In order to avert climate catastrophe we’re going to have to make boring changes to our built infrastructure. Politicians find it hard to argue for these sorts of enhancements because voters don’t get to see a ribbon cutting ceremony; however changes to infrastructure can make a massive difference. In the USA alone enhancing electrical transmission over power lines can reduce carbon emissions comparable to the entire chemical industry. And power lines are boring. As we find ways to use power lines (and other existing infrastructure) we need to encourage and reward politicians who want to improve them to save our planet.
Technical losses are the simplest to address through the deployment of more advanced technologies and by upgrading existing infrastructure, both for long-distance transmission of power and distribution at the local level. Improvements in transmission can be made, for example, by replacing inefficient wires, using superconductors that reduce resistance in wires, and thus lost energy, and controlling power flow and high-voltage direct current.
Similarly, improvements in distribution can be achieved by better managing the load and distribution of power, as well as how distribution lines are configured. Innovation, such as adopting digital technologies for routing power flows, can also play a role.
Solutions for nontechnical losses are more challenging and may only partially cut associated emissions. The causes of high losses are diverse and can originate in, for example, extreme events, such as the hurricanes that struck Haiti and Puerto Rico in recent years, or war, or a combination of weak governance, corruption and poverty, as seen in India. For either type of losses, countries with large shares of fossil fuel generation and the most inefficient grid infrastructure can cut the greatest emissions and reap the largest environmental benefits from reducing transmission and distribution losses.
Everyone already knows that burning coal for energy is absolutely horrible for the planet and were still learning just how bad coal power plants really are. The positive news is that once the plants are closed positive changes are quick to be found. A recent study found that shutting down coal power plants can be connected to the saving of 26,610 lives in the USA alone. There are other benefits too like cleaner air for plants, which in turns increases crop yields. This is yet more evidence that we need to do everything in our power to shutdown the use of coal.
An estimated 26,610 lives were saved in the US by the shift away from coal between 2005 and 2016, according to the University of California study published in Nature Sustainability.
“When you turn coal units off you see deaths go down. It’s something we can see in a tangible way,” said Jennifer Burney, a University of California academic who authored the study. “There is a cost to coal beyond the economics. We have to think carefully about where plants are sited, as well as how to reduce their pollutants.”
Renewable energy just kept getting cheaper and cheaper despite ongoing subsides for the oil and gas industries. This is really good to see as people who only care about short term economic energy decisions will have to start to advocate for renewable energy. The decrease in cost for renewable wind power can be attributed to bigger blades and better energy grid management. This means that not only is wind power cheaper, the better grid management can lead to other renewable sources getting cheaper too.
In the US, the prices for wind power had risen up until 2009, when power purchase agreements for wind-generated electricity peaked at about $70 per MegaWatt-hour. Since then, there’s been a very steady decline, and 2018 saw the national average fall below $20/MW-hr for the first time. Again, there’s regional variation with the Great Plains seeing the lowest prices, in some cases reaching the mid-teens.
That puts wind in an incredibly competitive position. The report uses an estimate of future natural gas prices that show an extremely gradual rise of about $10/MW-hr out to 2050. But natural gas—on its own, without considering the cost of a plant to burn it for electricity—is already over $20/MW-hr. That means wind sited in the center of the US is already cheaper than fueling a natural gas plant, and wind sited elsewhere is roughly equal.
An often overlooked aspect of sustainable energy is the seemingly simple switching of electricity. Physical switches slow down the ability of repairs on power systems and can even hinder the installation of renewable energy sources. A lot of renewable energy systems (solar, wind, tidal, etc.) fluctuate greatly in the power output which strains switches; this is where digital circuits thrive. With digital switching it is easier to dynamically change power sources and remotely monitor them.
“Instead of using mechanics to switch the power, we apply digital inputs,” Kennedy told Popular Mechanics. “Now I have no moving parts. Now I have the ability to connect things like iPhones and iPads for remote power management, which increases safety and improves efficiency. I can set the distribution panel to a schedule so the flow of power is seamless, unlimited, and shifts between sources automatically. You literally wouldn’t notice. The lights wouldn’t even flicker.”
For a grid-connected solar home, for example, residents sometimes have to disconnect their solar input because traditional power systems (including the circuit breakers) aren’t advanced enough to properly manage multiple power sources that change.
The Canadian government has decided to end the use of coal for electricity by the year 2030. To make up the lost production the provinces which still use coal will have to replace their power plants with sustainable alternatives. This makes a lot of sense since using coal for electricity is really (really really really) bad for the environment and, as regular readers of this site know, the cost of setting up renewable energy is getting cheaper every year.
Let’s hope that other countries follow suit and stop using coal to produce electricity.
In announcing the plan today, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said about 80 per cent of Canada’s electricity currently comes from clean sources such as hydroelectric power, nuclear, wind and solar. The goal is to make 90 per cent of electric power generation free of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
“This will help build a more sustainable future, and it is also a great economic opportunity,” she said during a news conference in Ottawa.
The plan accelerates the current timetable for the four provinces that still burn coal for electricity — Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick — to either capture carbon emissions, adopt technology or shut down the plants.