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How Carbon Dioxide Regs Could Actually Hurt Renewables

By forcing changes in how gas power plants operate, greenhouse regulations could actually make it more difficult for utilities to use renewables.

  • August 15, 2013

GE is telling the White House that if the Environmental Protection Agency sets too stringent greenhouse gas regulations for existing power plants, it could have the unintended consequence of limiting the amount of renewable energy the grid can handle.

The EPA is proposing rules for power plants that would limit their carbon dioxide emissions. The rules would make life hard for coal plants, but are supposed to allow natural gas power plants to keep running—since they emit much less carbon dioxide.

But the rules could actually shut down (or limit the operation of) a certain kind of natural gas power plant—a type of plant that’s essential for incorporating renewable energy into the power grid. These are natural gas plants designed to quickly change power output to accommodate fluctuations in electricity production from wind farms and solar power plants. When they ramp up and down, they operate less efficiently, so they emit more carbon dioxide.The plants might not be able to ramp up and down fast enough to accommodate renewables, while still meeting stringent regulations.

GE argues that by making it harder to use renewable energy, a rule that shut down these natural gas power plants could actually lead to increased total carbon dioxide emissions.

The problem highlights how hard it will be to get off fossil fuels. We’re going to need major innovations in energy storage technologiesto allow utilities to compensate for renewable energy intermittency without relying on natural gas plants. Right now, batteries are too expensive to replace natural gas power (see “Cheap Batteries for Backup Renewable Energy”).

We’ll also need large amounts of low-carbon electricity that isn’t intermittent, such as geothermal power, nuclear power, and fossil fuel power where the carbon dioxide emissions are captured and stored (see “Safer Nuclear Power, at Half the Price”).

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