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.

Solar Energy in Texas

“Surely some wiseacre is on record observing that there are two things Texas has plenty of: hot air and hot sun.” (Ronnie Crocker, Houston Chronicle, November 6)

Future
Creative Commons License photo credit: nosha

Texas has led the nation in electricity from wind production for the past 4 years. Now we have another bright idea. Duke Energy’s Blue Wing Solar Array has started turning the sun’s radiation into electricity for residents of San Antonio. The new solar power generator is rated at 14.4 megawatts (14,400 kilowatts).

There are more solar power generation stations in store for Texas. RRE Austin Solar has plans for one outside of Pflugerville.

Currently California leads the nation in solar electricity production, but with the new Blue Wing plant Texas might have been propelled into the top ten solar electricity producing states. As a proud Texan, I have little doubt that in the years to come, we will slowly overtake California and become number one in solar.

With all that bright sun deep in the heart of Texas, why hasn’t Texas taken advantage of solar yet?

Well, there are a couple reasons, mostly economic.

Port of San Diego's Green Port Program
Creative Commons License photo credit: Port of San Diego

Electricity generated from solar power costs far more then the same electricity generated by any of the fossil fuels. Making a solar cell is highly dependent on refined silicon. Refined silicon is used to make semiconductors and therefore it is in high demand in a number of industries, which include solar cells and computers. There are tax incentives, both federal and state, that can bring the price down, but it has to bring it down enough so it can compete with fossil and nuclear fuels.

There are concerns that an attempt to bring in solar generated electricity would cause the amount you pay for electricity to rise.

“We have concerns with energy projects that are based on government mandates and are ultimately funded by captive ratepayers,” executive director Luke Bellsnyder said in a statement. “Projects that are only financially possible because the costs will be passed on to customers — through above-market rates – are not a good deal for consumers and businesses.” (Crocker)

Even with the all the new Texas solar projects coming online, the state will still be mostly dependent on fuels such as coal. Texas uses 84,000 megawatts of electricity. All the new solar projects would bring the amount of solar produced electricity to 194 megawatts, or .2%. In contrast, wind generates 9,300 megawatts of electricity for Texas (11%).

California has 724 megawatts of solar generated electricity already installed. California has received a large amount of money from the federal government to help build a new solar plant that would be capable of generating 1,000 megawatts of electricity.

So what should we do?

In this case we can afford to wait. Every year the cost of the solar panels decreases, the efficiency of those same panels increases, and more and more people want their electricity to be generated from solar power.

Does that mean we should do nothing while we wait? May it never be! The very first thing to do is to educate ourselves about solar energy. I recommend reading the wonderful blogs on this site that are about solar energy. They have a plethora of profitable links. The next thing is to check your local library for information and your city for local projects. You might also want to take a drive out on I37 and take a look at the new Blue Wing array near San Antonio.

After that, have some fun experimenting with solar. I built a small 1 ft squared solar car using a motor, 4 wheels, plywood, and a solar cell. What can you do?

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.

Here Comes the Sun

I had the chance to go talk with a wonderful and smart bunch of 5th graders at Oran M. Roberts Elementary School about solar energy. I have been interested in solar energy for over two decades now. It started as a cub scout; we built small solar powered cars, which were made from a 1 foot square piece of plywood with four wheels and a small motor attached to a small solar cell. It only worked in clear and direct sunlight and went very slowly, but solar power has improved a lot over the last 20 years!

So what is solar energy? It’s everything - all energy comes from the sun or other stars. Fossil fuels come from microorganisms that used the sun for energy and now we use the solar energy they stored. Wind comes from the sun. The sun heats part of the earth, creating the wind.

Solar energy even helped create the heat at the core of the Earth. After the death of a few stars, the Solar System started to form. The planetary nebula helped create a little blue green planet with an iron nickel liquid core. That core and its rotation create what we know as geothermal power.

People have been using solar power for years without even realizing it. Every time you turn off the light in a room and use the natural light coming into the room to read, you’re using solar power. When you go out in the sun to get warm, that’s solar power too.

But the type of power we’re going to talk about is the type used to make electricity, whether directly (such as photovoltaic cells) or indirectly (solar thermal arrays).

To put it all in perspective:

daniel graph 1

The graphs above show the energy use in the USA in 2008.

Coal, natural gas, nuclear and renewable energy are mostly used for electricity.

Petroleum is used mostly for transportation. Renewable energy only make up 7% of our energy and solar energy only 1% of that.

daniel graph 2

Solar power is mostly used for residential and commercial power and not for transportation or large-scale electrical generation.

daniel graph 3

Over the next 20 years, solar is projected to grow.

What are the advantages of solar energy?  Well after you get the solar cells installed, you don’t have to pay for the energy. Also, collecting solar power produces no pollution. You can put solar cells on nearly everything, and it can work anywhere there is sunlight, which can be great if it is somewhere far off the grid, or you don’t want to spend the resources to attach it to the grid.

However there are some disadvantages to solar. The largest one is that solar power is dependent on the sun. This means that solar panels cannot generate electricity when it is dark. That’s 12 hours or so a day that the solar panels can’t work. Weather also effects solar power. It may not work if it’s cloudy or rainy outside. Also, the land cost for large solar power generation stations are large. Solar 2, a large scale solar thermal power station out in the Mojave Desert, used 891,000 ft² of land to produce up to 10 megawatts of power.

Currently electricity produced by solar plants is more expensive than most other sources.

Types of solar collectors:

Concentrated (Dish) solar – the panels are made into a parabolic shape to concentrate the light collected into a sensor.

Flat Photovoltaic cells – these are what most people think about when they think of solar power. These cells are what you usually see connected to street signs or on top of buildings. They use their surface area to collect light instead of concentrating it into one sensor.

Stay tuned next week for when I reveal the exciting Q and A from the students at Oran Roberts. I’ll tackle such questions as “Does solar power work on other planets?” and “What countries outside the USA use solar power?”

So be here next week,  same bat time; same bat channel.