We Could Massively Slash Carbon Emissions By Improving Just 5% of Our Powerplants

This decade! Another week, another insanity of wildfire and/or violence of flooding. Does anyone remain unconvinced of the wisdom in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible ASAP?

Well, anyway, the revolution is happening. We are switching as much of our energy consumption over to electricity as possible while increasing our capacity to generate electricity renewably.

Our main problem now is that such a total overhaul is a sluggish beast, requiring time and war effort levels of investment of work, materials, and money, especially when war effort levels of effort have yet to be reached.

by Christina De La Rocha

just 5%

But what we could do right now, without having to lay down a new national networks of power lines, replace legions of gas stations with squadrons of charging points, or build better batteries, is improve the fuel efficiency of every country’s top 5-10% most carbon-emitting powerplants.

Because, sort of like billionaires, just 5% of the world’s powerplants do 73% of all powerplants’ carbon dioxide emitting, in the short run, this would drive major reductions in the amount of carbon dioxide being emitted during electricity production without causing major cuts in electricity generation. Meanwhile, we could put these hyper-polluting powerplants at the top of the list to shut down as the amount of electricity we produce via wind turbines and solar panels takes off and weaning ourselves off fossil fuels shifts into high gear.

This is what we’ve learned from a study accepted for publication in the high-ranking, peer-reviewed by the respected scientific journal Environmental Research Letters.

The researchers who did this work used data from the world’s powerplants to calculate how much carbon dioxide each powerplant emits for every kilowatt hour of electricity it produces. They also calculated the total number of tons of carbon dioxide each powerplant emits every year.

A little bit of computer modeling was involved to clean up the data and extend the information to the global scale, but the upshot is, the researchers identified, not just which powerplants were inefficient in terms of power output per ton of carbon dioxide emitted, but also which inefficient powerplants were in heavy enough use to be a big problem.

These hyper-polluters – powerplants that are heads above the rest in terms of the total amount of carbon dioxide they emit to the atmosphere each year – are the powerplants that should be targeted first for modification to improve their carbon footprint or for shutdown.

coal bricks for household use
Coal bricks for household use

If you wanted to be picky about it, you could just go down the list, increasing the efficiency of this particular powerplant in Poland or Germany here, that particular powerplant in India or South Korea there, until you’d plowed through the top most carbon emitting 5% (or, if you were really on a roll, 10%) of the world’s powerplants. Or you could set a more general target of the top 5 to 10% of problem powerplants in every country of the world. Because that would work too.

When they did that math, the researchers found that if every country in the world turned its top 5% most carbon-emitting powerplants (all of which are coal-fired, because coal is a horribly inefficient fuel) into powerplants that run on natural gas, the world would slash the carbon dioxide emissions related to electricity generation by 30%. Which is a HUGE number. But, even better, if every country also fitted these same 5% of powerplants with devices to capture carbon dioxide and sequester it somewhere away from the atmosphere, that figure jumps to nearly 50%. And that would be an even greater major win.

And, stated intentions generally being more wishful thinking/politics than likely outcome, if every country aimed to improve the efficiency of its 10% most carbon-emitting powerplants, we’d be more likely to actually hit the 30-50% reductions target.

It’s such low-hanging yet powerful fruit it’s almost like a test: we’re making all the right noises, but are we truly committed enough to trying to avoid truly catastrophic climate change to give it a go?