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Just 5% of the world’s power plants produce 73% of the global electricity emissions

Despite its bad name, China only has one plant on the “worst offenders” list.

Belchatow, the world’s most polluting power plant. Image via Wikipedia.

We’re not really doing a great job at reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, we’re doing a pretty lousy job. Achieving net-zero emissions in a couple of decades seems like a pipe dream at this point, so researchers are looking for ways to at least tackle the worst emitters.

University of Colorado Boulder researchers Don Grant, David Zelinka, and Stefania Mitova used data from 2018 to look at the power plants that produce the most carbon dioxide emissions. They started from the 2009 Carbon Monitoring for Action database (CARMA) and built a more recent update.

Unsurprisingly, coal plants are the worst of the worst. Sure, renewables aren’t perfect and every form of energy comes with its own set of challenges, but coal plants come at a massive environmental cost. Even while some are a bit more efficient than others, even new coal plants produce massive emissions. According to the findings, just 5% of the world’s power plants produce almost three-quarters of the planet’s electricity emissions.

Eight out of the ten worst offenders are in Asia. South Korea has three plants in the “worst” top ten, India has two, and China has one. The plant with the highest emissions is in Poland.

Rank Plant Name Country Tons of CO2 Primary Fuel Age Capacity (MW)
1BelchatowPoland37,600,000coal275298
2VindhyachalIndia33,877,953coal144760
3DangjinSouth Korea33,500,000coal106115
4TaeanSouth Korea31,400,000coal126100
5TaichungTaiwan 29,900,000coal225834
6TuoketuoChina29,460,000coal106720
7NiederaussemGermany27,200,000coal383826
8Sasan UmppIndia27,198,628coal33960
9YonghungdoSouth Korea27,000,000coal95080
10HekinanJapan26,640,000coal214100
Total303,776,581Total51793

What is perhaps even more encouraging is that by addressing these “worst of the worst”, we could reduce emissions significantly, without adding very much pressure on global energy markets.

5% of the electricity, 75% of the emissions

The authors looked at how much of a country’s electricity pollution was produced by the worst 5% of all its power sector.

“Contrary to the received wisdom that greater environmental harm is a function of greater economic activity, emerging scholarship suggests that polluting releases are disproportionally distributed across units of production,” the study reads.

China has plenty of coal plants, but rather surprisingly, not too many huge offenders. The worst 5% in China accounted for around 25% of the country’s emissions. But in countries like the US, South Korea, Australia, Germany, or Japan, 5% of their plants accounted for around 90% of the carbon emissions in the power sector. Globally, the worst 5% of power plants produce 73% of the emissions.

Of course, these worst 5% of plants tend to produce more than 5% of the electricity — but this is good news, because shutting down a relatively low amount of polluting plants could mitigate a larger part of our emissions. This won’t be easy, but it’s the type of action we need to take as quickly as possible to address man-driven climate heating.

“As the fossil-fuel-burning energy infrastructure continues to expand and the urgency of combating climate change grows, nations will likely need to consider more expedient strategies of this sort,” the authors conclude.

To keep rising temperatures (and all the other effects of climate change) in check, we need to achieve carbon neutrality as quickly as possible — the year 2050 is a commonly mentioned target. But before we can even dream of that, we need to look at the low-hanging fruits and see what we can do about them.

The study has been published in Environmental Research Letters.

Credit: Pixabay.

The world decreased coal energy usage for the first time since the Industrial Revolution

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

According to a new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), investors have dramatically withdrawn their investments in coal. In the last three years, investments in new coal-fired power plants have dropped by 75%. Also, for the first time since the industrial revolution, there has been a reduction in coal capacity across the globe. Until recently, humans had been using more and more coal. Now we’ve finally starting to back away — another sign that coal’s best days are well behind it.

Another nail in the coffin

The IEA report World Energy Investment 2019 shows that a total of 236 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired plants are currently under construction worldwide. That’s still quite a lot — the equivalent of 740 million solar panels. However, investors’ confidence has dwindled. In 2015, the Final Investment Decisions (FIDs) fund for coal plants signed off 88 GW for construction but pledged only 22 GW in 2018.

Most of the new coal capacity is planned for India and China. Meanwhile, the EU and US have dramatically cut back on this fossil fuel, reducing overall use by 25% and 40%, respectively, over the last decade. And more and more plants will have to be closed. For instance, to meets its Paris Agreement carbon emissions target, the EU will have to shut down all of its coal-fired power plants by 2030.

