speaking, using biomass would likely turn the coal plants into peakers.

    Joe, you should add anaerobic digestion systems on farms. They’re dispatchable, they eliminate methane emissions from animal and crop waste, and they terminate dangerous organisms that contaminate ground water.

  3. Awesome as usual. One request: if you could go in and retroactively link all your various parts in a given series that would help people (like me) who are navigating your archive.

  4. Joe says:

    David, we don’t need inexpensive biomass. Remember, we are burning biomass in existing (paid off) coal plants and trying to compete with new (non-baseload) wind and CSP. If we can beat 15 c/kwh, then this is the best use of biomass!

    Tyler: 100% biomass is hard. Plus you have to cite the plants and power lines. We may get there, but I’m trying to displace as much coal as possible by 2020.

    Christropher: Will make this accessible. Might even put in side bar.

  5. Brewster says:

    “Dirty Coal”

    Didn’t your English teacher tell you to watch out for redundancies?

  6. No doubt it’s hard, but you don’t have to build new plants to do it. Read this article here about OPG’s attempts to burn biomass in existing coal-fired units that can use existing power lines.

    They may have to be peakers, but those can be balanced out with CHP and anaerobic digestion and wind in northern states where solar thermal isn’t an option. In fact, they could play the role that natural gas plays to balance off wind.

  7. David B. Benson says:

    Joe — Turns out that torrefied wood, for example, can compete with Central Appachian coal (current prices) within a few hundred kilometers of the torrefication plant, because

    (1) further than that the transportation costs are too high;

    (2) the wood supply is forestry wastes, hence the collection costs are essentially zero.

    Of course, if the cost of coal is driven up (fossil coal has to pay for excess carbon dioxide removal) then a greater supply can certainly be found.

    Burning 100% biochar is very similar to burning anthracite; known technology. A important factor is that most of the NPK nutrients will be in the ash. That needs to go back to the soil or algae tank; especially the phosphorus as the minable supply is rather limited: here is what I wrote about it for Simon Robinson’s blog; unfortunately I can’t provide a link.


    Potassium, chemical symbol K, is in ample supply.
    Phosphorus, chemical symbol P, is currently being mined at a rate of 0.8% of reserves per year; the reserve base is not(currently) economic to mine. This rate may seem small, but the unused, degraded lands to be devoted to biofuel production will require some; suppose doubling to 1.6% per year. Then the reserves are depleted in 62 years, 2070.
    Worse, this assumes that world reserves are not overstated. Analysis suggests that reserves are overstated. If so, the end may come in, say, 2050. Whatever, agriculture, biofuel production, waste management and so on needs to start conserving phosphorus for reuse; don’t waste phosphorus.
    Nitrogen, chemical symbol N, is in short supply only in that it needs converting from diatomic nitrogen in the air into a biologically useful form in the soil. Some micro-organisms do just that; these are often associated with legumes. For example, it was locally the practice to alternate soft white winter wheat one year with dry peas and lentils the next. This practice meant that less chemical nitrogen fertilizer had to be applied to the growing wheat.
    The chemical nitrogen fertilizer is fixed from the air via the Haber process, steam reforming natural gas to start the process. The price of these fertilizers varies with that of natural gas, thought to generally increasing over time. Obviously biomthane could replace the natural gas, but this may not be the best use of biomethane.
    Producing biologically useful nitrogen could well be something that addtional micro-organisms, including genetically modified ones, could play an increasing role, lessening dependence upon the Haber process.

  8. Joe says:

    Tyler — I’d suggest starting at a small scale and then expand as possible.

  9. Mark says:

    “Finally, a report from Environment America, Solar Thermal Power and and the Fight Against Global Warming, explains how the United States could achieve 80 GW of CSP by 2030, which is not even what I would consider to be a true stretch goal given how dire the climate situation is.”

    Why not 400 GW? 80 GW is significant, but wouldn’t that still be less than 10% of our electricity needs? What are the limiting factors? Materials? Labor? Transmission?

  10. A new technology to consider for this question of what to do absent coal: solar thermal plants that can store energy and release it whenever its needed (even at night). In fact: why didn’t energy storage solutions make it into this post at all?

  11. Bob Wright says:

    Are we willing to ration energy if GHG emission targets are not reached? Can we identify the best directions and develop a comprehensive action plan? Are we willing to curtail development, ration oil and gas, ban high GHG footprint imported goods, turn off city lights, ban night time sporting events, or pull the plug on a family home if it exceeds its electricity ration? Limit or ban grain fed beef? Curtail air travel? Shut down FedEx?

    These technologies and planned incentives are great, but when do we get serious?

  12. paulm says:

    Ok, that’s the supply side. But we can do much much better on the demand.

    People NEED to start to live sustainably!

