Kyoto – A Perspective (Part 49)

Posted on Sun 07/06/2008 by



Okay, we’ve established that the largest emission of CO2 comes from those coal fired power plants. Here in the US, we are the most technologically advanced Country on the Planet. Surely then, we can find ways to replace those plants with methods that don’t emit as much CO2.

Hatfield’s Ferry Power Plant, Masontown, PA. Image courtesy Allegheny Energy. Click on image to open in a larger window.

Look very carefully at this image, and I’ll explain how you are being unintentionally misled. Photographs like these are shown to you to emotively express the depth of the pollution pouring into the environment from those power plants.

Coal is burned in a furnace. This boils water and turns it to steam. The steam drives a multi stage turbine. The turbine drives a generator, and the generator produces the electricity. Those generators are huge, weighing hundreds of tons and produce huge amounts of electricity. It’s no good trying to make the point that they are releasing pollution into the environment if they show you a static photograph of the plant in normal operation, so they show an image with white stuff pouring into the air from those big fat stacks. Those photographs are usually taken in cool weather because that’s when you best see the white stuff pouring out. That white stuff is water vapour. Those fat stacks you see are the cooling towers placed over the ponds where the water cools after the steam process driving the turbines recycles that water. This is not Carbon Dioxide (CO2) the greenhouse gas, but harmless water.
To the right of those cooling towers there you see the coal, which in this case, looks to be brought up the river on barges, but in most case comes to the plant by rail.
A plant this size could use up to 10,000 tons of coal each day, and some use a lot more. Some plants can use up to 6.5 Million tons of coal per year. Just below the ‘fat’ stack in the foreground, you can see the conveyor belt continuously feeding coal into the furnace. This plant has three large generators. The two ‘thin’ stacks are the actual chimneys where the gases come out, and you can just make out the darker coloured smoke coming from them. When the media show power plants they show emotive images of that white stuff pouring out, they don’t do that on purpose. They just need an image to get their point across. No matter what type of plant they show you, the abiding memory is of these huge stacks belching white stuff. Why they have these ‘fat’ stacks is to direct the vapour upwards so it doesn’t just hang around the main area of the plant. These are vast cooling ponds where the water waits to be recycled back into the boilers to drive the turbines.

Night Skyline New York. Image Siddharth Kapur. Click on image to open in a larger window.

This second emotive image is of the New York Skyline. Again, a night time image like this is also used to unintentionally mislead you. You look at that and think just how much power could be saved if only some of those lights were turned off. Those lights you see there make up only 5% of the power needed to run those buildings. The large percentage of power use in those buildings is needed to keep the air in those buildings at a level that is comfortable for the people working in them. That conditioned air just cannot be turned off at all. It’s not to keep it warm in Winter and cool in the Summer months. It has to be continually left on to keep breathable air circulating in those buildings. It cannot be turned off overnight and then back on the next morning. People work in those buildings at night, the vast army of cleaners, power is also needed to pump water up to each and every floor for the toilets, the water that people drink. Every room on every floor also has to have power supplied for work stations. Power is needed to drive the elevators. The lights in the main also have to be left running for safety purposes. So when you see an image like this, as emotive as it looks the power to those buildings just cannot be turned off at night and then back on the next morning. The power needs to be kept up to those buildings continuously. Not just in New York, but in every city, every workplace, every shopping outlet, every street. The commercial and Industrial sectors consume 62% of the total electric power produced in the US. That power has to be there, constant, regulated, reliable, power.


Large generators like the ones you see at the plant in that first image are what supply that baseload power. Those large generators run at near maximum for 24 hours of every day, in most cases for 50 to 60 years.

When people rise in the morning, they turn on all the things that they need to get their breakfasts, to shower, get ready for work. The same occurs when you get home from work in the evenings. You run up the heating, the aircon, the TV, the washing machine and dryer.
These two daily spikes are added on top of that set required power (Baseload) and they are called Peaking power.
Smaller generators all across the Country run up to add extra power to that set level to cover the requirements for those spikes. After the spikes they just run back down. This is something that just cannot be done with those large baseload plants because of the immense weight of the generators, and if they were allowed to run down, that weight would bend the shaft making the whole turbine/generator useless. That is why they run continuously, to supply that baseload power. Those smaller generators can be run up and down to add the peaking power when needed.

Large baseload plants are in three categories. Coal fired plants. Nuclear plants, and hydro electric plants. The first two use steam, boiled from the burning of coal, or boiled by the heat generated by the nuclear reaction. With hydro plants, the water from the huge dam drives the turbine.

Smaller ‘peaking power’ plants are gas turbines that use a variety of the gases. Some use liquid fuels. Others are powered by other means, some from wave power, some from geothermal power, some from wind power, and some from solar power.
These smaller plants CANNOT be used to supply baseload power. All they can do is to augment that.

With respect to those using the wind and solar methods, because of their variability, they are unsuitable for use as baseload power, and no matter what ardent environmentalists might like to tell you, they cannot be used for that baseload power. You could cover every vacant piece of land in New York State with solar panels and wind turbines, and still not be able to supply a constant regulated supply to keep that New York Skyline in electrical power.

So, now that we’ve established the need for baseload power, then what are the implications when the Kyoto Protocol is brought into the equation.
It calls for reduction of CO2 emissions back to a level 5% lower than what was being emitted in 1990. Since that time, the US is shown to have increased emissions by a factor in the vicinity of 28%. That means right now, there needs to be a reduction of emissions of around 33%, one third. That’s across the board, every sector, power generation included. Currently the US produces power from coal fired means for just under 50% of the total production. (Keep in mind the World average is almost half as much again, sitting on 72%.) If a one third reduction is to be achieved, then that means one third of 50% or around 15% of the total electric power production in the US.
An understanding of US power usage shows that 62% is used in the Commercial and Industrial sectors, basically, those places of work for the US. 38% is used in the Residential sector.
A simple observation here is that removing that amount of power would lead to unemployment on a huge scale, and the result of that would mean widespread chaos, something not to be contemplated. Admitted, this is worst case scenario I know, and I’m not advocating that, because replacements will be found. (The glass half full principle applies here.)

So, what is needed is two things.
The first is methods of power generation to replace those coal fired plants, and the second is the time to actually construct them and to bring them on line.

Now, the full import of the dilemma is being realised. Mainstream media will preface their media bites showing morning rush hour on the freeways, steel mills belching smoke, and maybe a cooling tower pouring water vapor into the atmosphere.

Until real understanding of the situation is explained to us, then those real implications will not sink in.

This is something that will have an effect upon every single person in the US, and no one is telling us, not out of wilful neglect, but because those who will be the ones to actually tell us, those politicians, and then the branches of the media, (once the realisation hits) just don’t actually realise what these implications are, and what they mean.

I’m going to run with the next post tomorrow morning, and in that we’ll see if those coal fired plants can be effectively replaced.