Across the world, coal-fired plants are responsible for around 38% of global electricity demand. But despite the huge number of planned power plants for the future, the rate at which old coal plants are being decommissioned is now higher than the rate of new plants coming online. The IEA says that a staggering 30 GW of coal-based generators were retired in 2018.

In the past couple of years, banks, hedge funds, cities, universities, religious entities and even the heirs to the Rockefeller fortune have withdrawn trillions of dollars from coal investments. If this trend continues, it will only be a matter of time until FIDs tumble to a big, fat zero. And when this happens, coal will officially become history.

The findings suggest that more and more investors want to pivot to more sustainable forms of energy. However, the report also found that although new energy infrastructure is needed to meet the growing and robust energy demands, there doesn’t seem to be enough capital flowing towards energy efficiency and cleaner supply sources. In other words, investors are being careful, looking at both sides of the street. But they certainly can’t stall forever — sooner or later, capital investors will have to place their bets, and the odds are stacked against coal and fossil fuels

“Energy investments now face unprecedented uncertainties, with shifts in markets, policies and technologies,” said Dr. Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director. “But the bottom line is that the world is not investing enough in traditional elements of supply to maintain today’s consumption patterns, nor is it investing enough in cleaner energy technologies to change course. Whichever way you look, we are storing up risks for the future.”

“Current investment trends show the need for bolder decisions required to make the energy system more sustainable,” Dr. Birol said. “Government leadership is critical to reduce risks for investors in the emerging sectors that urgently need more capital to get the world on the right track.”

 

power plant

The 2,440 new coal fired power plants expected by 2030 could destroy 2 degrees warming target


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There’s a lot of talk here at COP21 about “decarbonizing”, cutting subsidies and phasing out fossil fuels. The atmosphere at the event is highly optimistic, but back home each country still seems to go ahead as planned with developments of new coal fired plants, which use the most dirty fossil fuel to generate energy. Some 2,440 new coal fired plants are expected to come online by 2030 in eight countries like  India, China, Indonesia and the European Union. Combined with already existing plants, their emissions make averting 2 degrees of warming past industrial levels impossible, and the respective countries’ national pledges aimed at curbing emissions – the so-called INDCs – now sound completely ridiculous.

Recognizing this incongruity, Climate Action Tracker presented a report here at COP21 whose analysis shows that If all coal plants in the pipeline were to be built, by 2030, emissions from coal power would be 400% higher than what is consistent with a 2°C pathway. What’s more, even if these thousands of new plants don’t ever come online, the analysis shows that emissions from present plants would still generate emissions 150% higher that what we’d expect to keep the dangerous threshold at bay.

If all planned new coal plants come live in 2030, together with existing plants these would generate 12 GtCO2. More findings:

  • Planned coal plants threaten the achievement of the INDCs that are only medium or inadequate.
  • All of these countries have an INDC rated by the CAT as “inadequate” or “medium” (i.e. not sufficient to keep warming below 2°C), and have “current policy pathways” that are even less ambitious.
  • Their combined planned new coal capacity (2011 new coal plants, totalling 1210GW) could put them in an even worse situation, adding emissions of around 1.5 GtCO2 to the CAT’s projected currently policy levels.
  • The estimated emissions impact of planned plants that have been announced and pre-permitted – i.e. not under construction or permitted – would be 3.5GtCO2. Cancelling these plants could lead to emissions reductions of 2GtCO2 below current policy levels, bringing countries closer to their proposed INDC levels.

Previously, I was ecstatic to announce that Britain will phase out all unabated coal plants by 2025. This gave me hope that this might inspire others to do the same, especially in the European Union, but even here more than 50 plants are currently scheduled for development. Figures show these new projects alone would emit almost 120m tonnes of CO2 every year.

Most of the new plants considered in the Climate Action Tracker report are planned in developing nations. Climate justice dictates that these countries, like China or India, are entitled to emit greenhouse emissions to catch up and meet the expectations of their citizens. The Indian environmental minister’s statement reflects this:

“My energy consumption is one twelfth that of US and one tenth that of Europe, so don’t you think that my people also have a right to grow and use energy?,” said Prakash Javadekar.

“Should they remain in the dark? Is that humanity? That is why I will need power from all sources. We are increasing our renewable targets tenfold in the next 15 years but we will require coal because it is the need of the hour for my people to grow.”

India has 300 million people living in the dark actually, so it’s natural that they access any kind of energy to meet this stringent demand. The challenge is complex, but what’s pretty clear at this point is that 1) new coal plants in the developed world should be canceled and 2) rich nations should help developing nations access more renewable energy in favor of coal.

