Eight US states and New York City have filed a lawsuit against five power companies for their contribution to global warming. The states, invoking a long-held ‘public nuisance’ law aimed at protecting property owners from the actions of their neighbours, are banding together to force the utility companies to cut their carbon dioxide emissions by at least 3% per year for 10 years.

‘If we do not act soon, the steps we will need to take to prevent global warming will be much greater and much harder,’ says New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. He says the companies – American Electric Power Company, the Southern Company, Tennessee Valley Authority, Xcel Energy Inc, and Cinergy Corporation – were chosen because they are the five largest carbon dioxide emitters in the US, operating 174 power plants in 20 states. ‘These companies together emit 650 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year – 10% of the country’s carbon dioxide and more than all of the UK,’ adds Spitzer.

The plaintiffs – which also include California, Connecticut, Iowa, New Jersey, New York State, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin – say that the federal government has failed to take action on the problem. The suit is seeking no monetary damages – simply a steady reduction in carbon dioxide emissions over a decade.

US carbon emissions ‘rose in 2003’

Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in the US increased by 0.9% in 2003, but the level was still below the amount registered in 2000, according to a report from the US Department of Energy (DOE).

Carbon dioxide emissions in 2003 measured 5790 tonnes, compared with 5740 tonnes the year before, according to the DOE’s Energy Information Administration. Part of the reason for the increase is a 0.6% increase in energy demand, in part because of a colder winter than the previous year.

High natural gas prices in 2003 also resulted in a shift to higher carbon fuels, such as coal and petroleum, according to the report US Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Energy Sources 2003.

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This summer’s US Democratic National Convention in Boston was partly powered by a 250 kW ‘Direct FuelCell’ power plant from stationary fuel cell power plant manufacturer FuelCell Energy, Inc. The fuel cell was part of a distributed generation ‘micro-grid’ that provided electricity to support the existing grid to meet the expected additional demand of the convention.

The unit at the convention was FuelCell Energy’s DFC300A model power plant, a unit with enough power to provide the baseload electricity requirements of a 300-room hotel. The unit directly converts natural gas, through a patented internal reforming process, into the hydrogen needed to electrochemically produce electricity.

Some 30 other customer installations throughout the world have, to date, generated more than 40 million kWh of electricity, says the company.

Because fuel cells, which operate on natural gas, generate electricity electrochemically (instead of by combustion), there are virtually none of the pollutants associated with traditional power plants that burn fossil fuels. In fact, FuelCell Energy’s ‘DFC’ power plants are part of a new generation of ultra-clean power plants that are now available to generate power around the world, says the company.

‘The DFC power plant clearly shows the flexibility of stationary fuel cells for commercial and industrial applications,’ said Herbert T. Nock, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Sales of FuelCell Energy. ‘We delivered, set up and started the power plant in less than two weeks. The unit is so clean it can operate in downtown Boston with no impact on air quality. And it uses half the fuel because it is twice as efficient as comparably sized power plants.’

Nock also noted that the convention power plant demonstrates how fuel cells are an ideal way to shore up the existing electricity grid in the US. ‘As we reach the first anniversary of the East Coast blackout, it’s important to remember that the power grid is still fragile and that fuel cells can help make it stronger and more reliable,’ said Nock.