I just finished reading Alexandra von Meier’s book, Electric Power Systems: A Conceptual Introduction. It’s an overview of how the generation, transmission, and distribution system works, and how it’s worked for pretty much the whole history of the grid, stretching back to the end of the 19th century. More than anything I came away with an appreciation for the gloriously analog nature of the machine. We have a steampunk grid, a massive artifact of the Victorian era, hiding behind and powering our increasingly digital world. This isn’t an engineering textbook, but it’s not exactly meant for a popular audience either. There’s an ongoing stream of complex numbers, calculus references, vectors, matrices, and electromagnetic fields… and without some understanding of them, a lot of the core ideas in the book will probably not come across very well.
At the upstream edge of the grid, we have thousands of gigantic machines, spinning in almost perfect synchronization. Massive amounts of iron and copper, literally turned by steam. They’ve gotten bigger and hotter and more precise and efficient over time, but they’re fundamentally the same type of generation the grid grew up with a century ago.
At the downstream edge of the grid, in large part we have the same kind of machines… but running in reverse, taking the undulating waves of electricity, and turning them back into rotation, through an invisible, smoothly spinning force-field. It’s like magic, but it’s something we’ve all lived with our entire lives. It’s so normal we don’t think about it.
Between these spinning machines we have masses of iron and tightly wound copper stepping voltage up and down, mechanical switches that look like something out of Frankenstein, and very little in the way of instrumentation and automation — at least by present day standards. And with a few exceptions, the electricity really does flow from one edge of the grid to the other in a dendritic network.
Can we construct adversarial electricity portfolios made of new zero-carbon resources that undermine the profitability of specific existing fossil plants? Some version of this is already happening, but it’s incidental rather than targeted. The economics of existing coal and nuclear plants are being eroded by flat electricity demand in combination with cheap gas, wind, and solar. Economical storage and dispatchable demand aren’t far behind. But how much faster would the energy transition be if we actively optimized new energy resources to undermine the economics of existing fossil generation?
Building a new coal or gas plant is a wager that fuel will continue to be available at a reasonable price over the lifetime of the plant, a lifetime measured in decades. Unfortunately, nobody has a particularly good record with long term energy system predictions so this is a fairly risky bet, unless you can get somebody to sign a long term fuel contract with a known price. That doesn’t really get rid of the risk, it just shifts it onto your fuel supplier. They take on the risk that they won’t make as much money as they could have, if they’d been able to sell the fuel at (higher) market rates. If the consumer is worried about rising prices, and the producer is worried about falling prices, then sometimes this can be a mutually beneficial arrangement. This is called “hedging”.
Geothermal energy is the Earth’s own internal heat. It’s a huge potential resource, but so far it’s seen only very limited use. Traditional geothermal power can only work where there are naturally existing hydrothermal systems that bring the heat of the interior to the surface. A new technique called enhanced (or engineered) geothermal systems (EGS) may make geothermal power much more widely available. If it can be scaled up commercially, EGS will enable us to create hydrothermal systems anywhere there’s hot rock not too deeply buried — which includes a large swath of Colorado. This is potentially significant in the context of creating a zero-carbon electrical system because like hydroelectricity, and unlike wind and solar, geothermal power can be dispatchable: you can turn it on and off at will. This makes it a great complement to intermittent renewable power, as it can be used to fill in the gaps then the wind’s not blowing or the sun’s not shining. It remains to be seen whether it’s technically feasible, and if so at what price, and on what timeline, but it’s certainly worth investigating.
The NRDC has a plan that would allow the EPA to regulate GHG emissions from existing power plants, without either capitulating to the power sector, or banning coal outright immediately (which would be politically… uh, difficult). The trick is to use fleet-based target, as we do with vehicle emissions standards. The natural (regulatory) unit is the state, so each state could have its own carbon intensity targets or degression pathway, tailored to its initial generation mix. The carbon intensity would decline over time, eventually squeezing coal out of the mix, and could allow energy efficiency improvements to count toward the goal, at least initially. It really amounts to a kind of back-door cap-and-trade for the power sector, and it can be implemented by Obama, all on his lonesome, without any help from the intransigent congress. The hard part here will be setting stringent enough long term targets. 40% reduction by 2025? 90% reduction by 2050?