    Do you think our world’s resources can support an American life style even at 1/2 the west consumption/energy level.


  13. David B. Benson says:

    Bob Wright wrote “Limit or ban grain fed beef?”

    Easy. Just eat less red meat.

    Save $$, better for your health, too.

  14. Jeff Green says:

    Compressed air energy storage.

    I think this is a subject that needs more attention on this blog. I first learned of it on this article.

    No need to wait for new technology, the time is now.


    [JR: Have a CAES post in the works!]

  15. Bob Wright says:

    Grain fed beef: I’m not an expert, and this might be part vegan hype, but the practice of feedlots fattening cattle uses a lot of grain produced by our fuel and chemical intensive agriculture. Secondly, cattle fed this way have e-coli in their gut and produce lots of methane. This practice is apparently a substantial contributor of GHGs.

    Roaming foraging cattle actually help sequester carbon into the topsoil.

    Maybe a tax on beef would slow down those 350 lb giants at the diner who have sausage for breakfast, a quarter pounder for lunch, and a giant veal patty parmesan for dinner.

  16. PaulK says:

    Coal can best be replaced by the collective action of those who understand that it must be. I’ve started a replacing fossil fuel association to do it “one watt at a time.”

    I’m promoting the association by organizing alternative energy and efficiency events. The next one is April 17 in Chicago. Featured is a presentation on residential geothermal, which I was surprised to learn is practical even in urban settings.

    At the event in January, Architect Howard Alan demonstrated the ultra efficiency of passive solar design in both new “net zero” houses and retrofits. Brandon Leavitt of Solar Service Inc. showed how solar thermal is already cost effective and highly dependable. Solar thermal can also be used in heating homes and buildings with forced air systems. I told the audience about my idea for an association and ten people signed up.

    The immediate goal of the association is to partner with Habitat For Humanity for top fund fossil replacing efficiencies and technologies in their projects.

  17. Jared Gellert says:


    You’ve consistently exclude Solar PV as a core climate solution. But Sunpower, one of the leaders, believes that it’s greatest growth opportunities lies in utility scale PV. Further, it believes it is cost competitive with new coal at something like 14-16cents/kwh and expects to drive its costs down to grid parity within the next 5 years. So this sounds to me like they think they are a cost competitive core climate solution. Why are they wrong?

  18. Jared Gellert says:

    Biomass and South East

    One thing I wonder about biomass is whether biomass as a core climate solution really makes sense in the South Eastern US where it is usually hot and wet and therefore they can grow a whole lot of biomass per acre more than in other areas of the country. We also always hear from their politicians how their region doesn’t have good wind or solar resources, so maybe biomass is an answer for them.

  19. David Hawkins says:

    Good for you to point out once again we need to do the math if we are going to cut global warming pollution.

    You have argued in another post that the science justifies a 20-30% reduction below 1990 emissions by 2020 (that’s about a 31-40% reduction below today’s levels). No argument at all about what the science justifies.

    So now to the math of how to get there. You cover in this post some key measures to cut emissions in the power sector (which is 40% of US CO2 emissions and about 34% of US GHG emissions).

    You start, as we all must, with efficiency and present what appear to be two alternative 2020 targets: holding demand flat through 2020; and deploying the equivalent of 130 GW of efficiency by 2020. Since EIA’s new forecast is for 105GW of new capacity additions by 2020 to meet projected demand, your 130GW of efficiency would seem to produce a reduction but about 30GW of EIA’s projected new build is zero carbon so avoiding this does not cut CO2. Assuming efficiency backs out some existing high carbon generation one could some reduction in power sector emissions from this action alone by 2020. Rather than guess at your estimate I’ll simply wait for more detail.

    Renewables are next, as they should be. You mention a couple of projections for wind capacity in 2030 but no targets for 2020. Let’s say we do an average of 12 GW of new wind a year between from 2010 to 2020, or 120 GW. That would back out about 60 GW of baseload capacity. If that were all coal, which is theoretically plausible assuming a strong climate bill that raised the cost of coal gen substantially, that might result in a 20% reduction in coal gen emissions by 2020 (coal is about 82% of power emissions so that would give us about a 6% reduction in US GHG emissions).

    CSP is next. You don’t provide a 2020 penetration estimate but mention a possible 13GW market by 2015. Let’s assume 40GW of CSP by 2020, backing out another 20GW of coal and we get another 2% reduction in US GHG emissions.

    That brings us up to a possible 8% reduction in US GHG by 2020 plus whatever reductions below today’s levels you are assuming result from efficiency.

    To get the rest of the way to the 31-40% reduction from today’s levels we need to add in the reduction from biomass co-firing you will cover next as well as reductions below today’s levels in sectors other than power generation.

