The Numbers Are In: Texas Power Consumption in 2010

People love award ceremonies.  There is something fun about seeing people all decked out in finery and regalia to receive awards of merit.  There are a few which are near and dear to my heart.  At my high school graduation, we walked proudly across the stage, accepted our diplomas, and secretly palmed off our marbles to our principal.  I haven’t lost my marbles; I know right where I left them.

My Eagle Scout ceremony was very nice with the bagpipes playing, a review of my scouting accomplishments, and a little roasting by the officials in my troop.  I skipped out on my college graduation, but I have happily attended those of my family and friends (you should know which ones you are).

We are quickly approaching the Academy Awards, and I’m looking forward to the lesser-known Raspberries.  We all like to see people of merit receive the appropriate honors for their accomplishments, whether in movies, scouts or education.

Well we have our own category to add.

Wayne National Forest Solar Panel Construction
Creative Commons License photo credit: Wayne National Forest

Congratulations! The numbers are in for electrical generation in Texas for 2010.

Everyone who was holding their breath may now let it out.  So who are the winners this year?

Total power generation went up by 3.5% last year.  In 2009, we produced 308,278 gigawatt hours and in 2010 it went up to 319,097 gigawatt hours.  Wind energy went up 1.6% from last year to account for nearly 8% of total power generation.  Never let it be said that we are running out of hot air in Texas! Coal went up by 8% in 2010.  Hydro generated power also went up in 2010.  All the other forms of power generation went done.  Nuclear dropped by 3.6%.  Natural gas was down by about 9 %.  And all the others (PV solar, Solar thermal, bio, etc) were down by 0.1%.

Wind turbine
Creative Commons License photo credit: alancleaver_2000

August 23, 2010 was the day Texans produced the most electricity (and used it as well).  January 8 was the winter high for electrical production. January 8 was also a very, very cold day.

But how will things look in 2011?

I’ll make a few predictions.  First the amount of electricity that Texas uses will go up.  In a state with an upward population curve the amount of electricity usually goes up unless something unusual happens (like an economic downturn). Over the next few years we should see an increase in the amount of electricity generated by the new solar plants. Wind energy will also go up, again because of all the hot air in Texas. Even with this increase in solar, coal will remain the dominate electrical source in Texas.  I hope that natural gas use would go up and cause coal use to go down, but it would take a large change in the price of coal and coal plants vs. natural gas and natural gas plants.

It will be fun to look back in 2012 and see if my energy predictions came true.

Get Smart : Meter or grid?

Throughout the years there have been many different versions of “smart” electronics. Movies are full of ‘evil’ and ‘good’ appliances, from Robbie the Robot to R2-D2. And even some that are just part of the background, like most of the robots in Star Wars and Wall-E. The energy industry has also started to toss around ‘smart’ terms. Not just things like Ohm’s law or Restricted-Universe Census, but smart meters and smart grids. So what are they? Are they the same or are they different? What does “smart” mean?

First of all, smart is not an indication of how well a meter or a grid does on an intelligence test, how many times they beat me at checkers, or how well they plot to overthrow humans and use us as batteries. It has to deal with how well they respond with real time stimuli. Can the system adjust in a real time fashion; can it be run correctly by automation?

A smart meter is like any other electrical meter. It reads how much electricity you use, in terms of Kilowatt hours. The information that the smart meter can give you is far more than a Thomas meter. A smart meter can tell you in real time how much electricity you are using at any given moment. It can also show you your electrical usage over time. You can see when you use the most electricity (probably right after you come home). Armed with that data you can make informed decisions, such as deciding if you want air-conditioning to come on when you get home at 5 p.m. or if you want to avoid peak hours and have the air-conditioning running from 4 – 5 p.m. But a smart grid is something completely different.

Kraftwerksneubau Neurath
Creative Commons License photo credit: Neuwieser

Even though the electrical grid has been growing for over 100 years , it has yet to become smart. The current grid is set for a “use it or loose it” grid. That means that the grid should always have enough electricity to power everything that is currently on it. This creates two types of electrical generation. One is base load and the other is peak load. Base load is what is always on the grid. This is mostly created using coal fired power plants. A Coal fired plant takes a lot of energy to start up, but once you get it going it is easy to keep it going. Because of that coal fired plants are always burning coal. So when you’re at work and the refrigerator is still on, it’s part of the base load. Most of the time the base load handles all our electricity needs. However if there is a large spike of electrical usage, such as the one around 5 p.m. when most people get off of work, the base load is not enough. This is when they can bring on fast startup plants, usually using natural gas as the fuel, and supply the electricity during peak times.

The current grid is rigged for redundancy. The current electrical grid has grown up to offer multiple paths for electricity. This means that if one area of the grid goes down, the electricity can be maneuvered around the broken part. What that means in practice is that just because an area near you looses power, your power may not be interrupted.

