Solar power prices continue to press coal
Bloomberg has reported on the increasing cost-competitiveness of solar power generation in comparison to coal firing. Last year saw several deals for solar-generated electricity priced at three US cents per kilowatt-hour – half the global average cost for electricity from coal – and this year is expected to see even lower prices being agreed for electricity from solar in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Mexico. The trend since 2009 has been a 62% decrease in the cost of solar photovolatics, and within ten years Bloomberg predicts that solar PV will be the lowest-cost option for power generation almost everywhere around the world (though its chart shows that wind will do this first). However, when the need for back-up generation capacity to cover intermittency is included, coal is projected to be the cheapest power generation technology into the 2030s. In addition, the 3 cent deals to date have been made in the expectation that solar power generation costs will fall in the future, and may not reflect the present generation costs. Nevertheless, it is clear that solar will be a major competitor to coal in the decades to come.
Moderate growth predicted for US steel industry
After two years of contracting output, the US steel industry is expected to increase its production this year by 4.4%. Rising steel demand from the energy and construction sectors, as well as falling imports are the factors at play. The news will of course be welcome to US steel makers, and follows an upturn in steel prices last year. Meanwhile, the election of Donald Trump, who has promised a US$1 trillion infrastructure spending program, has brought rises in the share prices of US steel companies. The global picture is not so rosy, however, with the outlook still weak, the EU expected to increase production this year by only 1.5%. Much of the global market is shaped by China, producing more than half the world’s steel, and which is being seen as sluggish in acting on its promises to reduce production.
China acts to curb SO2 emissions
The Chinese government has announced a new plan to cut air pollution from power plants and other industry, with the aim of curtailing the smog problem in the country’s north. The goal is to reduce output of SO2 by 15% by 2020, with the government expanding the range of industrial facilities expected to meet emissions limits. The curbing of industrial emissions will be coupled with a greater promotion of public transport and stricter rules about fuels used by vehicles. China has made some progress on air pollution during its now three-year “war on pollution”, but there are still considerable public health risks. The plan was announced during a period of heavy smog partly due to greater coal firing during winter.
Polish city more polluted than Beijing; government slow to act
Polish authorities may soon be looking to China for example, after environmental monitoring found that the Polish village of SkaÅ‚a, in the heart of Poland’s coal industry in the south of the country, had an air pollution concentration of 979 micrograms/m3 of air, well above Beijing’s 737, and close to 20 times what is considered safe by the EU. Ewa Lutomska of Polski Alarm Smogowy, a pollution watchdog, told the Financial Times that Poland lacks the necessary regulation to combat air pollution. The country has Europe’s worst air quality, with 33 of Europe’s 50 most polluted cities being Polish. The European Commission last June submitted a complaint to the EU Court of Justice about Poland infringing the Clear Air for Europe directive, alleging that Polish authorities have not done enough to try to control levels. With coal fuelling around 90% of Poland’s electricity generation, and the Polish government having promised to protect the coal industry, it appears that the EC and the Polish government will be at loggerheads for some time to come, while Poland’s citizens suffer the health effects.
Outgoing US EPA chief regrets failing to persuade rural Americans of benefits of climate change action
The outgoing head of the US Environmental Protection Authority, Gina McCarthy, has said that failing to convince rural America of the economic benefits of renewable power generation is her top regret from her time at the helm. While Ms McCarthy cited crafting the country’s first carbon rules for power plants as one of the biggest achievements of her term, she found conveying the positives to rural Americans very difficult, in part because of the political baggage surrounding the subject of climate change. One of the EPA’s legal challengers to the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan was Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who President-elect Trump has nominated to be the new head of the EPA. Ms McCarthy told reporters she hoped that EPA staff would temper Mr Pruitt’s opposition to certain environmental regulation by providing science-based advice.
Asia now the biggest market for US LNG exports
The North American fracking industry has entered a new phase, with Asia now the largest export destination for US LNG supplies. With gas prices in Asia rising 79% in the last six months, more LNG ships are leaving Sabine Pass terminal in Louisiana – still the only terminal shipping US shale gas internationally – bound for Asia, rather than the previously favoured destination of Latin America. A new milestone for North American fracking is expected to come later this year, when the US becomes a net exporter of natural gas.
Sub-sea in-situ combustion raised as an idea to circumvent the need for CCS
A post on The Conversation website by Professor Tom Baxter of the University of Aberdeen has raised the idea of in-situ sub-sea combustion of oil and gas as an economic means of avoiding the need for carbon capture and storage. As Professor Baxter writes, “You would burn the hydrocarbons in their containing rock by feeding them oxygen or air, while pumping pressurised water from a surface facility […]. The heat from burning the hydrocarbons would convert the water into steam, which would be piped up to the surface to power a turbine to produce electricity that could be transmitted to shore using power cables.” Such in-situ combustion would leave carbon dioxide and other pollutants in the ground, while allowing the extraction of power, and would avoid the energy cost of capturing and transporting carbon dioxide, amongst other savings. Professor Baxter acknowledges significant research and development would be required, including: modelling what would be a complex combustion process with thermal interactions with rock; steam well design; the design of the surface facility; transmission; the effect of the build-up of the products of combustion within the rock (and the effects on further combustion); the sealing of the reservoir; any effects on oil and gas recovery; integration with other infrastructure; and economic considerations. The idea is a fascinating and innovative one.
American Geophysical Union considers negative carbon dioxide emissions strategies
A recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union, covered by Scientific American, has looked at options for “negative emissions strategies” for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to help curb climate change. Amongst the possibilities are enhanced weathering with agriculture, in which silica would be crushed to spread on farmland, speeding up the natural process of carbon dioxide absorption into rock; carbon capture with ocean thermal energy, in which the temperature difference between surface and deep ocean water is used to generate electricity which is then utilized to extract CO2 from air and convert ocean water to hydrogen; and bio-energy with carbon capture and storage, in which fuel crops are grown, and when combusted, the resultant CO2 is stored in rock. According to Scientific American, no negative emissions strategy has yet been demonstrated to be economic, but the search is most certainly on.