The Green Column #21

Lincoln Residents Choosing Now Between Efficiency and Coal

February 22, 2010—This decade Lincoln residents will choose either to become more efficient users of electricity or to build another coal power plant.

Lincoln Electric System forecasts that growing electrical demand will overtake supply in about nine years, requiring the city utility to add another generating station. State law gives public power providers the goal of low rates. Under present cost-benefit calculations, the fuel would be coal.

Although coal is cheap, it burns dirty. In 2006, Nebraska’s coal-fired power plants produced 21 million tons of carbon dioxide, 65,000 tons of sulfur dioxide and 41,000 tons of nitrogen oxide. Coal plants were responsible for 49 percent of the state’s total CO2 emissions. Furthermore, particulates cause respiratory ailments and mercury concentrates in fish.

Although consumer resistance to new coal plants is growing, coal remains the backbone of the U.S. power industry. Dozens of new coal plants are under construction or in the permit process. As everyone monitors the carbon regulatory battle in Washington, it is a safe bet that even old-tech coal plants will be grandfathered in under new law.

Nebraska is particularly reliant on coal plants with 15 in operation. This means that Nebraskans, per capita, are responsible for about 25 percent more greenhouse gases than the national average. LES gets 81 percent of its electricity from coal, 8 percent from wholesale purchases, 7 percent from hydro and wind, 4 percent from oil and natural gas.

Green alternatives include various forms of renewable energy like hydro, geothermal, biomass, solar and wind. This column will not discuss the complexities of these choices, but all Nebraskans are probably glad to see our state at last joining the wind energy boom.

The most universally supported and cost-effective green alternative is efficiency. The cheapest energy is the energy you stop wasting, sometimes called negawatts. If electrical demand did not rise, LES would not need to add capacity.

The power industry is notoriously inefficient. Coal plants typically operate at 30-35 percent efficiency, ie. 65-70 percent of the heat produced from burning coal is wasted. Transmission of electricity over long distances and distribution carries an additional penalty of up to 10 percent.

At the consumer end, most households, businesses and industries also have much room for improvement.

Few homes have the recommended R-60 insulation in the attic and R-15 in the walls. Ground-source heat pumps are still rare. Only a fourth of Nebraskans buy Energy Star refrigerators. Sales of tankless water heaters have been slow to take off.

The situation in the commercial and industrial sectors is similar. Many businesses do not even have an entry space so that two doors stand between cold winter air and heated indoor air. Industries have been slow to adopt variable speed motors, which save substantial amounts of electricity.

LES is pursuing a greener future with its Sustainable Energy Program. But the Lincoln City Council, which has final say over LES budgets, has cut funding to $1 million annually. That’s only $8 per customer. It’s unlikely that such a small investment in green strategies will pay off bigtime.

Mayor Beutler has set a municipal goal of reducing greenhouse gases 7 percent per capita from 1990 levels by 2015. But because of population growth, this goal still represents a 34 percent increase in Lincoln emissions over those 25 years.

The best green outcome would be an actual drop in electrical use without any decline in quality of life. This is a more ambitious and exciting possibility. It could be accomplished voluntarily if enough people understood the payoffs.

For example, replacing a 20-year-old refrigerator with an Energy Star model cuts electricity use by two-thirds, which even with Nebraska’s low rates, saves $70 a year. The new refrigerator pays for itself in 7-10 years, depending on how fancy the model you buy.

Have you noticed that some neighbors are now boasting about low kilowatt hours per month in the way our fathers talked about miles per gallon? The younger generation is sophisticated enough to discuss reducing carbon footprints in internationally recognized metric units.

In the end, the future hinges on what we imagine. If we leave the future up to someone else, then we will have to live in someone else’s future.

I call on every reader to make energy conservation a 2010 resolution. Speak up at your job, where you shop, in your clubs and churches for saving electricity, natural gas, gasoline, etc. And please don’t leave the lights burning at home.

© Lincoln Green by Design