Why would a smart grid be better? For our current grid we use mostly large scale power generation plants, but the smart grid would easily incorporate lots of small residential power generators like small solar panels on roofs and small wind turbines. The small solar panel and wind turbines on the current grid are unable to provide all your electrical needs. Even though they take in electricity all day long, they only have available what they are taking in at the moment. If there were a way to store all the electricity that they take in during the day when you aren’t using electricity, then it would help with the electricity you need, especially during peak times. Also in a smart grid, if you had an excess of electricity you could sell it to a power company. You could even sell it directly to people who need the electricity. You would go from one who can only consume, to a producer, seller and consumer of electricity.

Arrays from the right
Creative Commons License photo credit: Mike Weston

How can a smart grid help us save money on our electric bills? Currently most electrical companies charge a single rate for electricity. That means that you pay a constant price for a kilowatt hour. The real cost of electricity is always in flux. The price has to do with what time of day it is, what season, what it was priced at yesterday, which power plants are down for maintenance, which ones have been reopened, the weather and many other variables. A smart grid would allow us to purchase electricity in real time. What if power plant B is selling electricity cheaper than power plant B at 3 a.m.? What if power plant A sells cheaper electricity at 2 p.m. than it does at 5 p.m.? Which one would you like to buy electricity from? When would you buy your electricity if you could store it? It gets even more exciting by adding smart appliances. What if you could tell you dishwasher to only wash dishes during the night if the cost of a kilowatt hour fell to a certain price? What if your water heater could find you a better price for the electricity used to heat water for your morning shower?

So is it green? What do we mean by green, it looks like cooper to me. The real question is how can this help save the environment and money (or if you’re more cynical, money and the environment). A smart grid would have the ability to allow small scale renewables to have a larger effect. In a system where a lot of electrical production would be done on residential or small communal solar cells, wind farms, tidal farms, or back yard geothermal plants, the need for large scale power plants would diminish. Large scale power plants will never be done away with. Mother Nature is far too capricious for that.

electric car charging point
Creative Commons License photo credit: frankh

Why do we need to change the grid if it works? The electrical needs for the country are expected to grow 30 % over the next 25 years. That prediction is counting on nothing new happening. What happens if we all switch to the electric cars during that time? Gasoline prices would drop, but electrical prices would rise, because electricity would replace gasoline as the fuel of choice. Right now that would mean building more and more coal plants.

On a smart grid, with most households having some small renewable power generation, the rise in electrical need may not lead to the building of more coal fired power plants.

So how long will this take? So far it has taken over 100 years to get to where we are today. When electricity first started being used most power plants where small and only provided enough electricity for a few buildings. Over time it became cheaper and more reasonable to have power generation on a larger scale. While this would not require us to reinvent the electrical grid, it would mean upgrading all of it. And all that would take more then four years.

It’s ice, ice baby?

I recently came across an article with the title of combustible ice, also called “fire ice.” I realize that anything can be made to combust.  I never thought of ice doing that.  My next thought was that ice might mean something else than frozen water.  Diamonds are referred to as ice because of their ability to transfer heat. The United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can be a hot topic in some quarters.  Snow Crash has linked frozen water with the mes collected by Enlil.  As you can see I was very curious about the article.

It turns out the ice referenced in this particular article is hydrocarbons frozen in ice crystals.  It is natural gas (mostly methane) that has been trapped in the crystalline structure of water as it froze.  We can easily imagine the liquid methane atmosphere of Neptune or methane sheets and snow on Makemake (a newly discovered plutoid in the Kuiper Belt) and Eris, but it is not something we think about on earth. 

Methane needs to be below -297 degrees Fahrenheit for it to become solid, but because it is inside the ice, the “fire ice” can remain stable at much higher temperatures (around 29 degrees Fahrenheit).  Methane is in the atmosphere of all the gas giants in our solar system and might be found in ice form on the dwarf planets like Pluto (we’ll have to wait for the New Horizon’s fly by in 2015.  None of the extrasolar planets seem to have methane in their atmosphere (although HD 209458 b might have water vapor in its atmosphere).

The “fire ice” on Earth usually forms deep under the surface of the oceans – down hundreds of meters into the dark depth.  That’s not the only place on the Earth where it is. China has reported that it has found this “fire ice” in Qinghai Province. 

Methane hydrates have been known since the 1960’s, but they have not been in the news much.  You might ask why.  The early known methane hydrates despots were deep on the ocean floor and mining for them was too expensive for what they could sell the methane for.  With the current rise in the cost of fuel, the “fire ice” is looking more attractive.  Japan plans to have a full scale mining operation up and running by 2016 and China is putting aside nearly a billion dollars on research of mining and using “fire ice”.

