ISO-NE (the operator of New England’s regional electricity system) just released in draft form the latest edition of the annual report presenting the air emissions (a nice word for pollution) from power plants that serve the region. If you are interested in providing feedback on it you have until January 17 to download it (PDF) and email your thoughts to the right person at ISO-NE.
The graphic below from the report yells out one very positive story: a whopping decrease in the Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) emissions that cause death, disease and respiratory distress from New England’s power plants from 2001 – 2012.
Here is what is going on: New England has shifted away from burning coal and oil to make electricity, and our remaining coal plants have reduced their emissions due to the phase-in of emissions regulations across our states. This has meant a dramatic reduction in the old (and frankly insane) practice of dumping thousands of tons of sulfur into our air – a change that benefits everyone who breathes. Similarly, emissions of Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), the key cause of the summertime smog that causes serious health problems for so many people, have been significantly reduced, although not as dramatically as Sulfur emissions.
The trend to a cleaner power plant “fleet” has been augmented by investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy that ensured that increased demand pulling power (and pollution) from big power plants did not undermine the shift to cleaner generation.
But in terms of the biggest environmental story, tackling global warming, the tale here is of past small victory but uncertainty about future progress.
The good news on the climate front here is mild but clear: we have reduced our emissions of Carbon Dioxide, the key “greenhouse gas” causing global warming – not as dramatically as we have reduced emissions of other pollutants, but a reduction nonetheless. Indeed, the chart below shows that the average emissions rates for New England’s power plants have dropped below the emissions that flow from the newest natural gas–fueled power plants (the regional average is 719 lb/MWh while new plants aspire to reach 825 lb/MWh).
This is a big “aha moment” that should be carefully noted. Putting a new gas-fired power plant into the New England system no longer inherently lowers emissions of CO2. This is a big change from 2008 (or any other year before 2007) when simply building and turning on a modern gas plant could be expected to have the immediate impact of lowering CO2 emissions.
In this new world, in order to get credit for being part of the climate solution, any new gas-fired power plant will need to very clearly show that it is not part of the problem. That is, the developers will need to demonstrate that the new plant is part of a smart and effective strategy for moving towards a future where we get our electricity from even cleaner sources, like wind and solar power.
In Massachusetts, this need for new infrastructure like gas-fired power plants to be integrated with, and consistent with, a plan to reduce our CO2 (and greenhouse gas emissions generally) is not just a good idea – it is the law. Specifically, it is the mandate of the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act, which requires that all permits and government decisions must move us towards the 80% reduction in emissions that must happen by 2050. The previously reliable tool of “build modern gas plants” just doesn’t work anymore as a step towards that goal unless special and binding steps are taken to ensure that they displace even dirtier power and/or help integrate even cleaner power into the system.