Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Thoughts on Electrical Power

Last night I attended the monthly members' meeting of the Mid Atlantic Amateur Radio Club. Rather than a presentation on some radio-related topic, last night's speaker talked about how electrical power is generated in the Greater Philadelphia area. The presenter was member who's an employee of PECO Excelon.

Interestingly, a bit over 50% of our power in this area comes from nukes: Limerick, Peach Bottom, and Three Mile Island. Most of the rest comes from hydro (e.g., Conowingo Damn) and coal (e.g., Eddystone).

The nuclear plants are run to capacity most of the time. Their cost per kilowatt hour is the cheapest, and they are the cleanest. For example, Peach Bottom has been in operation for over 30 years and all of the spent fuel is still kept onsite. It's also extremely hard on nuclear plants to bring them back up to full power after being slowed. The coal plants, being the dirtiest, are spun down during off-peak hours.

Part of the presentation discussed deregulation in the power industry. A more accurate description would be reregulation. What's been deregulated has been the ability to open a power generation plant. Distribution of power and the price it sells at is still heavily regulated. The result of this is that although some other companies got into the power generation business the market is not allowed to go through its natural cycles due to the regulations covering how power is sold. So, the barriers to entry remain very, very high.

One tidbit caused me a bit of concern. During our most recent heatwave, PECO's reserve capacity fell to about 10%. I.e., peak usage hit about 8800 megawatts and there was only another 10% capacity to back it up in case it went higher. Fifteen percent is considered the comfort zone. Conserve all you want but society's power demands never drop, they only go up over time.

Natural gas fired plants aren't economically viable for picking up more of the load due to the spikes in natural gas prices over the past year or so. Same for oil. Wind isn't a real option in PA because it's just not that windy and it's very inefficient. Solar is so prohibitively expensive and inefficient that it's not worth considering. That leaves coal and nukes.

If Pennsylvania has one thing in abundance (besides crappy pro sports teams) it's coal. The downside to using coal is that it's dirty. There are designs on the drawing boards which employ coal gasification to extract the volatiles from coal before it's burned. The coal gas is then further processed to remove pollutants like sulfur -- which can be sold -- until what's finally burned is basically hydrogen. This sort of a plant is more a chemical processing facility with a power generation plant attached to it than a pure power plant. Still, it may be a way to wean us off some of the foreign oil we're so dependent upon.

Nuclear plants are clean and safe, rantings of enviroweenies to the contrary. Spent fuel can be safely stored onsite for a long time, as at Peach Bottom, or buried in Yucca Mountain. Or, as Jerry Pournelle has pointed out, the spent fuel can be disposed of by dropping it into a subduction zone where it can be returned to the Earth's crust. This is one area where France is getting it right, as is Japan.

There hasn't been a nuclear plant built in the USA in 30 years, largely due to all the bureaucratic red tape imposed by the Feds. Plenty of nukes are being built in France, Japan, Finland, and other countries, however. Apparently, some power companies have gotten together with the intention of pooling their resources to build new nuclear plants.

My concern is that since it takes anywhere from six to ten years from the inception of a plan to build a power plant until it starts generating, we may see power shortages spread beyond California to other parts of the country before they are online. There are some things you can do in your home in the meantime to help you get past brownouts or blackouts:

  1. Better insulate your house.
  2. Replace drafty windows with modern two or three pane windows.
  3. Replace incandescent lights with compact flourescent bulbs.
  4. Install an attic fan and/or ridge vent if you live in an area where it gets hot in the summer.
  5. Get a secondary heat source in case outages occur during cold weather. E.g., a wood stove or a kerosene heater.
  6. If you have things that must be kept refrigerated, invest in a generator and/or backup batteries that can get you through a blackout.
  7. Place household electronics on line conditioners or better yet, uninterruptable power supplies.
  8. If you have a two way radio for emergency communications, get some kind of alternate power system (solar, batteries, genset, etc.) for when the power goes out.
Doing 1 - 4 will start saving you money now. At our home we've done 2 and 4, and made progress on 1, 3 and 7. I don't currently have anywhere to store a generator so that's going to have to wait. I'm currently looking into different options for number 8.

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