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Patrick Springer, Published January 29 2007

Carbon puzzle tough to crack

- Sunday: Carbon restrictions loom over coal’s future

- Today: Finding consensus on regulating greenhouse gases

- Tuesday: Congressional roundup on climate change policy

People met recently in the heart of North Dakota coal country to calmly discuss something once unimaginable: a future with restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions.

The meeting in Washburn is one of a series of gatherings in halls scattered throughout the Upper Midwest to talk about how one of the most coal-dependent regions of the country could adjust to a day when carbon dioxide is regulated.

Many political and business leaders – including some utility executives – agree the day is approaching when carbon is restricted by public policy, possibly within the next decade.

The “Powering the Plains” initiative, spearheaded by the Minneapolis-based Great Plains Institute, has taken on a daunting task: how to reach consensus on ways to reduce greenhouse gases over the long term – without causing economic disruptions.

The road-map group’s vast study region, which includes both Dakotas and Minnesota, holds some of the nation’s largest coal reserves and is highly dependent on electricity generated from burning coal.

But the region also is rich in alternative energy sources, including wind, hydropower and biofuels, as well as geological formations favorable for storing carbon dioxide underground.

The roadmap’s discussion goal is ambitious: reduce the region’s carbon dioxide emissions to just 20 percent of their 1990 levels by the year 2055. That 80 percent reduction goal – a discussion goal, not necessarily an agreed-upon target level – stems from scientific recommendations as necessary to avert the most serious global warming problems.

“What they actually agree to recommend to policymakers is a different matter,” says the Great Plains Institute’s Brad Crabtree, of rural Kulm, N.D.

Conservation is key

An analysis by a team led by researchers at the University of Minnesota concludes an incremental approach to reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent can be done economically.

The most affordable option: one featuring aggressive energy conservation measures. That alternative, the analysis found, was cheaper even than the business-as-usual option, projecting substantial savings over time.

“It looks like you could pay for it with energy conservation, which is pretty exciting,” said Brendan Jordan, a Great Plains Institute policy analyst and member of the research team.

Conservation can cost a penny per kilowatt hour, a fraction of the 7 cents per kilowatt hour residential users in Minnesota typically pay, he said.

But there’s a problem, he added. Utility companies don’t really profit from their customers’ energy conservation steps, although regulators in states including Minnesota require utilities to provide energy conservation programs.

“They get paid more for selling more kilowatt hours,” Jordan said. “It’s not really in their best interest” to encourage conservation, though new public policies could change that.

Mountains of coal fed to conventional coal plants loom as the biggest single challenge. The region relies heavily on coal-fired electricity, the single largest source of carbon dioxide, according to the roadmap analysis.

Emissions increased more than five-fold over the past 40 years, as more plants were built to keep up with rising demand for electricity.

The region’s next largest source of carbon dioxide – emissions from cars, trucks and other transportation vehicles – tripled over the period.

Plants have long lives

To significantly reduce greenhouse gases, the region must stop building new conventional coal-burning power plants – and soon, Jordan said.

Implementing a carbon dioxide reduction policy could come as late as 2015 and still meet the goal of reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2055 – assuming very few new conventional coal plants are built, the roadmap analysis concluded.

Because power plants are built to last a long time – typically 50 years or more – any new conventional plant represents a long-term source of greenhouse gases. Each 500-megawatt coal plant releases the carbon dioxide equivalent of an estimated 600,000 cars, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In the current age of unregulated carbon dioxide, “old” coal plants provide, by far, the cheapest power – with an average price less than half that of “new” coal or wind, and cheaper even than hydropower, according to the roadmap analysis. That’s because most of them are old enough to have recovered most or all of their cost.

New technologies capable of trapping and storing carbon dioxide underground are in development, but likely won’t be commercially available for several years or longer, many agree.

Plants that would convert pulverized coal to a gas hold future promise, but still are experimental. Until proven commercially reliable, utilities will be reluctant to build such plants, with price tags exceeding $1 billion.

That creates a “chicken and egg” problem, said Ed Steadman, a senior research associate at the University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center, which is leading the Plains Carbon Dioxide Reduction partnership, another regional collaboration in the area.

“We need to find the means of using coal, and we’re very confident we will,” said Gerald Groenewold, the UND center’s director. Both agree the federal government should increase its investments in pilot plants to speed the move to affordable clean coal.

The U.S. Department of Energy, in partnership with industry, is investing heavily in research to explore effective methods of carbon capture and sequestration. The regional PCOR collaborative recently received a $67 million federal grant, to be matched by $17 million in private spending.

To help guide industry and speed investment, Congress should remove uncertainty by spelling out a reasonable policy – based on sound science – for reducing carbon dioxide, with a timetable for compliance, Groenewold said.

“What in the world are we investing in?” he asked, summarizing the dilemma both for industry and consumers. “Please give us some guidance.”

Crabtree agreed policies must be carefully crafted to allow industry to make the transition. “Federal policy must allow us to make that leap economically,” he said.

Favorable landforms

The good news, for this region, is that it appears to have geological formations – including the Williston Basin, a huge underground petroleum reservoir – that are well-suited for long-term carbon storage.

In turn, many oil fields are near North Dakota’s coal reserves, where the power plants churn out electricity. If captured and pumped underground, carbon dioxide becomes a helpful tool for extracting hard-to-reach oil – turning the gas into a marketable commodity.

“There’s a lot of interest in the coal-fired energy industry in our region” in clean, carbon-capturing technology, Steadman said.

In the meantime, Jordan said, keeping existing coal plants in operation would help provide power during the transition to “clean coal,” helping eliminate the need for new “dirty coal” plants.

A diverse mix of participants have gathered at the roadmap discussion table, including representatives of power producers like Great River Energy and Basin Electric Cooperative, as well as environmental groups including the Isaak Walton League and Wind on the Wires, a group promoting wind energy.

Regardless of whether science has conclusively resolved the debate over the influence of greenhouse gases on climate change, the problem is perceived as real by growing numbers of people, a political reality that will drive public policy.

Eventually, as technology continues to improve, carbon capture and sequestration will become cheaper, Crabtree said. So will renewable energy sources, such as wind and biofuels. But he warned that waiting to tackle climate change would be a mistake.

“We have to start now or in the near future,” Crabtree said. “We can’t wait 25 years to do this. If we do, it’ll be a lot more expensive and a lot more disruptive.”

The story

- Many agree rising concerns about global warming will mean a future of higher costs for electricity produced from coal.

- The Upper Midwest, while heavily reliant on coal, is also rich with alternative energy sources.

- The policy balancing act: how to gradually reduce carbon dioxide emissions without economic shockwaves.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522