Want to reduce carbon emissions? Start with these power stations
looks the world At the same time, fires and floods are raging, and the latest expert report suggests we are almost out of time to avoid more severe climate change. All of this should make us look for ways to reduce carbon emissions as quickly and economically as possible.
Some good news in this regard came from the recent release of a research paper looking at how much individual power plants contribute to global emissions. The study finds that many countries have facilities that emit carbon dioxide at rates well above the national or global average. Shutting down the worst 5 percent of plants immediately would eliminate about 75 percent of the carbon emissions from electricity generation.
It’s easy to think of power generation in simple terms, like “Renewables are good, coal is bad.” To some extent, this statement is accurate. But it also squeezes all power generation, from “kinda bad” to “really terrible,” into one category. It is clear from a variety of research that the situation is more complex. Depending on their antiquity, different plants convert fossil fuels into energy with varying degrees of efficiency. And some of the less efficient factories are only operated during periods of high demand; The rest of the time, it is idle and produces absolutely no emissions.
The interactions between these factors determine whether a particular power plant is a major contributor to emissions or just a portion of a country’s background noise from its carbon output. If we had a global inventory of emissions and production from each power plant, we could use this data to identify the worst offenders and set a target list to efficiently reduce our carbon output.
In fact, we have one – the emphasis on the past tense. Using data from 2009, someone compiled the Carbon Monitoring Database for Action, or CARMA. Now, nearly a decade later, Don Grant, David Zlinka and Stefania Mitova of the University of Colorado Boulder have used the 2018 data to create an update for CARMA, providing potentially more up-to-date emissions data.
The task was more difficult than it might seem. Some countries provide detailed emissions data at the plant level, so their data can simply be imported directly into CARMA. But many others do not. For those countries, the researchers relied on everything from production data obtained by the International Energy Agency to engineering specifications for individual plants.
When the researchers identified the biggest sources of uncertainty in their data, they found that they mostly cluster in smaller plants, which have the least effect on total emissions. For large utilities that are likely to be major contributors, the data is usually very good.
the worst of the bad
It should come as no surprise that all of the worst offenders are coal plants. But the distribution of the most polluting plants may involve something unexpected. For example, despite its reputation as the home of coal, China has only one plant out of the 10 worst. In contrast, South Korea has three on the list, and India has two.
Overall, China doesn’t have many factories that stand out as so bad, in part because many of its factories were built around the same time, during a massive boom in industrialization. As such, there is not much difference from one manufacturer to another when it comes to efficiency. In contrast, countries like Germany, Indonesia, Russia, and the US see a lot of variance, so they likely have some very inefficient factories that are outliers.
In other words, the authors looked at how much pollution a country produces via its worst 5 percent of power plants, ranked by carbon emissions. In China, the worst 5 percent account for nearly a quarter of the country’s total emissions. In the United States, the worst 5 percent of plants generated about 75 percent of the energy sector’s carbon emissions. South Korea had similar numbers, while Australia, Germany and Japan all saw the worst 5 percent of factories accounting for nearly 90 percent of carbon emissions from their energy sectors.