May 4, 2010 – It is possible for the U.S. and the world to cut greenhouse gas emissions down to manageable levels using existing, proven technologies, according to updated analysis from the Electric Power Research Institute.
However, EPRI analysts said, failing to invest in some of our more promising power generation and delivery technologies will cost everyone more money in the long run.
EPRI’s Prism/Merge analysis spells out two different scenarios for the future of electricity generation, delivery and use.
In the “full” technology portfolio, deployment of carbon capture and storage and a build-out of 45 new nuclear plants with no retirements is assumed. In the “limited” technology portfolio, nuclear power remains at its current level and no CCS application is considered.
Don Kintner, communications manager for EPRI, said the 2009 analysis will soon be updated for 2010, and will contain a closer look at regional differences and where the potential for technologies like wind power, solar power and nuclear energy differ.
John Hutchinson, an EPRI Senior Energy Strategist, called the projections within the analysis “aggressive but achievable.”
“These are certainly stretch goals for many of these technologies, but if we aggressively pursue these goals, they are aggressive but achievable,” Hutchinson said.
In the fossil fuel sector, Hutchinson said coal-fired units would have to become more efficient or make use of some form of CCS technology, or else be replaced by more efficient combined-cycle natural gas-fired units.
“There also may be opportunities to increase efficiency at other plants by making performance improvements while retrofitting them with environmental controls,” he said.
While the study itself does not account for any kind of federal action on GHG regulation or a nationwide renewable energy portfolio standard, he said a carbon-constrained future is coming in some form or another.
“The general consensus is there’s going to be some kind of restraint on carbon in the future, whether it comes from the legislative side or the regulatory side,” he said.
Adding new coal capacity to replace existing, aging units with limited environmental controls and deploying new natural gas combined cycle units will help the fossil fuel sector meet GHG reduction goals, he said.
The full portfolio analysis estimates a potential 11 percent cut in carbon dioxide levels by bringing CCS technology into service by 2030.
“That is an aggressive goal to be able to capture carbon efficiently and to store it. Knowing that is an aggressive goal, we have looked at what would happen if we didn’t have CCS until 2030,” he said. “That would mean a slower deployment and a lower total deployment of coal with CCS and therefore less coal in the overall mix, with the balance being made up by nuclear and gas as well as renewables.”
Relying more on natural gas is not without its risks and potential costs, however, and could expose the sector to price volatility. Nuclear power is another way to offset the carbon intensity of fossil-fired power.
The potential 64 GW worth of new nuclear plants accounted for in the study would be the equivalent of about 45 nuclear plants with an average capacity of 1,400 MW each.
“That rate of build by 2030 would still be a rate that was around the build rate of the original nuclear build-out in this country – back in the “˜70s,” he said. “The technical capability and the worldwide supply chains exist to accomplish that.”
Furthermore, through international cooperation and shared experience, the world can build better nuclear plants more easily than it has in the past. There are also some recent developments to make up for some of the imposing regulatory challenges that have held back the nuclear sector in the past.
“The combined construction and operation licenses that are now in place with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will take out some of the uncertainty that we had to deal with in the “˜70s,” he said.
The integration of comparatively large amounts of renewable energy sources onto the power grid, as well as the adoption of plug-in electric vehicles will also push down GHG emissions, he said. However, both trends require a transmission grid mature and stable enough to handle them.
“As we’re integrating large amounts of variable generation – wind and solar – you’re relying on the technology to generate the power when the demand on the grid requires that power. Wind and solar both have annual cycles that we have to manage,” he said.
One “game-changer” that could address the intermittency problem would be utility scale energy storage, he said.
“We’re working with the industry right now to better understand the technical and financial potentials of energy storage are,” he said.
EPRI is also working with several automakers, including General Motors, to develop standards for plug-in hybrids and other plug-in electric vehicles.
“You don’t want 50 million people all plugging in their electric vehicles onto the grid at 6 p.m. when they get home from work,” he said. “We kicked off a smart charging demo with GM that will allow us to learn about smart charging and how we can plan for it. Without smart charging capability, people will be charging at the time when it’s most demanding on the grid.”
One of the key messages of the study is how important it is for the industry to keep its technology options open, he said.
“If you don’t invest in these technologies so they are an option, there is likely a cost associated with that in the future,” he said.
So while it may be possible to achieve the same cuts in carbon dioxide and equivalent GHGs without widespread adoption of CCS or a new nuclear build-out on the order of what the U.S. saw in the 1970s, having more options available will allow utilities to keep electricity cheaper, he said.
“We anticipate wholesale electricity could cost as much as 260 percent more in real dollars and adjusted for inflation in our limited portfolio, without that investment in new technologies,” he said, adding that the full portfolio still anticipates an increase of about 85 percent.