To end this post on a positive note, research shows king coal is dying. For the first time, demand has peaked in 2014 and is now steadily falling. In just four years, coal stocks have lost 95% of their value. Thousands of new coal plants might sound disturbing, but most were planed in a time when business was favorable and pressure to cut emissions weren’t that high.

“It is unlikely that all of these planned coal plants are going to be built, especially when low carbon alternatives are reaching price parity. If renewables take off as fast as is currently expected, many of these planned coal plants could be stranded investments or would have to operate under difficult financial circumstances,” said Markus Hagemann of NewClimate Institute.

Japan nuclear danger still dwarfed by coal threat

The situation at the Fukushima nuclear plant was dangerous for several weeks, but the danger of nuclear power plants has greatly been exaggerated. To get an idea about what the situation is at Fukushima right now, if you are in Tokyo right now, the radiation you are exposed to is about as big as you would get from a dental X-ray or from hopping on a plane. It’s ironic that nuclear power, one of the most safest and cleanest sources of energy we have available at the moment be under such fire from the world, with no real reason.

Coal is dirty and dangerous

As bad as Japan’s situation was, it could never have been as dangerous as burning coals; burning coal is responsible for killing over 1.000.000 people every year ! How many people does nuclear radiation kill each year? Less than 1.000 each year. You could say that nuclear plant workers are under constant threat, but if the safety measures are followed, only a huge disaster like the one in Japan could cause complications. What about coal miners ? Thousands of them die just because the mines collapse, not to mention lung diseases or other complications that occur as a result of coal mining. Then you have mercury, which is almost always associated with coal mining; mercury enters the food chain extremely easily, and is highly toxic, causing a number of conditions, and often being lethal. If we were to talk about pollution and toxic fumes… the situation would be even more dramatic.

Hey, even in terms of radiation coal plants outrank nuclear plants. Why do I say this ? Well, in case you didn’t know, pretty much everything emits radiation. Me, you, the pencil next to you, everything. But the amounts are so incredibly small that it’s not even worth taking into consideration. There’s also radiation from outer space, and from the earth we walk on, but that’s not normally dangerous either. But if you would burn coal to obtain an amount of energy, it would produce 100 times more radiation than a nuclear plant that produces the same amount of energy.

Even at Fukushima, the predictions are pretty optimistic. The U.S. DOE predicts a yearly dose of about 2,000 millirems for some people living in the vecinity of the nuclear facility, at a distance of less than 31 kilometers, which would increase their cancer risk, but slightly, and only if they haven’t left the area.

Nuclear energy – easier to obtain, easier to use, easier to recycle

If we are to remain objective, it has to be said that nuclear energy is not completely safe or environmentally friendly. It is much more dangerous and toxic than solar energy, for example, but what we are doing here is a comparative exercise, and compared to coal energy, nuclear energy simply fares much better. The biggest problem with it is the radioactive waste that is always associated with a nuclear plant; if in the next 50-100 years we will find a solution to safely store it, or even recycle it, that we will practically have no problem with this kind of energy, aside from human errors or high magnitude disasters. But if we don’t, then we have a problem.

Take the situation at Fukushima Daiichi for example; it is currently a ghost town, and will remain a ghost town for generations and generations to come, even if it is deemed to be safe. People will avoid it at all cost. Chernobyl is a dreadful example of how to handle a nuclear threat. But people have learned, nuclear plants are much safer, and even in the case of a disaster, we have the means necessary to take care of such an emerging situation. The media has titanically exaggerated the risks and threats that Fukushima posed, and for all of you who have stockpiled the potassium iodine, well… that was completely unnecessary. I can only hope that the world will not be influenced by media exaggerations and fairy tales, and as a result, stop relying on nuclear power. Given what choices we have at the moment, atomic energy is one of the best.

Japan engineers concede they might have to bury nuclear plant

As the nuclear situation at the Fukushima power plant continues to deteriorate, engineers start to ponder drastic options more and more seriously; it seems that the method which seems to have te best chances to work is the same one that was user in Chernobyl in 1986.

It is the first time operation leaders are admitting that burying the 40 year old complex is a serious option, as pumping water and droping it from helicopters seems to not work so well. However, even in this situation they still have to find a way to cool them down, which is more than complicated at the moment.