    Once we have that math in order, we need to turn to the more immediate math: 218 votes in the House and 60 votes in the Senate. The technical potential you outline for emission reductions is a necessary but not sufficient condition for achieving these reductions. To make that happen we will need a serious carbon bill enacted this year. If it is 2 years from now we have cut our deployment leadtime by 10% making the job that much harder.

    That leads to the key question I have posed on this site before: what is the political strategy for getting the Congressional math sums right? To get the reductions I estimated above requires backing out 80GW of paid-off existing coal and replacing it with zero carbon resources. The biomass cofiring you will discuss next might back out another 50-70GW of existing coal (you could back out gas but that will diminish the emission reductions, leaving a larger gap to the 2020 target).

    So what is the political strategy for countering the claims that will be brought to the offices of the members of Congress who pay attention to coal that this amount of change in the use of coal in this period of time will produce lots of economic impacts that politicians don’t like to embrace? I am not endorsing these claims but I know they will be made so I know we need a political strategy to overcome them.

    Absent that strategy there will be a gap between technical potential and political potential and that gap will keep us from our goal.

    [JR: Very thoughtful comments. The claimed negative impacts of coal are 1) higher electricity prices and 2) less reliable power and 3) impact on coal states and, relatedly, 4) lack of renewable resources in states that rely on coal.

    #1 can and must be addressed by a) the aggressive pursuit of efficiency, to keep bills flat as rates rise [which they will do whether or not we have a climate bill], b) demonstrating that in fact cogen and renewables can provide round the clock power at competitive prices, something Obama must (and apparently will) do with massive deployment in his first term, and c) returning most of the auctioned revenues back to the public.

    #2 can and must be addressed by showing the renewables can be baseload (like cofiring) and/or load-following (like solar thermal). Obviously you have to solve the transmission problem, but that again argues for cofiring.

    #3 can and must be addressed by using auction revenues to help affected workers and hard hit areas and, possibly, companies, though they have been rolling in the dough in recent years. This is an area I’d be interested in your thoughts on.

    #4 is again why cofiring is crucial. Cofiring allows coal utilities to directly adopt renewables and make a much more gradual transition than the coal producers themselves.

    I can’t reduce all of the political heat, but let’s put out a big subsidy and demonstration program for cofiring, which Bush DOE never wanted to do.]

  20. John Mashey says:

    All of this is good stuff, but this afternoon, I heard something that might be at least as good, in some ways better.

    If there isn’t some hidden gotcha (there might be, I’m no expert), it’s one of the best *single* things I’ve heard.

    1) Calera is a just-barely-out-of-stealth, but very impressive startup …
    It already has 65 people and a pilot plant at Moss Landing, CA just South of the Dynergy gas plant there. [CA doesn’t have any coal plants handy, they’d be better for this, actually.]
    GooglelEarth: 36deg48’10.29″N, 121deg46’56.75″W.
    See World of Concrete for a brief description of them going non-stealth earlier this month. They have 7 3Mgallon tanks in the buildings there, so this is not just an idea on paper. They think they can handle output of 20MW-80MW coal plant, scale up modularly.

    2) At a Stanford Energy Seminar today, Calera Founder Brent Constantz gave a very interesting talk, in some ways the most encouraging thing I’ve heard for a long time.

    Constantz is a serious scientist, with many relevant publications and patents, an adjunct professor at Stanford. He started as a coral expert, but has ended up doing a lot of work in cement, including starting several companies for medical cement for surgery/bone repair.

    Anyway, he’s a serious expert in Calcium chemistry and processes. He started by showing coral growth (form 1983), and the catastrophe for coral caused by ocean pH changes just in the last 25 years.

    3) The basic idea:

    a) Sequester CO2 somewhere ~permanent or else

    b) It’s very hard to make coal go away any time soon. I.e., we may stop new ones in US, but old ones are still there, and India/China… and if we don’t solve coal’s CO2 problem, no matter what else we do, we’re Toast.

    c) Typical CCS ideas for coal and gas plants just aren’t economical [no surprise for CP readers]: you use a lot of energy to capture CO2, pump it somewhere safe, and you still have to get rid of other pollutants. No surprise people aren’t lining up to do it.


    4) Sequester the CO2 (in CACo3, MgCO3) in cement and aggregates (sand and pebble equivalents) for concrete, which last a very long time, and which people actually *pay* for … in some cases to help build wind turbines. Use carbonate chemistry rather than silicate chemistry.

    Do this in away that is cost-competitive with existing supplies of these things, which are actually used in large enough quantities to long-term sequester the output of all coal plants, I think. Concrete is well-known to be a very complex material, and I have no particular knowledge of it, but it all sounded very convincing.

