Lloyd Yates, the CEO of Progress Energy, has published a terrific op-ed piece in the Charlotte News-Observer titled Coming clean on coal that clearly explains why his company has chosen to shut down coal fired power plants that supply 30% of its current electricity demand. More importantly, he explains HOW his company will continue to meet the needs of its customers for electricity in the coming years.
Unlike self described energy gurus like Amory Lovins and Joe Romm, two people who have spent decades talking and writing about energy supply options, Mr. Yates has a legal responsibility as the head of a regulated monopoly electric utility company to make prudent choices that will ensure continued reliable operation of the system that supplies a vital commodity that supports modern society – electricity. He has to make those choices under a number of constraints including human imposed rules, fuel supply limitations, and physical laws of nature. People who pontificate are not subjected to the same constraints.
Aside: I fully recognize that my current association with the electricity supply business is as a pontificator, but I have had an obligation to supply power during my career. I have at least a passing understanding of the challenge of responding to customer demands in a case when the power stops flowing. In my case, my “customers” were my fellow crew members and the two guys who wrote my fitness reports. End Aside.
In Mr. Yates’s op-ed, he describes how changing laws and increased understanding of all of the effects of burning coal in old plants has led his company to make the decision to stop investing in those plants and to shut them down. It has also led them to a decision to avoid investing in new coal fired power plants. Instead, Progress Energy has decided to turn to natural gas as a bridge to a future with a legal requirement for electric power companies to continuously succeed in reducing their emissions a bit more each year.
Switching from coal to natural gas will result in significant emission reductions and the elimination of coal-ash production at the affected plant sites. Carbon is reduced 40 percent to 50 percent, sulfur dioxide and mercury emissions are eliminated, and nitrogen oxide emission rates are reduced more than 95 percent.
This is a powerful environmental story. But it’s not the entire story.
The switch from coal to natural gas will help us meet the expected near-term carbon-reduction targets sought in federal climate legislation. But both the House and Senate versions of climate legislation call for reductions of 80 percent or more by 2050 (based on 2005 emission levels). So, even if we retired all of our coal-fired plants in the Carolinas and switched to natural gas, we would not meet the CO2 emission reductions targeted for 2050.
So far, there is not a lot of difference between the path that Lovins and Romm advocate and the one that Yates and his team of fact-driven analysts have chosen. In the following paragraphs, however, Yates makes a clear statement of a future path that is significantly divergent from the solar, wind, geothermal and biomass driven utopia (with a wink and nod of agreement that both gas and coal will continue to play important roles in their prescribed power supply system) that Lovins has been writing about for about 35 years and that Romm is constantly pushing on ClimateProgress.org.
Here is how Yates described the results of his company’s deliberations:
Low-carbon resources, such as natural gas, are an excellent bridge for the next two decades. But getting to the proposed 2050 targets requires proven carbon-free resources. The only technology capable of providing that no-carbon power generation, on a scale capable of meeting the needs of millions of North Carolinians, is nuclear power.
Nuclear energy is already a vital part of North Carolina’s energy mix. Last year, about 46 percent of the power we generated for our customers came from nuclear plants.
Wind, solar, biofuels and other technologies all have a key role in our future energy mix, and we will continue to invest in those promising energy sources. But nuclear is the only large-scale, emission-free, 24/7 source of electricity generation capable of filling the void left by retired coal-fired power plants.
Of course, there will be some in the discussion who will scoff and state that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. At the risk of suffering the slings and arrows of people who will accuse me of elitism, I disagree. Some people’s opinions are more informed, and therefore more valuable than others. In addition, though everyone has a right to an opinion, there is a shared set of facts and physical laws that govern all of us.
When someone can show me a single place in the world that supplies its electricity needs using just the sources that Romm and Lovins advocate – without releasing any pollution of any kind during operation, I will publicly change my tune. In the meantime, I can confidently assure you that I have been in most parts of the Atlantic ocean with an isolated grid that was reliably supplied with power plant clean enough to operate inside a sealed ship full of people. My experience is not unique, tens of thousands of people have shared it over many decades.
I am a simple kind of guy who, though not from Missouri, will not be convinced with complex studies. My standard is simple – just show me.