As environmental policy continues to play a key role in public policy, Carnegie Mellon scientists have zeroed in on electricity — an industry which generates more carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) than any other industry in America.
"CO2 isn't like other pollutants," explains Granger Morgan, professor and head of Carnegie Mellon's Department of Engineering and Public Policy. "Once you put it in the atmosphere, it stays there — a lot of it for 100 years or more."
What this means is that just stabilizing emissions won't reverse the problem; only significant reductions will.
Morgan and his colleagues Jay Apt, a professor of engineering and public policy in the College of Engineering, and Lester Lave, a professor in the Tepper School of Business, are specifically focused on coal-burning plants. The reason: about half of all electricity in the U.S. is produced from coal.
The researchers presented their strategy for weaning the electricity industry from its carbon dependency during the next 50 years in a special report published in 2005. Their policy-meets-power approach begins with the U.S. federal government establishing "a firm regulatory timetable" for curbing industry emissions.
Morgan says there's a growing consensus that regulation is coming, if not at the federal level, than at the state level, so waiting will only put off the inevitable. Stalling would also prove costly to companies in the long run as they scramble to adopt new technologies and practices too rapidly.
To hold companies' collective feet to the fire, the researchers suggest imposing a gradually tightening limit on the amount of CO2 that can be emitted for every kilowatt-hour of electricity generated.
The researchers also recommend creating a regulatory-friendly playing field that encourages research and adoption of cost-effective, low-carbon or carbon-free electricity generation technologies. Options include new technologies that are still being developed such as:
coal gasification with carbon capture and sequestration
strategies that rely on existing technologies at different stages of commercial and technical readiness (such as nuclear and renewable generation)
lower-carbon fuels (like natural gas)
efficiency improvements (both at the point of electricity production and end use)
Many of these options, in addition to reducing CO2 emissions, also reduce conventional air pollutants.
Lack of funding for the research remains a major issue that needs to be addressed, according to Morgan. He and his colleagues recommend that the government require all power companies to kick in at least one percent of gross revenue annually for research and development.