Tue | Jun 27, 2017

Anthony Chen | Betting against coal

Published:Sunday | August 14, 2016 | 8:09 AMA. Anthony Chen

The proposal for a 1,000-megawatt power plant being contemplated for the new owners of bauxite alumina company Alpart is short-sighted and poses danger to residents in the vicinity of the plant. While there will be immediate gains for the owners, in particular, and for the country, the extent to which is still not clear, the losses in the long run will cancel these gains.
This statement must be considered in the light of climate change. The science of climate change is clear: if we wish to limit global temperatures rise to 1.5ºC  or less above that of the pre-industrial revolution level and avoid the dangerous consequences of climate change, it is necessary to cut back on fossil fuel immediately, especially cutting back on the biggest emitter, which is coal. The world has three choices:
A. Cut back on fossil fuel immediately and endure the effect of committed warming for the next 30 or so years because of the lag between CO2 emission and the manifestation of their effects and because of the long lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere.
B.  Ignore the science and continue business as usual, regardless of the consequences.
C. Wait to see what happens and then cut back on fossil fuel if the impact of global warming becomes too severe.
If Jamaica allows the construction of a 1,000MW coal plant, it will be following those who choose option B or C. Contrary to popular belief, Jamaica’s greenhouse gas emission (GHG) is not insignificant. In 2011, our emission, based on World Bank data, compared to those of Uruguay in South America and Georgia in Europe. With an additional 1,000 MW coal plant, our GHG emission will more than double, especially since coal emits about 1.3 times more CO2 than oil. This will put us in league with Bolivia and Croatia. So why will we lose more than we gain by going the route of choice B or C?
The least-case scenario would be that the world, through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), decides to go the route of Option A. There is a possibility not to be taken lightly. For example, the new US EPA rule will effectively ban the construction of new coal-fired power plants because the CO2 emission rates required of fossil plants are so strenuous that no conventional coal plant could meet them; the state of Oregon has become the first U.S, state to ban coal plants; China is to shut down 4,300 old coal mines and ban new coal mines for the next three years, and it has placed a ban on new coal-fired plants in areas where there is excess electricity generation. UK coal plants are to be phased out in 10 years.
The World Bank head has warned against new coal plants. In this scenario where there is a ban on coal, the owners of the Alpart plant would be in a tight situation since coal, if it is available, will likely be expensive because of mechanisms put in place to restrict its use, such as a tax on carbon, and the project may well be abandoned.
The lesser-case scenario would be that the world, again through the UNFCCC, decides on Option C, to take action only when the severe effects of climate change are worldwide. In that case, the decision to get rid of fossil fuels would probably take place around 2040 to 2050, when climate-change disasters become so severe that the world will see that it has to get rid of fossil fuel. These disasters could take the form of extreme drought and floods, heat waves killing thousands, unstoppable wildfires, severe storms, accelerated sea-level rise, food and water shortage, and acidification of the seas.
In this scenario, Jamaica will be spending billions on combating the impacts of the disasters which will continue well beyond 2040 to 2050, again because of the lag between emission of CO2 and additional warming. Our losses, because of the billions of dollars spent to fight the disaster, will be more than what we have gained from the operation of the coal plant. CARIBSAVE, for example, put the estimated cost of sea-level rise to CARICOM countries at between US$30 billion and US$60 billion by 2050.
The worst-case scenario would be that the world, through inertia, does nothing to combat climate change and we end up with Situation B. The consequences will be that many of the dangerous consequences of global warming will become irreversible.  Scientists refer to this as tipping points or points of no return.  Jamaica will get drier and hotter without end.  Our losses will then be insurmountable.
There are those who will say that even if we decide not to go ahead with the 1000 MW coal plant, the world, as a whole, will go along with option B or C and so we may as well enjoy the benefits of the coal plant since our decision not to go the way of coal will make no difference to the world situation. They will say that we should not stifle our chances for development and we should make hay while the sun shines. This is a valid, if short-sighted, view, so we need to consider other alternatives.
What are the alternatives to coal for development? One that we should seriously consider is becoming a pioneer in the development of behind-the-meter and utility-scale renewable energy. Renewable energy refers to energy from sources such as the sun, the wind, waves and hydroelectricity; they are renewed every day and are free.  Behind-the-meter (the electric meter, in this case) renewable energy refers to siting the renewable-energy system, such as solar or wind, at an individual home. Utility-scale renewable energy means electricity produced from a renewable energy plant and distributed over the transmission lines to customers.
The ultimate benefit of having renewable energy as 100 per cent of our energy source is that we will no longer depend on imported energy resources such as oil and coal.  Our energy fuel, such as wind and solar, will be free, and we will have energy security and independence. As pioneers, we can attract funding from sources like the Green Climate Fund or the World Bank. But it should be clear that we cannot profess to be pioneers in the field of renewables if we have a 1,000MW coal plant belching out toxic material; no funding agent would consider us to be serious.
Obtaining 100 per cent renewable is an extremely difficult and long process but, considering the benefits, the effort will be rewarding, especially in light of the need to get rid of fossil fuel. The major problem to overcome is how to store electricity, so it can be used when the renewable energy is not available, such as at nights when there is no sun, or during calms when there is no wind.
Behind-the-meter renewables partly solve this problem by having small-storage batteries, and companies like Tesla are investing heavily in these technologies, making these systems affordable. But there is still a problem when the renewable energy resource has been down for such a long time, say more than a day, so that the batteries become discharged. At that point, the homeowner will have to obtain electricity from the utility. 
The major problem is for the utility to store sufficient energy to provide to customers when needed. A tried-and-tested method is to use pumped storage, whereby water is pumped to an elevated reservoir and released to drive a turbine producing electricity when needed. But research and development of new storage mechanisms, such as flow batteries, is in high gear, driven by market forces and by philanthropists. For example, Microsoft founder Bill Gates predicts innovation will deliver the clean energy the world desperately needs, but only if young people, businesses, and governments step up to the plate, and he has pulled together a multinational band of investors to put billions into clean energy (CNN Money, November 30, 2015).
Solar and wind take up space, but consider that the amount of solar radiation falling on one-thousandth of the area of Jamaica is sufficient to provide all our electricity demand, assuming a conversion efficient of 20 per cent. Consider also other sources of renewable energy that are more persistent, such as offshore wind farms and wave energy.
How can we become pioneers? First and foremost, we should be leading the charge at the UNFCCC on behalf of island states. We should negotiate a UNFCCC-sponsored meeting of the leading world experts on storage of energy and renewable energy to determine the future prospects in energy storage and renewable energy which are best for island states, and have UNFCCC set up bodies to seek funding for research and development in these areas.
Second, we should do more to encourage the use of behind the meter renewable energy. Third, we should seek funds for pilot projects on utility-scale storage. We could start small like just having enough storage for frequency regulation and  ramp up when electricity supply fluctuates. With enough experience and pioneer status, we could seek funding for more ambitious projects like utility storage for peak usages in the evening.
So the options have been laid out. This is a question of hedging our bets. For the author, the best option is to wait until a reliable renewable energy source is available to smelt aluminium. That may be 10 to 15 years from now. With coal, we will win in the beginning, but lose our shirt in the long run. 
For those wishing to learn more, the following book is recommended: Unprecedented: Can Civilization Survive the CO2 Crisis? by David Ray Griffin.
Professor A. Anthony Chen is an astrophysicist and Nobel Prize winner. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and achen@flowja.com.