“It is not impossible to encase the reactors in concrete. But our priority right now is to try and cool them down first,” an official from the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, told a news

As Japan entered the second week after the 9.0 earthquake that generated tsunamis of over 10 meters, it’s worst crisis since WWII is far from being over. Already, 6.500 have officially been declared dead, with another 10.000 reported missing, and hopes are dropping with each passing day. Almost 400.000 people are homeless and battling near freezing temperatures, and the government also didn’t respond at its maximum capacity.

“An unprecedented huge earthquake and huge tsunami hit Japan. As a result, things that had not been anticipated in terms of the general disaster response took place,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news conference.

Japan also raised the nuclear crisis rating from 4 to 5 out of a maximum of 7, but most experts claim the situation is even more dangerous.

Japan drops water on nuclear plant, situation is still very hot

The situation on the Fukushima nuclear plant is far from calming down, even after the government authorized water being dropped from helicopters, an option which was described as unnacceptable. It is even more unclear what the effect of that water will be, as helicopters threw it without hovering, presumably because of the radiation.

Also, this is a good example of why this method is rarely used: it doesn’t seem to work. The 60 tonnes of seawater seem to have pretty much missed their target, if not entirely, than a quite significant quantity; however, without hard evidence from the ground, video footage is the only way to figure this out, so my guess or yours is just as good as anybody’s on this matter.

The water wasn’t in fact meant to cool the reactors, as reported from many sources, but rather to cool the cooling pools. Without sufficient water, there is a growing chance of releasing radiation into the atmosphere, and the presence of radiation makes it even more hard to contain, because workers cannot be nearby.

“If this is damaged – and we suspect it must be – you’ve got radionuclides being produced and going upwards because of the fire,” said Andrew Sherry, director of the Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester. “[Without water] the immediate outlook is that the fire and the generation of hydrogen will continue, so we’ve got quite an unstable situation.”

Radiation Level at Fukushima nuclear plant is 1000 times over accepted level after earthquake

The damage caused by the 8.9 earthquake in Japan is far from being over – asa matter of fact, unfortunately, it may very well just be starting. The earthquake and the tsunamis it created cut down power supply throughout a major part of Japan, and so the cooling system of several power plants was unable to do its job.

As a result, the radiation level at the Fukishima power plant is about 1000 times bigger than the accepted level, and technicians are desperately trying to figure out ways to prevent a meltdown, which would have catastrophic results; one way to do this would be to release steam that has been vaporized by heat from the nuclear core, which would lower the pressure, and thus, the temperature.

“It’s possible that radioactive material in the reactor vessel could leak outside but the amount is expected to be small and the wind blowing towards the sea will be considered,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news conference.

The earthquake which shook Japan to its very core caused all sorts of issues, and this latest nuclear problem is extremely hard to tackle. The good news however, is that eleven reactors close to the epicenter shut themselves down when they sensed the earthquake.

“Reactors shut themselves down automatically when something called ‘ground acceleration’ is registered at a certain point, which is usually quite small. It will instantly drop control rods into the [nuclear] core,” Professor Tim Albram, a nuclear fuel engineer at the University of Manchester in the U.K., explained to the press.

How this whole situation will be handled remains to be seen, but things seem pretty dire at the moment; hopefully though, there will be no further complications, as Japan has already seen too many during these two days.

Japan in more trouble after an explosion at a nuclear plant

The earthquake that occured yesterday near the coast of Japan, the 4th most powerful earthquake ever to be recorded, is causing even more problems, after the direct damage, the aftershocks, the tsunamis, and the fire tsunamis; this time, things can get way, way bigger and worse, and the disaster toll keeps rising.

An explosion at a nuclear power plant destroyed a nuclear power station created fears that the a disastrous meltdown could happen, which would definitely cause a huge number of human casualties not only in Japan, but in neighbouring areas as well. The explosion was caused by the earthquake and the tsunamis that devastated Japan, and caused (by now) an estimated number of 1300 deaths, already.

The Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, the one in case, caused worries that led to an immediate evacuation of all the workers and people in the area, but experts have yet to find out what lies behind this explosion.

“We are now trying to analyze what is behind the explosion,” said government spokesman Yukio Edano, stressing that people should quickly evacuate a six-mile (10-kilometer) radius. “We ask everyone to take action to secure safety.”

The trouble began after the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and the tsunamis it created knocked out all electricity from the area. Other disturbing news is that the Kyodo news agency said rail operators lost contact with four trains yesterday, and still haven’t found them today. Japan has also declared states of emergency for five other nuclear reactors, all of which are in danger of exploding after they lost their cooling ability.