So how does “fire ice” differ from the run of the mill natural gas?  Well, they don’t.  Hydrates are routinely formed during the refining process.  The hydrates can cause damage to the pipelines by blocking the flow.  Ethylene glycol (antifreeze) can be used to stop the hydrates from forming. 

Since methane hydrates are a form of natural gas, why are methane hydrates important?  One reason is that it is natural gas.  Natural gas is used primary in electrical generation in the US.  Natural gas burns cleaner then coal or petroleum.  Another reason the “fire ice” can be important is in transportation.  To ship natural gas around the world, it is common to change it from a gaseous form to a liquid.  This, very logically, is called liquefied natural gas.  It takes a lot of energy to cool the gas down to – 256 degrees Fahrenheit.  The “fire ice” remains stable at much higher temperatures, -4 degrees Fahrenheit.    

“Fire ice” might be cheaper to transport, but it will not be a “silver bullet” that solves all our energy needs.  For that there is no single, easy answer.

Christmas in March? I Want Coal Year Around

“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” – Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol.

We all know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. We’ve all watched a Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and a few of us have seen Tokyo Godfathers. But as we start the count down to the seasons (yes, lots of people begin the count down to the next one as soon as the previous one is over and some of us have already begun our Christmas shopping), I am left wondering why “naughty” children get coal for Christmas.

After all coal is a useful thing.

The Sicilian tradition tracks back to pre-Christian Italy. There, La Befana, an old woman, would go around and leave light and fluffy candy for “nice” children and pieces of a dark candy or coal for the “naughty” ones (Note: Most of the history of the legend is shrouded in the mist of time. Other places such as Holland have also claimed to have begun the ritual).

Coal has many more uses than being given to “naughty” children. In America it is mostly used to create electricity. You may ask yourself, “how do they produce electricity with a darkly colored piece of rock?” Good Question!! Here is how.

 Anthracite Coal

Coal is a combustible sedimentary rock that is made from decayed plant matter that accumulated at the bottom of bodies of water, such as ponds or swamps. Coal takes millions of years to form, so while there will be a little more available in the future neither I nor my 10^2,000,000 grandchild will be able to use it (her name will be Carol, by the way).

There are four main types of coal. Anthracite coal is around 90% carbon. Of the coals, it burns the hottest, but only makes up about half of a percent of the coal used. Bituminous coal makes up 50% of the coal production in the United States and is used to turn turbines to make electricity. Sub-bituminous coal accounts for about 46% of coal production, but does not produce as much heat as Bituminous. Lignite is the youngest of the coal and holds the least carbon. There are other types of coal and coal related rocks. Graphite is a coal, but its ignition point is so high, it is rarely used as fuel. Coal and diamonds are both carbon products, but it would take a Superman to make coal into diamonds while you watch.

Coal has been used for 6,000 years. Its first use was as jewelry in China. The Romans used it as a heating source. Coal is best known as being the fuel supply for the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

Tagebau Garzweiler
Surface Coal Mine
Creative Commons License photo credit: Neuwieser

Coal is usually found underground. Most coal mines in the United States are surface mined. A surface mine is where you remove the surface and dig a large open air pit to get to a deposit - in this case coal.

In the present day, coal is mainly used to produce electricity. About 40% of the world’s electricity and 50% of the United States’ electricity come from coal.

How does coal produce electricity? The coal is burned for its heat. The heat is used to turn water into steam. The steam is used to turn a turbine, which produces the electricity.

So how efficient is coal at producing energy? A kilogram of coal produces about 2 kilowatt hours of electricity. It would take about 1 ton of coal to run a 100 watt light bulb for a year. (Natural Gas produces about 3.1 kilowatt hours per kilogram.)

It could make a light that yonder window breaks.

4th of July Party at Sara's and Steffen's Place
Creative Commons License photo credit: ReneS

Coal when burned emits a lot of undesirable emissions. 2000 pounds (1 ton that is used to keep a light bulb on for a year) of coal will produce about 5,720 pounds of carbon dioxide. Burning coal also produce sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide, both of which are harmful gases. Particulate matter, also know as fly ash, is left over as well.

So why would we use coal?

We use it here in America, because America has the largest coal reserves. It is somewhat easy to mine and does not require a lot of refining to make it a usable fuel. Also coal remains a cheap way to produce electricity.

America is no longer the largest user of coal. China surpassed America in coal consumption in 2008.

Over the years the coal industry has developed ways to capture the harmful gases. Scrubbers remove the sulfur before it can become sulfur dioxide and catalytic converters take out the nitrogen. The particulate matter is now collected and sold to different companies which include cement makers, embankment producers, and many others. They are also creating ways to capture and store the carbon dioxide before it enters the atmosphere. The captured carbon dioxide can be used for many different things including improved oil recovery and even conversion into fuel.

The use of coal in electricity production is projected to rise over time. It will rise mainly because the need for energy will rise. Energy consumption will continue to rise with population growth and industrial development.