By Donella Meadows
–March 23, 1989–
Applied Energy Services (AES) of Arlington, Virginia, has come up with a way to do something that everyone thought was impossible. It is building a coal-burning electric plant that will not add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere — which means it will not worsen the greenhouse effect and hasten global climate change.
The plant will also be energy efficient. Its air pollution emissions will be low. Indirectly, it will help combat soil erosion and alleviate poverty. Sounds too good to be true, but it’s all true.
The founder and president of AES, Roger Sant, was head of energy conservation for the Federal Energy Administration (before there was a Department of Energy) under President Ford. When Sant left government, he set out to help industry save energy. One way to do that is with co-generation.
Co-generation means using the “waste heat” from an electric power plant for a purpose more productive than warming up a river — heating a building, for example, or providing steam for an industrial process. The plant AES is constructing in Uncasville, Connecticut, will sell electricity to Connecticut Light and Power and steam to the Stone Container Corporation.
It is a “clean coal” plant, using a technique called fluidized bed combustion. Instead of a scrubber in the stack to take out the sulfur dioxide that causes acid rain, limestone is mixed with the coal right in the furnace. The sulfur dioxide is absorbed before it ever gets to the stack. The furnace also burns at a low enough temperature to reduce formation of nitrogen oxide, another cause of acid rain.
The main gas coming out of an AES smokestack is carbon dioxide, the inevitable product of burning the carbon in coal, and until recently not considered a pollutant. But Roger Sant knew that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. He kept going to meetings about the greenhouse effect. He’d come back to his company and say, “This greenhouse thing is really bad. We have to do something.”
He assigned his strategic planning team, headed by Sheryl Sturges, to figure out what to do. They came up with several options:
- Go into some other business.
- Capture the carbon dioxide and inject it into oil wells, where it could enhance the recovery of oil and stay underground where it won’t cause greenhouse warming.
- Capture the carbon dioxide and sell it to soft drink companies to make bubbles.
- Plant trees, which will fix carbon dioxide into wood.
“How many trees?” asked Sant.
“For the Uncasville plant about 52 million.” said Sturges.
Enter Paul Faeth of the International Institute for Environment and Development, who is an expert not on power plants but on trees. AES hired him to select through an open bidding process some agency, anywhere in the world, that could assure the planting and maintenance of lots and lots of trees.
The winning bid came from a coalition of CARE, the Guatemalan government, the Peace Corps, and USAID. They had an ongoing tree-planting program involving 40,000 small-scale farmers. For $2 million from AES, they could extend the program by 194,000 acres — 52 million trees.
Half of Guatemala’s forests have disappeared over the past 35 years. The result is disastrous erosion and flooding. The CARE program helps farmers plant trees at the edges of fields and on eroded hillsides. The trees are used for fruit crops, lumber, fuelwood, living fences, building poles and, very importantly, holding soil and water. The program is wildly popular — farmers are demanding five times more seedlings than the tree nurseries can supply.
AES staff who have visited Guatemala talk not so much about fixing carbon from the coal plant as about the need for trees. Dave McMillen, the no-nonsense manager of the Uncasville plant, admits he thought it was crazy that his budget and oversight responsibility should include forests thousands of miles away. But when he went to Guatemala, he became, as his colleagues say, “Mr. Tree”. He could hardly believe the poverty of the people, the farmers hanging from ropes to hoe their steep garden plots, the denuded land, the silt running off the hills and filling up the reservoirs behind hydropower dams — and the good that trees can do for the people and land of Guatemala.
Paul Faeth says, “The carbon fixation is nice, but the social benefits are even greater. There will be fuelwood, better soil, higher crop yields, jobs. If I never do anything else in my career, I feel I’ve helped do a little something good here.”
For its next power plant AES is looking for a way to plant 100 million trees.
Has AES hit upon a scheme to go on burning all the coal we’d like while avoiding the greenhouse effect? No, says Roger Sant, it’s only a way to buy time. “We’re going to have to stop burning fossil fuels someday. We have to figure out how to invest $250 million not in a power plant but in energy conservation. That’s the next step I’d like to take.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989