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Moving Beyond The Symbolism Of Earth Hour - Crown Eco Capital Blog Management

Posted Apr 10 2013 4:37am

BY DENNIS POSADAS

On March 23, millions of people around the world will be asked again to mark Earth Hour by switching off their lights and non-essential appliances for an hour in symbolic support for climate change mitigation. However, the question that begs to be asked: After so many years of announcing the scientific basis for climate change, is token symbolic support the way to move forward? Or should we instead be thinking of ways to actually cut carbon emissions?

Earth Hour  does lessen the electrical load of power plants to some extent, thus making a small contribution for that hour by lessening the amount of coal burned. But for the most part, large power plants cannot shutdown for just one hour as there are thermal and mechanical concerns that put the plant at risk of being damaged for doing so. Power plants instead have to anticipate the sudden return of electrical loads after the hour has passed, and thus keep burning coal (or other fossil fuels) while the event is happening – in what engineers call a “spinning reserve” mode. Electrical engineers also know that when an appliance is first turned on, there is a higher current needed at the start as opposed to what is needed when the appliance is already operating. In effect, the end of Earth Hour is actually more detrimental to climate mitigation because simultaneously turning on so much equipment all at once creates a surge current that results in a sudden spike in power demand.

So what can be done, given that we should already be aware of climate change after all these years, if we really want to move beyond Earth Hour symbolism?

First, economic planners and bankers have to start accounting for the hidden cost of carbon in power plant feasibility studies on their own volition. The decision to go with a carbon tax or a market based cap and trade system or other alternatives is best left to the particular jurisdiction after discussions between that government and affected industries have taken place. But that discussion will proceed much faster if project planners have already produced their own figures for the true cost of carbon for their particular area. If this is done, I doubt that coal will remain as a “cheap” power source.

Second, we need to create social and financial incentives to convince industries to invest in more energy efficient boilers, chillers, air conditioners, and other pieces of equipment, even when the older, less efficient equipment is still running properly. Policymakers need to strike a balance between commercial requirements for profitability to sustain economic growth against the resulting costs to the environment. If we’re going to be serious about climate mitigation beyond symbolism, then this a move we need to be willing to take.

Lastly, we have to face the fact that there are major sources of emissions and there are minor sources. And we know for a fact that coal plants are the major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Aside from simply calling for a stop to building these plants, there’s still plenty that can be done beyond the popular mantra of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), which has yet to be proven effective, anyways. One simple way that coal plant managers can adopt is to simply replace part of the coal they load into their plants (up to 20%) with dried biomass like sawdust, wood chips, dried walnut shells, etc. This simple move, documented in a  U.S. Department of Energy report  will cut emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and other emissions significantly while reducing costs. The DOE has tested a coal boiler at the Savannah  River site in Aiken,  South Carolina, that shows these results. Another possible concrete scheme is to retire older technology coal plants that can’t meet emission limits. On the more modern coal plants like fluidized bed type plants that are already in service, there are several alternatives. One is to try to convert them to run instead on waste (waste to energy or energy from waste in Europe) or natural gas either in full or even just in part in what is known as “co-firing.” Another method is to convert these newer plants into combined cycle power plants, where a gas turbine uses the wasted energy from just using a steam turbine, so that instead of just utilizing 30% efficiency from the burned coal, you are able to generate 60% from the same amount of coal using two turbines – a steam one and a gas one.

All of these are permanent changes that result in less greenhouse gas emissions–not symbolic ones–and they can be done with coal, in addition to increasing the number of wind, solar, nuclear and other clean, renewable energy sources that should displace coal and other fossil sources in the long term.

These are just a few of the things we can do, but the operative word here is action. Unless you’ve been living in a cave somewhere, or are in denial despite the facts, the time to move from one hour symbolism to real action should have been yesterday. Quiet but concrete action beats high profile symbolism if we are to move forward on climate mitigation.

Dennis Posadas is an Asia-based Climate Institute fellow and author of Greenergized (UK: Greenleaf, 2013).  

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