The Union of Concerned Scientists has gone through the catalog of America’s coal plants, and found hundreds of mostly small, old, polluting, inefficient generating units that just aren’t worth operating any more, even on a purely economic basis. They looked at several different sets of assumptions, including different natural gas prices going forward, a price on carbon, whether or not the competing natural gas fired generation would need to built new, or whether it existed already with its capital costs paid off, and whether or not the production tax credit for wind ends up being renewed. In all of the scenarios considered, they found substantial coal fired generation that should be shut down on purely economic grounds, above and beyond the 288 generating units that are already slated for retirement in the next few years. They also found that some companies — especially those in traditionally regulated monopoly utility markets in the Southeast — are particularly reluctant to retire uneconomic plants, perhaps because they can effectively pass on their costs to ratepayers, who remain none the wiser.
Union of Concerned Scientists gives an overview of how water is used in the generation of electricity. I came across this Op-Ed at the NYT that claimed more water is used for electricity than agriculture, and just could not believe it, but apparently if you look at surface water withdrawals, it’s true (power: 41%, ag: 37%). “Withdrawal” just means the water is taken from the river/lake/whatever. Usually most of it is put back (hotter), which means it can be used again for agriculture. In any case, the Texas grid came very close to shutting down 10% of its generation in 2011 because of the drought, right as it was experiencing its highest ever loads. Yet another fun climate-energy feedback.
First each side got to make a 10 minute introductory statement or presentation, followed by a series of pre-submitted questions, posed by the moderator. Finally, written questions from the audience were vetted by someone from Plan Boulder and passed on.
We can achieve rate parity with Xcel while reducing CO2 emissions by 67%, using natural gas and a 40% renewables mix, if we assume startup costs of $250M to $400M.
Coal and renewables simply can’t play well together on the same grid. The renewables get curtailed because coal fired power takes a long time to turn on and off.
Xcel’s business model, based on large existing investments in coal, can at most accommodate a 15% reduction in CO2 emissions.
David Miller was supportive of meeting our Climate Action Plan goals, but seemed unsure whether going after the emissions due to power generation was the best strategy, suggesting we might instead focus on demand side management, energy efficiency, and the use of RECs. As with the flyer circulated by his organization, most of the points he made focused on cultivating uncertainty. He was apparently choosing to ignore, or unwilling to accept the conclusions of the City’s consultants and the citizen modeling effort. Two points he made which I thought did warrant real concern:
About 75% of Boulder’s energy consumption is commercial/industrial, and that constituency isn’t directly represented in the voting public.
It is important that we not let the municipal utility’s revenues get entangled with the City’s general funding, as it sets up all kinds of poor incentives for the organization, and leads to an opaque city revenue scheme.
All in all Miller seemed earnest, but less informed than he ought to have been. Maybe that’s not his fault — based on the Plan Boulder flyer, it looks like Craig Eicher, Xcel’s community affairs manager for Boulder, was supposed to be sitting in his seat.
Bob Bellemare on the other hand seemed like a more practiced, more active disinformer, mostly trying to seed doubt in the minds of listeners. Among his recurring points:
Hardly anybody ever succeeds in this process. Maybe one city every decade nationwide.
Once you vote in November to begin, it will be very difficult to actually stop the process, regardless of what “off ramps” you’ve supposedly put in place. The only way it ever seems to happen is by voting in a new city council.
Your cost estimates are wildly wrong. It will be much more expensive, and take much longer than you think. You will probably lose money.
There’s no reason to think that your local monopoly (the municipal utility) will be any less monopolistic than Xcel.
The point about stopping the process often requiring the voting in of a new council seemed like a thinly veiled political threat.