    Cogen schemes yield both electricity and heat … this is like a cogen scheme that generates electricity and building materials, sequesters the CO2 from burning the coal/gas, and avoids the energy use and CO2 of creating the equivalent cement & aggregates.

    5) Basic process:

    from power plant:flue gas + waste heat + (some) electricity

    from water: either seawater, or even better briny hard water found in sedimentary basins, which has much higher concentrations of Ca and Mg

    REACTIONS (secret sauce)

    softened water, put back in ocean, or give to desal plant if there is one handy
    CaCO3, MgCO3, in various forms, yielding cement equivalents, aggregates

    6) Goal: be a profit center rather than a cost center or tax, so that people *want* to build these things.

    7) TIDBITS:
    a) Some places in mid-East have to import sand for building, because their own has too much salt.
    b) California imports 60% of its aggregates. People are trying to use fly ash (from cola plants) to lessen the CO2 hit from concrete, a generally good idea. That’s a problem for CA, since we don’t have coal plants. The usual dumb things have happened: one project used some fly ash … barged in from China. Duh.

    Here are a few mentions, take with grain of salt; what I heard today was much more detailed.

    this and

    I’ve heard a lot of enthusiastic pitches to VCs for technologies , I thumbs-down most of them. This looked very interesting, and Constantz was quite impressive.

    If there isn’t some big hidden gotcha, it is *really important* to have a fighting chance to neutralize the CO2 from existing coal plants & lessen that from concrete.

  21. llewelly says:

    A new technology to consider for this question of what to do absent coal: solar thermal plants that can store energy and release it whenever its needed (even at night). In fact: why didn’t energy storage solutions make it into this post at all?

    Some time ago, Joe expended several posts making the case that CSP with storage ought to be called Solar Baseload precisely because the energy can now be stored at night. It’s rather weird that he didn’t do that here, since he’s presenting CSP as baseload power solution, and that’s not practical without storage. In any case he does mention storage:

    As an aside, wind power is a very good match with CSP in terms of their ability to share the same transmission lines, since a great deal of wind is at night, and since CSP, with storage, is dispatchable.

    Joe also mentioned CSP storing heat energy in the Salon article he linked to indirectly:

    The key attribute of CSP is that it generates primary energy in the form of heat, which can be stored 20 to 100 times more cheaply than electricity — and with far greater efficiency. Commercial projects have already demonstrated that CSP systems can store energy by heating oil or molten salt, which can retain the heat for hours. Ausra and other companies are working on storing the heat directly with water in the tubes, which would significantly lower cost and avoid the need for heat exchangers.

    As a side note – every planned CSP with storage plant I can find numbers for seems to have between 6-8 hours of storage. What will they do during winter, when nights are longer, and cloudy days are more frequent? Either they’re counting on wind, and people using less power in winter and at night (normal on both counts), or they’re relying on coal. Or maybe nuclear. (Perhaps I’m overly cautious, but it seems to me it might be wiser to build the plants with a little more storage.)

  22. Bob Wallace says:

    “Yes, wind power is intermittent, but the country has a great deal of baseload power…”

    By linking wind farms 33% of power produced by wind farms becomes 100% reliable “baseload” power. (Archer and Jacobson, 2008).

    “The researchers used hourly wind data, collected and quality-controlled by the National Weather Service, for the entire year of 2000 from the 19 sites. They found that an average of 33 percent and a maximum of 47 percent of yearly-averaged wind power from interconnected farms can be used as reliable baseload electric power.”


    And what’s the status of dry rock geothermal?

    This could be a major source of “100% reliable” baseload which would have low transmission requirements. Drill where it’s needed. (And it seems to install quickly.)

  23. Erich J. Knight says:

    Biochar Soil Technology…..Husbandry of whole new orders of life

    Biotic Carbon, the carbon transformed by life, should never be combusted, oxidized and destroyed. It deserves more respect, reverence even, and understanding to use it back to the soil where 2/3 of excess atmospheric carbon originally came from.

    We all know we are carbon-centered life, we seldom think about the complex web of recycled bio-carbon which is the true center of life. A cradle to cradle, mutually co-evolved biosphere reaching into every crack and crevice on Earth.

    It’s hard for most to revere microbes and fungus, but from our toes to our gums (onward), their balanced ecology is our health. The greater earth and soils are just as dependent, at much longer time scales. Our farming for over 10,000 years has been responsible for 2/3rds of our excess greenhouse gases. This soil carbon, converted to carbon dioxide, Methane & Nitrous oxide began a slow stable warming that now accelerates with burning of fossil fuel.

    Wise Land management; Organic farming and afforestation can build back our soil carbon,

    Biochar allows the soil food web to build much more recalcitrant organic carbon, ( living biomass & Glomalins) in addition to the carbon in the biochar.

