Does the Bow power plant really emit more CO2 in an hour than I do in 25 years?

  • A climate activist removes coal from a burn pile at Merrimack Station in Bow in August.

Granite Geek
Published: 9/17/2019 9:35:22 AM

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Years of reporting have made me dubious, to say the least, about claims made by activists and protesters, people whose enthusiasm can overwhelm their judgment. I learned long ago not to take them at face value.

So when the folks protesting the Merrimack Station power plant in Bow made the surprising claim that the plant produces as much carbon emissions in one hour as a normal American does in a quarter-century, I grabbed my patented Debunk-o-Calculator. “We’ll just see about that,” I said!

Before we crunch numbers, however, a question: Why does this matter?

That question brings up a serious point (and boy, do I hate being serious in this column): When seeking solutions to wide-ranging problems like climate change, I have come to realize that individual action is not only insufficient but can be an actual obstacle to tackling the issue.

This, I have to admit, is a painful realization for a guy who has jabbered “think globally, act locally” his entire adult life. Acting locally ain’t going to cut it, folks and harping on it can be a distraction that keeps us from the global action that is actually needed.

The recycling debacle opened my eyes. For decades I have written about, and practiced, the mantra of personal recycling and roadside cleanups and educational programs and all the rest, because “every little bit helps.”

But China’s decision to stop being our dumping ground showed me what a farce this was. Up to a quarter of the material I thought was being magically recycled was actually being burned or dumped in open pits in China, or even tossed overboard from container ships mid-Pacific. Even worse, as millions of people like me acted as unpaid or taxpayer-supported cleanup teams, the amount of stuff being produced and sold, particularly the growing variety of won’t-degrade-within-human-lifetime plastics, kept going up and up, overwhelming any possibility of solving the problem.

Yet I never talked about that. I was too busy talking about personal responsibility and moving plastic bottles from the trash can to the recycling bin. I allowed myself to be distracted.

Despite decades of recycling education and advocacy, there are somewhere between 15 and 51 trillion – trillion! – pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans, and microscopic bits of this petroleum-derived supermaterial can be found polluting the bottom of the Mariana Trench and floating in the air above mountain chains.

Neighborhood volunteering can’t even begin to make a dent in a problem that size. It requires action at the societal level, which means (yuck) regulation and (yuck) legal action and (yuck, yuck, yuck) political activism.

And that is why I’m doing the calculations. If the protestors’ claim about our biggest coal-fired power plant is true, it shows that personal action against climate change is kind of irrelevant. I could live in a solar-powered yurt, travel exclusively by tricycle and eat only invasive weeds, yet a rounding error in power production at Bow would overwhelm everything I’ve accomplished in terms of limiting carbon production.

OK, now for the numbers.

At my request, climate activist Tim DeChristopher showed me his calculations. Most numbers come from the federal Energy Information Agency at

He took the plant’s production multiplied times the heat rate times the CO2 production per heat rate to estimate how much carbon was emitted per hour at peak production (440 megawatts). Then compared it to federal estimates per capita of carbon emissions for Americans.

For the Bow plant that works out to 440,000 Kwh times 10,043 Btu/Kwh, times 93.3 kg CO2/1,000,000 Btu, which equals 412,285 kg CO2 per hour.

Compare that number of CO2 per hour (412,285) to the national average of 16,100 kg of CO2 per person per year and the Debunk-o-calculator says: 25.6.

I’ll be darned: It’s not baloney, after all.

DeChristopher pointed out that taking an alternate route, using annual energy output and emissions for each power plant, produces a per-hour equivalency of more than 30 years.

There are plenty of places to disagree with these calculations, which depend on sweeping averages rather than the individual cases. I mean, the whole concept of “average emissions from an average American” is kind of ridiculous.

But poking holes in individual numbers doesn’t overturn the general point about orders of magnitude. Personal action is helpful and useful and I’m going to keep doing it – but it won’t begin to solve this problem. So don’t let ‘think locally’ be an obstacle to tackling the less fun, messier, more-likely-to-piss-somebody-off job of ‘act globally.’

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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