Often the debate became one side asserting some number, and the other simply claiming it was wrong. Stranded costs, separation costs, fuel costs, interest rates, etc. At some point Bellemare claimed that Xcel was going to be shutting down half its coal plants, which got shocked and appalled looks from both Ken and Sam. Half? Really? Their counter claim was that generation was dropping from 2400MW to 2000MW of coal (a 1/6 reduction, not 1/2). When quantitative issues become he-said, she-said, all you can do is get someone to go look at the calculations or data. In this sense, I think the proponents of municipalization have a big advantage. Their models are all public. They’re willing to have you examine their assumptions and check their work. Xcel on the other hand has been very cagy with their data, and are unwilling to give detailed background on where their estimates are coming from (it took months just to get the city’s power consumption profile… and only happened after we’d gotten similar data from Ft. Collins). All you get the end result and a “Trust Us…” which unsurprisingly makes municipalization look like a lousy deal.
Some of the audience questions were actually quite good. Somebody requested that each debater disclose how much they were being paid (if anything) to participate, and by whom. Weaver and Regelson (and the Plan Boulder moderator) are volunteering their time without pay. Miller received a few hundred dollars from the Boulder Smart Energy Coalition. Bellemare is a paid consultant working for Xcel and “[his] financial arrangements are not a matter of public information.”
At some point near the end of the debate, it became clear that the proponents of municipalization were winning pretty unambiguously in terms of both information and eloquence, and they became a bit more aggressive. Miller claimed that obviously our rates would have to go up in a less carbon intensive scenario, as renewables are simply more expensive — just look at all the renewables assessments on our bills. Weaver took almost violent objection to this point, noting that wind is already the same price as coal, we just can’t take advantage of it with the coal fired grid we’ve got today because of the baseload/curtailment issue. He further noted that while solar is more expensive today, it’s dropped 40-50% in cost over the last 5 years to around $5.15 per installed watt, and if/when it gets to $2.75, it will be cheaper than grid power. At which point, he envisions an explosion of distributed generation, “behind the meter” i.e. outside of Xcel’s control, which he believes will prove disruptive to Xcel’s business model. It came off as being somewhere between a warning and a threat.
The final question, which came directly from the moderator, was on the larger consequences of the decisions being made, both for other communities watching the process, and for the future Boulder 10, 20 or even 50 years on. The proponents of municipalization clearly felt that we are attempting to set an example for others, of creating a scalable, replicable, financially and climatically responsible power system. One which a few decades hence they also expect Boulder ratepayers to be thankful for, due to much lower exposure to high and volatile fossil fuel prices.
Miller held out hope that we would find a “third way” to achieve our goals, also setting an example for other communities, though he didn’t lay out in any detail what such a third way would look like, and how it could work from within the confines of the Xcel energy system.
Bellemare felt that regardless of the outcome of the election it would have little effect more broadly. Every franchise agreement is different, state regulations are different, what you learn in one place doesn’t really transfer well to others. (Nobody’s watching. What you’re doing doesn’t really matter.) Should the ballot measure succeed, he expected 5 years of wrangling to get the utility set up, and another 5 years before we really figured out how to run it. Twenty or fifty years on? Well, who knows… If the ballot measure fails, he expects Xcel and Boulder to keep on working together as they have for years, continuing to build one of the nation’s best energy efficiency programs.
This inspired a pretty loud response from Ken… who noted that yes, we do have one of the best efficiency and renewables programs in the nation for an investor owned utility, but several municipal utilities do far better, Austin, TX and Sacramento, CA were mentioned as examples.
Based on their overall performance, it seemed pretty clear to me that the proponents of municipalization can win if they’re given a fair forum. It’s less clear to me how they will fare in the decidedly unfair landscape of full page newspaper ads, push polling, semi-anonymous glossy mailers, radio sound bites and yard signs. In those fora, money talks much louder than good information, and Xcel has a lot more money at their disposal than we do. We need to change that.
The US DoE set up the L-Prize, modeled after the X-Prize, for durable, high quality, low power lighting. Philips just won it, with a remote-phosphor LED bulb. Warm white light, 900 lumens bright, for less than 10 Watts. Now if only they can get someone other than Home Despot to carry them!