The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment report on climate change concluded that it is ‘very likely” that global climate change has been induced through anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. As a major CO2 emitter, which options does the electricity sector have to cut its emissions, asks Heather Johnstone.

It’s official! CO2 emissions produced by human activity are “very likely” to be causing global climate change. At least it is according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recently released Fourth Assessment report. According to the World Energy Council figure, the global electricity sector contributes approximately 40 per cent to the world’s CO2 emissions. Furthermore, the IPCC report comes hot on the heels of the European Commission’s energy policy report that calls for a 20 per cent reduction in European Union greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 compared to 1990 levels, which could increase to 30 per cent if a global agreement is reached. But as a major emitter of CO2, what are the options currently available to the electricity sector to help it reduce these emissions?

An obvious answer is to increase the amount of electricity generated by renewable and sustainable energy sources. And to a certain extent this is already happening. Hydropower is the leading global source of renewable power, but wind power is becoming an ever more important player in the world’s energy mix. The figures released by the Global Wind Energy Council, which relates to more than 70 countries, showed that 15.2 GW was installed last year, which takes the world’s total installed wind energy capacity to 74.2 GW, a healthy 25 per cent increase on 2005.

Furthermore, data from the American Wind Energy Association shows the USA led the way in terms of new installed capacity, adding over 2.4 GW in 2006, while the UK government recently gave the green light to a large-scale (500 MW) wind farm off the south-east coast of England. Also, many companies, especially in Europe are actively increasing their wind generation capacity. Wind power, especially offshore wind farms, still faces the problem of how to ensure the effective transmission of output from the wind turbines to national grids. Having said that, this problem is beginning to be addressed. Two recent transmission projects have been announced involving Areva and Siemens. The later is a feasibility study looking at the creation of a reliable link between offshore wind farms and the European grid.

The world’s energy-related CO2 emissions, 1990-2030
Click here to enlarge image

Another option open to the electricity sector that appears to be gaining favour is nuclear power. Although nuclear remains controversial, as a non-carbon emitting fuel source there is little doubt its popularity is growing. The use of nuclear power has been given further support by the International Energy Agency, which advocates the greater use of nuclear in its World Energy Outlook 2006. Countries that have an existing nuclear base, which include France, Russia, the UK and the USA, are beginning to talk about adding new nuclear generation capacity, while several other countries that do not currently have nuclear power generation are making noises about conducting feasibility studies into atomic energy.

One exception to the former group is Germany, which still plans to decommission all its existing nuclear power plants by 2020. Although nuclear may well provide a relatively quick and easy fix to reduce the industry’s CO2 emissions, it still suffers from a poor public image, primarily over concerns of what to with nuclear waste.

No one can dispute that coal produces more greenhouse gas emissions than any other fuel source, however, with proven reserves set to last more than 160 years, it will in all likelihood remain the main single source of the world’s electricity (currently 40 per cent). China and the USA has embarked an ambitious programme to increase capacity using coal fired generation.

However, modern coal fired plants are a different breed to the traditional plants. Referred to as advanced coal burning power plants, they are designed to be more efficient and have a greater control over emissions. This is achieved in part through the introduction of so-called “clean coal technologies”. The main ones being fluidized bed combustion (FBC) and integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC). FBC now has widespread use in power generation, but IGCC has yet to make an impact on the main electricity market. Hunton Energy, a Texas-based independent power producer, announced its intention to build $2.4 billion IGCC plant that will capture and sequester CO2.

This nicely leads onto the final options, which is carbon capture and storage. Could this provide coal fired power plants with the opportunity to reduce the amount of CO2 they release into the environment relatively quickly? Technological developments on the capture side are progressing well, but it is still relatively early days on CO2 storage, whether it is in deep geological formations, or utilized to maximize the yield of existing oil fields. There are a number of ongoing cross-border projects, particularly in the EU and in Canada, but many feel that this technology is at least a decade away from commercial use.

Clearly, there is no single answer, but as long as the electricity industry continues to be adventurous in its use of new and emerging technologies, the world may well be a little less warm.