Anticipate Industry’s Aid with Global Warming

A friend avoids anything with General Electric’s name on it because he thinks the company is environmentally unfriendly. When our younger son was considering working for GE I tried to persuade Bryan to look elsewhere. Now it appears that GE may actually be wearing a white hat!
The world’s corporations have driven the industrial revolution and economic growth. Without capitalism we might still be back in the dark ages, burning very little fossil fuels. We would still be traveling by horse and buggy, heating with wood and reading by firelight. Not a comfortable thought!

It is shocking to think that the coal and petroleum that we rely on are causing climate change on an enormous scale. Our temperate world with good growing conditions may heat up and dry out. According to some, our home will be transformed into a desert within this century. Certainly we cannot succeed in stopping global climate change without stopping our population growth.
Shortly after Bryan started working for GE he told us about their “Ecomagination” program. We were dubious at first, thinking that this program was probably just “greenwashing”—marketing by an industry that is environmentally unfriendly.
There is strong evidence that GE’s program is serious, however. In 2005 the Ecomagination program had $10 billion in sales. This includes household products such as my favorite energy saver, compact fluorescent bulbs. GE also makes power-saving refrigerators and clothes washers. Their larger ticket items include green electricity generating windmills and solar panels.
Energy saving procedures at GE kept a quarter million tons of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere in 2005. The company’s objective is to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 % by 2008—a reduction that is much more stringent than the Kyoto protocol. These are significant achievements and goals.
GE has become aware of the importance of environmentally friendly products. It has realized that it can make money from being “green”. I am also sure that it is preparing for the future when companies that emit excessive greenhouse gases, or make products that do, will be penalized.
Xcel Energy is another company that is turning green. Xcel supplies electricity to over three million customers in eight states, including parts of Colorado. Fifteen percent of their generation is greenhouse gas free; it comes from nuclear reactors, hydro, wind and refuse. But they generate the majority of their power with coal. Not only do coal fired power plants release untold tons of carbon dioxide, but they are responsible for spreading other poisons, including mercury.
Xcel is taking two commendable actions. The first is planning a unique coal fired power plant. Most power plants shove CO2 plus toxics such as mercury, particulates and sulfur dioxide up smokestacks into the air we breathe. Legislation has forced power plants to include scrubbers that remove some of these toxics. Other laws would have required additional measures to remove mercury. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has deferred these rules.

Xcel has committed money to design an Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) generating plant here in Colorado. Not only is this design very efficient, it also allows capture of CO2 before it is emitted into the atmosphere. A portion of the CO2 from this proposed plant will be sequestered—pumped underground into depleted oil wells. This will be the first IGCC plant at high altitude, and the first in the USA to capture carbon.

In 2007 Xcel will build the country’s largest solar power plant in the San Luis Valley. On a more personal level, Xcel will reimburse part of our own home’s photovoltaic system that has been generating electricity since May. Through their Renewable Energy Credit program, they are buying credit for the renewable energy that we produce, as required by Colorado Amendment 37. Harnessing the sun’s energy directly, rather than through fossil fuels, decreases greenhouse gas emissions.

Insurance is the latest industry to combat global warming. Because global warming increases the risks that insurance companies underwrite (such as the damage caused by Katrina), they are taking measures to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, several companies give incentives for ecofriendly cars and buildings by reducing insurance premiums.
It remains to be seen whether industry’s efforts will be sufficient to stave off global climate change. Those who believe this seem to think that improved technology will allow people in developed countries to continue our profligate lifestyle. I find it difficult to believe that the same attitude that is causing global climate change will also save us from global calamity.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2006

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Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States.