    Biochar, the modern version of an ancient Amazonian agricultural practice called Terra Preta (black earth, TP), is gaining widespread credibility as a way to address world hunger, climate change, rural poverty, deforestation, and energy shortages… SIMULTANEOUSLY!
    Modern Pyrolysis of biomass is a process for Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration,10X Lower Methane & N2O soil emissions, and 3X Fertility Too.
    Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration, Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels, so is a totally virtuous, carbon negative energy cycle.

    Biochar viewed as soil Infrastructure; The old saw, “Feed the Soil Not the Plants” becomes “Feed, Cloth and House the Soil, utilities included !”. Free Carbon Condominiums, build it and they will come.
    As one microbologist said on the TP list; “Microbes like to sit down when they eat”. By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders of life.

    Senator / Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar has done the most to nurse this biofuels system in his Biochar provisions in the 07 & 08 farm bill,

    Charles Mann (“1491”) in the Sept. National Geographic has a wonderful soils article which places Terra Preta / Biochar soils center stage.

    Biochar data base;

    NASA’s Dr. James Hansen Global warming solutions paper and letter to the G-8 conference, placing Biochar / Land management the central technology for carbon negative energy systems.

    The many new university programs & field studies, in temperate soils; Cornell, ISU, U of H, U of GA, Virginia Tech, JMU, New Zealand and Australia.

    Glomalin’s role in soil tilth, fertility & basis for the soil food web in Terra Preta soils.

    UNCCD Submission to Climate Change/UNFCCC AWG-LCA 5
    “Account carbon contained in soils and the importance of biochar (charcoal) in replenishing soil carbon pools, restoring soil fertility and enhancing the sequestration of CO2.”

    Given the current “Crisis” atmosphere concerning energy, soil sustainability, food vs. Biofuels, and Climate Change what other subject addresses them all?

    This is a Nano technology for the soil that represents the most comprehensive, low cost, and productive approach to long term stewardship and sustainability.

    Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.


    Erich J. Knight

    Shenandoah Gardens
    540 289 9750

    Biochar Studies at ACS Huston meeting;



    665 – III.


    Most all this work corroborates char soil dynamics we have seen so far . The soil GHG emissions work showing increased CO2 , also speculates that this CO2 has to get through the hungry plants above before becoming a GHG.
    The SOM, MYC& Microbes, N2O (soil structure), CH4 , nutrient holding , Nitrogen shock, humic compound conditioning, absorbing of herbicides all pretty much what we expected to hear.

    Company News & EU Certification

    Below is an important hurtle that 3R AGROCARBON has overcome in certification in the EU. Given that their standards are set much higher than even organic certification in the US, this work should smooth any bureaucratic hurtles we may face.

    EU Permit Authority – 4 years tests
    Subject: Fwd: [biochar] Re: GOOD NEWS: EU Permit Authority – 4 years tests successfully completed

    Doses: 400 kg / ha – 1000 kg / ha at different horticultural cultivars

    Plant height Increase 141 % versus control
    Picking yield Increase 630 % versus control
    Picking fruit Increase 650 % versus control
    Total yield Increase 202 % versus control
    Total piece of fruit Increase 171 % versus control
    Fruit weight Increase 118 % versus control

    There is list of the additional beneficial effects of the 3R FORMULATED BIOCHAREU DOSSIER for permit administration and summary of the results from 4 different Authorities who executed different test programme is under construction
    I suggest these independent and accredited EU relevant Authority permit field tests results will support the further development of the biochar application systems on international level, and providing case evidence, that properly made and formulated (plant and/or animal biomass based) biochars can meet the modern environmental – agricultural – human health inspection standards and norm, while supporting the knowledge based economical development.

    We work further on to expand not only in the EU but in the USA as well. My Cincinnati large scale carbonization project is progressing, hopefully the first industrial scale 3R clean coal – carbon plant will be ready in 2009.

    Sincerely yours: Edward Someus (environmental engineer)
    EMAIL 1:

    EcoTechnologies is planning for many collaborations ; NC State, U. of Leeds, Cardiff U. Rice U. ,JMU, U.of H. and at USDA with Dr.Jeffrey Novak who is coordinating ARS Biochar research. This Coordinated effort will speed implementation by avoiding unneeded repetition and building established work in a wide variety of soils and climates.

    Hopefully all the Biochar companies will coordinate with Dr. Jeff Novak’s soils work at ARS;

    I spoke with Jon Nilsson of the CarbonChar Group, in their third year of field trials ;
    An idea whose time has come | Carbon Char Group
    He said the 2008 trials at Virginia Tech showed a 46% increase in yield of tomato transplants grown with just 2 – 5 cups (2 – 5%) “Biochar+” per cubic foot of growing medium.

