More than low-tech clean tech for gas revolution

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Improved efficiency at coal plants provides another example of low-tech cleantech. MyUniversity of California, Davis colleague Jim Bushnell and I showed that the fuel efficiency of the Southeastern coal plant we studied was 3 percent higher when particular operators were at the controls. This is comparable to a car getting better gas mileage when a “coaster” is at the wheel than when a lead foot is driving. With a coal-fired power plant, the potential savings in fuel and forgone emissions of having a “coaster” in charge are big.
Imagine the greenhouse-gas savings if efficient operators controlled every U.S. coal plant. A 3 percent gain may sound puny, but, when applied to the more than 600 coal plants in the U.S., it could offset more carbon than the nuclear improvements I discussed above.
 The results would be even more dramatic in India and China, where almost 70 percent and 80 percent, respectively, of electricity is generated from burning coal. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that improving the fuel efficiency of Chinese coal plants by about 5 percent would offset more carbon emissions than all of the non-hydro renewable energy in the world.
So why aren’t utilities already seizing these opportunities? The problem is, at least partly, bad incentives. In most of the world, electricity-sector managers don’t have to fight for profits and share in a free market. In U.S. states that haven’t deregulated, utilities can pass along their fuel costs to customers. In China, too, many plants receive coal at heavily subsidized prices.
Removing bad incentives and encouraging managers to improve the efficiency of existing power plants may be the most immediate low cost, large-scale solution we have in the battle against climate change.
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