Professor makes presentation on carbon control policy

Engineering and Public Policy Professor Jay Apt made a presentation on February 18 to the Association for the Advancement of Science on U.S. carbon control policy, touching on the possible benefits of enacting such a policy.

In his presentation, which was entitled “Controlling Carbon in the United States Electric Power Sector,” Apt claimed that failure to enact carbon control policies in the near future may have significant economic costs for the United States.

In particular, Apt differentiated between emissions and concentrations of carbon dioxide. Emissions are produced by the factory, he said, whereas concentrations measure the amount of substance that exists in the atmosphere.

According to Apt, 20 percent of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere originated from emissions in the United States.

“[Carbon dioxide] stays in the atmosphere for a long time,” said Apt. “That’s completely different than conventional pollutants such as sulfur dioxide.”

Apt said that the United States emits the largest single share of carbon dioxide in the world.

“We ought to step up to the plate and clean it up,” he said. Apt said that the electric power industry emits the most carbon dioxide of all United States industries.

In fact, according to a report co-authored by Apt titled, “The U.S. Electric Power Sector and Climate Change Mitigation,” the U.S. electric industry outputs 38 percent of the country’s total carbon emissions.
The other aspect of carbon control policy is demand. Apt said that there will be a 40 percent demand growth for electricity by 2025 if the United States maintains its upward trend.

Morgan Granger, director of Carnegie Mellon’s Climate Decision Making Center, said that many people do not understand that oil, coal, and natural gas, which are burned for electricity, are the primary causes of climate change.

“We found a sizable portion of the population thought that nuclear power was a contribution to climate change,” he said, even though nuclear plants do not emit any carbon dioxide.
In his presentation, Apt said that there are alternative, de-carbonated sources of energy, such as hydroelectric sources and coal gasification. He said that these energy sources can be used by power plants in place of fossil fuels.

Morgan said, “In order to stabilize concentrations, the world’s going to have a have a dramatic reduction ... in total CO2 emissions.”

Apt said that 28 percent of U.S. electric power is low-carbon, but this figure is dropping.

“Demand growth is diluting the amount of low-carbon power we have,” Apt said.

According to Apt, the future of carbon emissions in the United States depends on how new plants are constructed.

In particular, industrialists may choose to replace older power plants with plants of the same type, or they may construct new, low-carbon plants.

According to Granger, the use of low-carbon technologies in new, high-emissions plants will cost more than simply constructing new plants that emit lower carbon levels.

“You’re making a decision that’s going to affect the next hundred years,” said Apt.

In his forthcoming paper on carbon control policy, Apt said that carbon emissions can be reduced by setting standards for power plant emissions.

Granger said that while these regulations may increase electricity prices, the economy can easily adapt to such changes.

Speaking of emission regulations, he said, “It’s certainly possible if you go about this in an orderly fashion.”

Granger said that there are numerous other ways to control carbon emissions than imposing standards on power plants. The report on climate change mitigation, for instance, suggests finding more efficient ways to use electricity. It offers the example of combining fossil fuels with the use of wind energy.

In addition, Granger said that emissions standards could be placed on vehicles. He also noted, however, that carbon dioxide emissions from plants will be easier to regulate than emissions from cars, at least in the early stages. This is because there are far fewer power plants than cars in the U.S.

Another alternative is to replace fossil fuels with renewable energies.

While renewable energies are a viable alternative, Apt said that one must be careful about substituting these energy sources for carbon sources.

“If you’re not careful to address exactly what the problem is, you’ll get very expensive solutions,” he said.

Apt said that individual states have already enacted carbon control policies on power plants and that such policies may spread to the national level.

The Public Utilities Commission of California, for instance, implemented the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Performance Standard in January of this year. Under this standard, investors can only invest in plants that emit less than 1100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour.

“I eventually see a national carbon legislation at some time.... I don’t think it’s avoidable,” said Apt.