  24. jcwinnie says:

    @Jared , thanks for thinking of the Southeast. It does have some off-shore wind, unfortunately more and more in the form of hurricanes.

    There would seem some potential for power from the oceans. Nevertheless, biomass does seem to have significant potential at present.

    Those conditions you mention also would seem to be a good match for “bio-digestion”, a.k.a anaerobic fermentation. The Southeast also has extensive river systems.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if a source of alternative energy also could result in less dead zones from the Chesapeake to the Gulf. Much cleaner water flowing into the ocean from this region might have an impact upon ocean acidification, too.

    Ah well, living ain’t as easy, the fish ain’t jumping and the ppm is high.

  25. Harold Pierce Jr says:

    Hello Joe!

    What energy source(s) are you are proposing for the heavy hitters: lime and cement kilns, iron smelters, steel mills, foundries, all ceramic manufacturing, gold and diamond mines, base metal mines, grain drying, bakeries, distilleries (Don’t mess with JD!), etc, etc? And rock-solid juice for refrigeration, and the folks that live really cold climates, etc ,etc?

    [JR: Cogen, cogen, recycled energy + biomass cofiring. Plus the nukes and hydro stay running. Plus efficiency, efficiency, efficiency (bring back DOE’s “industries of the future” program). Plus geothermal heat pumps.]

  26. EricG says:

    Joe: Regarding #3, I think we all know that building an economy based upon mineral extraction has not been a successful strategy just about anywhere in the world. West Virginia and eastern Wyoming are not especially good places to live, despite their stunning physical beauty. Their main economic activity, mining, is destroying their main economic asset. It’s no accident that Israel, which laments the fact that it has no oil, is also far and away the best place to live in the Middle East. Long after the oil barons had dripped dry Israel’s knowledge workers will be driving a growing economy. I don’t know how you build a political argument on this economic truth. If West Virginian’s can’t see that coal has destroyed that state, I’m not sure what they can see. I don’t have any suggestion, just noting a sad truth.

  27. Bob Wallace says:


    Grain drying equipment and ceramic kilns don’t care where their power comes from. They don’t have the ability to differentiate wind watts from coal watts.

    Right now they are getting about half their watts from coal and about one percent from wind.

    Over time the coal percentage will drop and the wind percentage will rise.

  28. Greg N says:

    Electricity is the ultimate product for not caring how it’s made – so long as it keeps flowing down the wires, the customer and business is happy.

    All that matters is how much it costs, financially and socially (once the full cost of the CO2 emission is included, obviously).

  29. Matt says:


    I co-authored a report in December for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, focused on coal plants in Georgia. Part of our analysis was a life cycle assessment for many different types of electricity production. My research showed that if a pulverized coal plant fired 8.5% biomass (side by side but not co-fired) and used the biochar as a carbon sink, the plant would be carbon neutral. This was particularly useful noting the societal reaction to renewables in Georgia.

  30. paulm says:

    @Harold Pierce Jr Says:
    February 19th, 2009 at 4:54 am

    AND cutting back on all this blatant consumerism and unnecessary manufacture.

  31. jcwinnie says:

    The time for such incrementalism was 8 years ago, when there was a larger window. Your coalition is ignoring a whole list of negative impacts of coal

    May I suggest that the Southern Alliance for “Clean” Energy roll up their sleeves, grab a pail and sand shovel, forgo any health coverage or exams and pitch in to help TVA with the Roane County clean-up.

    Heck, speaking of societal reaction, I bet the local folks will be so impressed with your commitment that they will fix you a picnic to eat right where you are working. Imagine carafes of coffee made from water fresh from the river and deliciacies from the local fields. Ahh, can’t you smell that fresh air already.

  32. Geoff Henderson says:

    Fabulous postings, such depth, but above allwhat I notice from my “far-away” home in Australia is the growing optimism and enthusiasm of contributors since you have elected a new president. Go for it USA, I hope we can learn from you and get some serious action over here, because we face the same issues you do.

    I also notice the absence of the silver bullet fix for our emission woes, and so I think the debate is rightly engaging a range of options. I hope that too much time does not elapse whilst the actors sort out just which technologies are the best. Start getting some stuff on the ground now, even if it emerges later that there are/were better options. Heck, even a perfect choice may well become obsolete over time, so lets not wait forever deciding; over-debating plays into the hands of the vested interest bodies.

    Lastly I have not seen much that looks at private consumption levels of we citizens. Maybe that’s not for this forum, but since my own belief is, that in the absence of the magic bullet fix, obviously a range of initiatives is required. One of these surely should be to wind back private consumption of goods and services. This is likely consequence of climate change anyway, but better it be on a managed scale rather than reactive to climate changes.
    In Australia, and maybe the US, I doubt if any politician has the guts to push that one in public. However underlying policy can help to discourage the production of stuff that we don’t really need. For a list of such things, look around the room you are in right now, and ask how much you could live without. If you can be objective about it, the list will be substantial.

