Is California “hiding” greenhouse gas emissions by importing coal-fired electricity?

Is California “hiding” greenhouse gas emissions by importing coal-fired electricity?

Mark: California imports quite a bit of electricity from other western states, and state planners are trying to increase the transmission capacity for bringing imports into the state. But California is not ignoring the emissions resulting from these imports in its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. To the contrary, quite a bit of effort has gone into including emissions from imported electricity in California's overall GHG inventory.

That worthwhile goal does not mean there are no political disputes over how to manage such emissions, particularly given the ongoing planning for new transmission capacity to allow more imports. A number of coal-fired power plants are on the drawing boards in the western United States; developers are eyeing California as a key market.

California is currently engaged in producing its periodic Integrated Energy Planning Report, and discussion of rules for future power imports into the state have involved interest groups of all kinds. One proposal has suggested limiting coal-based imports to "clean coal," and defining "clean coal" as plants using coal gasification (IGCC) and long-term sequestration (by taking the carbon dioxide and injecting it underground). Proponents of a “clean coal” standard see it as playing a technology-forcing role in getting IGCC plants built and demonstrated. They are skeptical of other mitigation approaches, like offsets, because they are suspicious of offsets generally and because offsets would not help advance the IGCC technology.

Personally, I would like to see the IGCC technology ramped up and successfully demonstrated as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, IGCC with sequestration has not yet been successfully commercially demonstrated, and the technology would clearly cost more than power from conventional pulverized coal or super-critical coal plants, which dominate current coal plant proposals. Project developers including utilities are not lining up to be the first ones to deploy an IGCC plant in the western U.S., much less with the added cost of sequestering the carbon underground. In addition, California would be likely to face legal challenges to a “clean coal” standard, under the argument that it would unduly interfere with interstate commerce.

So we don't know what’s going to happen for sure, and California state policymakers are reviewing a variety of options. But we can safely say that they are not ignoring the issue of GHG emissions from coal-fired electricity imports, and that’s a positive step.

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Dr. Mark C. Trexler has more than 25 years of energy and environmental experience, and has focused on global climate change since joining the World Resources Institute in 1988. He is now president of Trexler Climate + Energy Services, which provides strategic, market, and project services to clients around the world.

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