Replacing Coal Plants by Natural Gas & Renewables
In an opinion piece in Sunday's edition of the Wall Street Journal, T. Boone Pickens and Ted Turner talk about the future of energy. One interesting suggestion they make is a kind of scaled up Cash for Clunkers program (everybody's jumping on the bandwagon, even Bill Clinton with EVs for Clunkers) that would be applied at the utility level; Incentives would be offered to encourage operators to retire their most polluting power plants.
The Pickens-Turner duo seems very bullish on clean energy: "The annual market for clean energy may escalate in the next decade to between $1 trillion and $2 trillion. The race is on." and "We should also adopt a strong national standard requiring that electrical generation include a growing percentage of renewable fuels to help bring down costs over time." But in their plan clean energy seems to take a back seat to natural gas:
The U.S. sits on top of massive reservoirs of natural gas--an estimated 2,000 trillion cubic feet--that contain more energy than all the oil in Saudi Arabia. [...]
In the electricity sector, natural gas is already cheap, available and ready to meet the nation's power needs while improving climate security. It emits about half the carbon dioxide per British thermal unit of energy, and far fewer of the heavy metals than does coal.
Adopting a "cash-for-clunkers" program in the utility sector can save money and reduce emissions right away by retiring the oldest, least efficient and most polluting power plants in exchange for modern gas-powered plants. New coal plants should be required to combine natural gas with the coal they burn, resulting in cleaner emissions, and every power plant should meet strict carbon-emissions standards.
Closing down coal plants certainly would make a big difference, even if they are replaced by natural gas plants instead of wind/solar/geothermal/etc. My preference is with going straight to clean energy, but I'm not sure if our electrical grid is ready to handle it (and I disagree with them on the very last sentence in the quote above: I don't think any new coal plants should be built).
One interesting hybrid solution - for sunny parts of the world anyway - would to combine solar thermal and natural gas. On sunny days, a large array of mirrors heats up water (most of the time via molten salt), and the steam makes a turbine turn, generating electricity. But if you need power when its cloudy or at night, you can create steam using natural gas (or biogas/biomass, to keep it carbon neutral). This solves the intermittency problem.
More T. Boone Pickens
Pickens Plans For Texas Wind Farm Scaled Way Back
Pickens Plan a "Herculean effort that simply may not be achievable": Vaclav Smil
More Ted Turner
"Stop Doing Dumb Things!" Ted Turner on GM, CNN, at Columbia Climate Center Launch
Ted Turner Talking Solar on CNBC