    My regards to all…

  33. David B. Benson says:

    Cofiring is not preferred because the NPK major nutrients are then lost. Sid-by-side firing in separate reactors, one for biofuel, the other for fossil coal, is certainly acceptable.

    But it may be less expensive to install an anaerobic digester and burn the biogasse to generate electricity. Dayton, Ohio, waste treatment facility already does this. The flue gasses are about 40% CO2, so ideal for promoting algae growth. The algae then go directly into the digester. The solids from the digester contain the nutrients for the algae and the liquid is purer water than obtainable from almost all natural sources.

    This combination of algae+digester has yet to be tried, but I see no reason it could not be set up almost anywhere.

  34. Matt says:


    I’m a graduate student in environmental policy at Georgia Tech, not an employee of SACE. I’m well aware of the other environmental impacts that coal causes, and so is SACE. You should look into them and their mission and what they’ve done before you spout off at the mouth about their motives.

    I made no commitment and neither did SACE to any construction of coal plants. The report actually recommended against new coal construction and favors investments in efficiency, as the Southeast is basically the Saudi Arabia of efficiency improvements.

    My discussion of the social reaction mostly runs around that people in the South are not generally receptive to ideas like solar and wind. Take the example of GA vs FL. Both have basically the same solar resources, but in GA, the social view is that solar is untenable and we have poor resources. FL clearly has a different viewpoint. NJ has worse resources than both, yet is heavily pursuing solar. I’m not asking for a picnic nor expecting Atlanta to provide me with one, simply noting the political climate of the region.

    David, I’m from Dayton, yet had not heard of it before! I’ll have to look into that!

  35. David B. Benson says:

    Matt — Also, then, look into San Diego municipal waste management. They do amine treatment to some of their biogasse, producing methane pure enough to feed into the natural gas pipelines. Addionally, there is a city in The Netherlands (forgot the name) in which the waste managment plant sells their excess methane at a filling station on a dock; fills CNG vehicles.

    And, of course, there are many municipalities in SE USA which need the build digesters to avoid poluting the rivers and ocean. But hadled as indicated, the waste managment facility will turn a small profit from the sale of excess electricity or methane.

  36. @ John Mashey…

    I wrote about Calera last month, and I had the same thought, that it could be a game-changer. A fair number of UK universities are also looking into making CO2 in something that we can actually use, and several companies like Calera are pursuing similar technologies.

  37. Thanks for sparking a very interesting, and I hope productive, discussion.

    Four questions I would like to see more on: (1) David B. Benson wonders about the energy required to bring the biomass to the plant for cofiring — that would limit its use in places like Arizona; (2) Tyler Hamilton points out the advantages of cofiring at existing plants, to use existing power lines, but wonders about the ash disposal problem — mixed fly ash and wood ash would seem to be unable to be converted into a useful byproduct; (3) the biomass would be wet, and drying it to biochar for cofiring would take a considerable amount of energy; and (4) gasification for biomass, producing syngas or even liquid fuel, is a competitive technology, so what makes cofiring better than gasification?

  38. David B. Benson says:

    Wilmot McCutchen — Depending upon the biomass and the time of year, the amount of drying would be ordinarily accomplished by simply air-drying. It is true that pyrolysis (which includes torrefication) requires starting with fairly dry material. But since pyrolysis is exothermic, the remaining water is readily driven off. Pyrolysis is not required for co-firing, but has two advantages: (1) only have to transport the resulting char, essentially just carbon; (2) only the most minor adjustments to the reactor have to be made to accomodate whatever proportion of the char is being used.

    Once one has collected biomass (which costs) there are a variety of potential uses beyond simply directly burning it. You mentioned two. In each case the value added has to be estimated to determine the most appropriate technology. Joe Romm has suggested co-firing as a way to reduce the use of fossil coal. I’ve indicated in previous posts an objection to co-firing which appears important, nonconservation of NPK.

  39. Joe Romm, how quickly you forget:
    HyperionPowerGeneration makes nuclear power plants in a factory:

    From: Jim Jones
    To: Edward Greisch
    Date: Tuesday, February 3, 2009
    Subject: Re: $.05 to .06 per KWh

    Assume HPM costs $30M and plant side doubles it:

    $60M divided by 25,000kw = $2,400/kw
    $2,400/kw divided by 5 years = $480/KWyr
    $480/KWyr divided by 8760 hours = $.0547945/KWhr (Call it 5 and half cents per KWhr)


    $60M divided by 20,000 homes = $3,000/home
    $3,000/home divided by 5 years = $600/home/year
    $600/home/year divided by 12 months = $50/home/month (How’s that for an electric bill?)


