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Not Even Justice Scalia’s Replacement Can Postpone the Trend to Cleaner Energy

shutterstock_376433869The sad and surprising passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia this weekend will certainly change the balance of the high court. And while his replacement will be a determining vote in many legal matters, the court is still likely to favor many of the Obama administration’s environmental policies.

But that one person — perhaps the deciding vote for many cases pending before those justices — will not have the power to alter free-market economics. To that end, utilities are responding to the demand of their customers and going green, or greener depending on one’s perspective. To that end, natural gas is replacing coal-fired generation while wind and solar power are also making inroads.

“We’re in the power business – transmission, generation, distribution. It’s our job to react to what the customers need, says Barry Nicholls, the US lead for Siemens Power and Gas Division, in an interview.

“If they need more wind turbines in response to this plan, we’re in that business,” he continues. “If they want more gas plants, we’re in that business. “If they want to build more transmission lines, we’re in that business. We keep ourselves spread across the value chain so we can support our customers.”

As most people know by now, the US Supreme Court has temporarily blocked the implementation of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which requires a 32 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2030, from a 2005 baseline. In doing so, it had responded to a petition by 27 states asking those justices for a reprieve until the issue could be decided in the DC Court of Appeals.

That appeal’s court has set the case for a June 2nd hearing. The overwhelming odds are it will approve the plan, especially because it had ruled against the states’s motion to delay its implementation right before the matter got appealed to the Supreme Court. What’s less certain than ever, however, is how the High Court will rule on the carbon reduction plan now that Scalia’s seat is open.

Even if the Republican-led Senate does not grant Obama’s appointment a hearing, or it denies that person a seat, the Supremes would be split 50-50. That’s because the January vote to block the Clean Power Plan was 5-4. And if it is divided, the appeal’s court will have the “final” say.

As powerful as the Supreme Court may be, it is not as powerful as the market demand calling for green energies. Moreover, the United States is about half way to its carbon emissions targets, given that natural gas is replacing coal-fired power generation; that fuel releases half the emissions as does coal, including carbon.

On top of the Clean Power Plan is COP21, or the global climate talks that took place in Paris in December 2015. There, 187 nations pledged to keep the world’s temperature rises to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, which will mainly come from limiting the expansion of fossil fuels and specifically coal used for power generation.

“Many of our customers are adjusting to the regulatory pressures by shifting from a coal-based portfolio to a more diversified generation portfolio,” says Bruce Buchholz, managing director of power systems for Doosan, in an interview. “The establishment of temperature increases of 1.5 degrees to 2 degrees Celsius is perfectly aligned with what we have to offer.”

Regulatory pressures are certainly playing a role. But so, too, are market forces, all of which is enabled by modern technologies. The culmination of those dynamics has a created an undeniable trend — cleaner energy forms are making inroads around the globe and especially in the developed world. Not even a newly-seated Supreme Court justice can change that.

3 thoughts on “Not Even Justice Scalia’s Replacement Can Postpone the Trend to Cleaner Energy

  1. I’m not sure that everyone appreciates what will limit global heating to a 1.5 to 2 degree Celsius global mean surface temperature rise above pre-industrial. It’s not like we can allow 2 degrees C additional temperature increase – we may be within a fraction of a degree C from committing to those increases already, and it’s quite likely much more after natural feedback a perversely spiral global heat gain higher during the rest of human history. We will need the good people at Siemens, Doodan, and everywhere else to figure out how to put a large slice of the carbon dioxide already in the air back into stable underground reservoirs as quickly as we have removed it, and then some. It’s possible, certainly, but we must grapple with the immensity of reducing emissions to zero by end of Century, then reversing the flow of carbon into the atmosphere so that within another Century we land once again safely at below 350 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere. The equilibrium stabilization temperature of Earth’s surface with the carbon now in play, plus additional expected from natural source feedback mechanisms already in motion, is probably between 5 and 6 degrees C at this time, and higher with every day that we delay pricing carbon steadily higher at the well, mine head and port of entry. I am partial to a carbon fee and public dividend approach that can entrain the full weight of the public/private market behind getting this necessary public good done to preserve our planet’s suitability for known plant and animal species, especially including humans.

  2. How to recapture that emitted CO2?

    Plant more trees, stop deforestation and restore heavily depleted soils and disrupted groundwater infiltration from impervious surfaces. GHG emissions is also tied to natural carbon sink disruption.

    Rethink the available carbon in all petroleum stores, because it’s THE source for basic petrochemical production of goods – this defines modern civilization, and we have very little in the way of base chemical substitutes at this time.

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