Op-Ed By William H. Schlesinger
On whichever side on the aisle you sit, there are a few basic facts established by careful scientific measurements over the past few decades: the Earth is getting warmer, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising, and carbon dioxide absorbs heat radiating from the Earth’s surface. The geologic record shows us strong correlations between high CO2 in the atmosphere and warm epochs in the Earth’s past. No amount of political rhetoric can change these observations.
Climate change is not a national, but rather a global, problem, wrought by our use of fossil fuels to power our economy. For the United States, the spirit of EPA’s regulations for large power plants—the Clean Power Plan—was to curb our nation’s emissions of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, in hopes of mitigating the full extent of ongoing climate change. Other nations have other approaches, but they look to us for leadership, as one of the leading sources of CO2 emissions.
For the first round of reductions in the Clean Power Plan, power plants less than 25 megawatts were exempt from regulation in an attempt to ease the burden on small-source generation. However, in North Carolina, Duke Energy has responded by abusing this loophole, proposing to build a host of new small power plants, each about 20 MW, including one in cooperation with Duke University to provide power to its campus in Durham. This new plant would be gas-fired, providing a combination of heat and power—a CHP facility.
Natural gas is often touted as an ideal fuel to bridge the transition of society to a future world of non-fossil energy, when fossil fuels are depleted and expensive and we begin to take climate change seriously. Of course, natural gas itself is a fossil fuel, which emits carbon dioxide when it is burned. A certain fraction of the natural gas—largely methane—that is supplied to power plants inevitably leaks to the atmosphere. Current global estimates suggest the leak rate is about two percent of production. Importantly, any leak rate above about one percent of production negates most of the benefit of natural gas on mitigating climate change, because methane itself is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.