    From: Edward Greisch
    Date: Tue, 03 Feb 2009
    To: “HyperionPowerGeneration ”
    Subject: $.05 to .06 per KWh

    Please show me the calculation for the cost per kilowatt hour.
    The factory recycles the fuel once every 5 years. They are planning a production run of 4000 reactors. Surely the production run could be extended. Installation time is very short.

  40. John Mashey says:

    Richard L: thanks.
    Yes, there are number of efforts around to turn CO2 into building materials.
    I don’t know how far along they are; this one seemed woerht mentioning because the founder clearly knows a lot, and the company is a lot further along than I’d expected.

  41. Lloyd says:

    This is a reply to Matt and Wilmot McCutchen.
    David B. Benson pointed out some possible answers here:

    Matt said:

    I co-authored a report in December for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (, focused on coal plants in Georgia.
    Part of our analysis was a life cycle assessment for many different types of electricity production. My research showed that if a pulverized coal plant fired 8.5% biomass (side by side* but not co-fired) and used the biochar as a carbon sink, the plant would be carbon neutral. This was particularly useful noting the societal reaction to renewables in Georgia.

    *Side-by-side firing in separate reactors, one for bio-fuel, the other for fossil coal.

    The conclusion: It doesn’t take much biochar to offset CO2 emissions from coal plants.

    Four big questions were asked by Wilmot McCutchen:

    (1) the ash disposal problem?
    a. – we’ve answered it already (the answer is not to co-fire with coal but to fire side-by-side)

    (2) the biomass would be wet, and drying it to biochar for co-firing would take a considerable amount of energy?
    Answers (provided by David B. Benson):
    – Depending upon the biomass and the time of year, the amount of drying would be ordinarily accomplished by simply air-drying.
    (presumably part of it – or much of it –could be done in the fields by the farmer?)
    – Pyrolysis requires starting with fairly dry material, but since pyrolysis is exothermic, the remaining water is driven off during Pyrolysis.

    (3) gasification for biomass, producing syngas or even liquid fuel, is a competitive technology, so what makes co-firing better than gasification?
    a. Quick answer: co-firing is NOT better than gasification. Side-by-side is better than both (except for, perhaps, capital costs)

    (4) The energy required to bring the biomass to the plant for co-firing?

    To help answer the transportation energy question, the answer was given by David B. Benson:
    The Advantage: You only have to transport the resulting char, essentially just carbon (to the co-firing facility).

    How? Decentralized on-farm biochar production by farmers.

    – farmers would produce energy (electricity and heat) – with a portion* of the byproduct (the char) being transported to the side-by-side biomass / coal energy facility.
    *The proportion would be determined by the percentage of biochar required to make the overall system “carbon-neutral”.

    The remaining biochar that is not used to produce energy in the existing coal / biochar “side-by-side” plant would be used in the soils.

    Something to contemplate.

  42. Erich J. Knight says:

    There may be even higher value application for Biocarbons.
    Dr. Antal’s work at U. of H. sounds very exciting, and may be a bridging technology to a post combustion world.

    Biocarbon based Hg scrubbing for coal emissions (makes CO2 scrubbing easier)

    Biocarbon Fuel Cells

    Also on Biochar:

    Congressional Research Service Biochar Report.

    Biochar: Examination of an Emerging Concept to Mitigate Climate Change
    February 03, 2009
    Download Locations:

    Open CRS (User submitted)

  43. Flash says:

    I’d like to put in a plug for hydrogen, but not in the standard way.

    The thing is, if electricity is generated far from the cities that use it, as it might be in the case of wind, solar or geothermal, there is the problem of how best to get it to those cities.

    From what I’ve observed, a pipeline is far easier on the environment than an electric power line that carries the same amount of energy over any considerable distance. Also, I’ve read that perhaps as much as half of the electricity that goes into the grid is wasted by uselessly heating the lines and by being radiated into space, so a hydrogen pipeline may actually be about as efficient overall as an electric transmission line.

    It may be that if the electricity generated far from its point of use is used to make hydrogen (and oxygen, don’t forget, which could be piped beside the hydrogen) which is then burned in electric generating plants in the city, the hydrogen could also be sold for use in cars or whatever. The overall “efficiency” of a hydrogen economy is probably at least as good when the hydrogen is made at the point of electricity generation, as when the electricity is conducted directly by power lines – even if the hydrogen is burned to generate electricity at a town that is distant from where the hydrogen was made.

    The greater the distance the energy must be conveyed, and the more complicated the distribution grid, the better a hydrogen economy looks.

  44. Len says:

    We could use ethanol. Oh wait, that was last years solution. Do you realize how much CO2 is generated by breathing? If we all hold our breath for a day, we could save tons of carbon.