Kyoto – A Perspective (Part 50)

Posted on Mon 07/07/2008 by



Are there options to replace those coal fired power plants?
Are they viable?
Are they affordable?

A cutback of one third of those coal fired plants means replacing fifty plants in the large baseload area, fifty plants of 2000MW size, and if it is to be considered seriously, then those mid sized peaking plants that are coal fired as well need to be replaced, because a 15% cutback in the total production of electrical power in the US amounts to around 150,000MW of power that need to be replaced.
In earlier posts I detailed each of those proposed replacements. A quick summarising shows that the answer is not a simple one easily come by.

Gas fired combined cycle power plants.
These can be used for medium sized plants for up to 1000MW maximum, but mostly are around 400 to 800MW. The nature of this type of plant make them unsuitable for long term running, so that puts them in the class of Peaking power. Currently, these type of plants are the ones that are being constructed more than any others because they are the quickest to come on line from the time of turning the first sod to completion date. They still use a fossil fuel to drive the turbine, and there are numerous gases that can be used, Propane, LNG, and of late, the newer and seemingly quite attractive Coal Seam Gas. These gases burn efficiently. They are also the most efficient because the heat generated from the exhaust of the turbine is used to drive a second turbine/generator unit. They release significantly less CO2 that those coal fired plants. The drawback is that because of the nature of the jet turbine, they cannot be used for constant baseload power. The cost for a medium sized plant in ballpark terms is around $800 Million, and can be brought on line in around 18 months.

Geothermal Plants.
These plants could be used for baseload power. Provided that the technology can be proven, they provide a good option. What is problematic is the instability of the geological formation and whether or not it can be proven to stay hot enough for long enough for the time needed for a plant of this type to remain in service. The main problem is that unlike other plants that can be built close to water, with these plants, the water needs to be brought to the plant, and brought there in large quantities, hence huge infrastructure costs for the pipes and the numerous large pumps required to move that water. Then the infrastructure for the transmission lines will also need to be constructed adding further to the cost. Even though viable at a pinch, they would be enormously expensive, so funding would be required from Government sources as well as private backing added to the Authority funding, all these costs of necessity being passed to the consumer.

Tidal power and Wave power.
Again, the theory is good. Using the motion of water to drive turbines is a process proven in the two methods of existing large and small scale Hydro power production (Run of river, and pumped storage) that of using the motion of water to drive turbines. However these two processes are only in their infancy, and are only being used in very small scale operation. If the process could be scaled up, the time line would be similar for what Hydro is, with a dam, and it would also be enormously expensive.

These are the smaller options, There are other ‘boutique’ processes, but in the main they are still experimental, small scale, not yet proven as reliable and still decades away from supplying small scale power only.
That then leaves us with the big three that are being touted as the saviour in this situation, the ones that people point at and say that here is the answer. The fact is somewhat different, keeping in mind that even I am a ‘glass half full’ type of guy. Each of these three processes has drawbacks, and those drawbacks are not simple things that we can just work out as we go along.

Wind Power.
Environmentalist would have you believe that this is a major part of the solution. I’m not knocking them but they know the environment ….. intimately, so that is their field of strength, and not the production of electrical power. The inherent problem here is the variability of the wind. To get around that they need to be placed in high wind areas, which sort of defeats the purpose somewhat. Then, each of those huge towers and rotating blades are very, very, big, and only produce around 3MW to 5MW for each structure, so you would need literally hundreds of them. Because of the variability of the wind, they cannot be used for stable baseload power, so are best used in peaking power applications. Keep in mind that if it is to be used to replace one large 2000MW, then you will need 400 to 600 of them, and because they are at best only 30% efficient, you’re looking at multiplying that number by three. What then becomes problematic is the area those towers need to cover, the time for manufacture of the towers and the nacelles with the generators in them, the infrastructure to get that power to the consumers, and the time need to actually construct all of that. The principle of Wind power is a good one, but they will only ever be used for small scale power production for peaking power.

Solar Power.
There are two versions of this solar power, photovoltaics which use the light shining onto solar panels to generate tiny amounts of electricity with hundreds of these tiny cells per panel, and then connecting thousands of those panels together, and the second being solar thermal using the sun shining on mirrors to heat water to steam etc.
This is looked to as the light on the horizon, literally, but again is still variable at best. As soon as a cloud scuds across the face of the Sun, output power shrinks by almost a third and then takes time to work back up. Long periods of cloud deplete considerably the power output. Also, because there is no way to store the electricity, the power is zero during the night time.
The talk of covering vast areas of hot sunny places with mirrors to produce the power is ludicrous. You’re talking of literally millions of mirrors, for not that much in the way of power. The thermal part of the equation has potential using water to boil salt, that salt staying hot during the night boiling water to steam etc, but again the technology is also still in its infancy. As is plainly obvious from this short explanation, the time taken to actually construct the delicately designed mirrors and the solar panels is not a short term thing. Also, the cost of this process is horrendously expensive, and if constructed on large scales would have to be passed on to consumers in the way of higher power bills, and considerably higher.
Solar power again is not the answer for a large scale problem as this is. This process will be used for small scale peaking power plants to augment the power grid in times of most need. The solar thermal option as I mentioned has potential, but again, is enormously expensive when you’re talking of large scale implementation.

Carbon Capture and Storage. The Clean Coal Option.
This is the much touted answer. We get to keep the coal fired baseload plants, because all we have to do is to extract the carbon from the superheated exhaust going up those (thin) stacks. Then we just extract the CO2 part of that exhaust. Then we cool it and liquify that CO2. Then we pump it through hundreds and thousands of miles of pipes with pumps every so often to keep the pressure up. Then we store it onsite. Then we pump it back into the ground to store it between layers of rock for all time. What you need to keep in mind here is that we are talking of millions of tons of CO2,each and every year into the future. As you were reading those previous few sentences, my guess is that the enormity of the situation might have come to you. This is not an easy process, and is not in fact an inexpensive option either.
No, this is enormously expensive. It also is yet to be proven. Solar power, wind power, geothermal, power production from gas, all these options have many plants all over the Planet.
Not one plant of this type is in operation anywhere, not even as an experiment. Sectors of the process are being worked on with small scales, but this option is still only theoretical. The underground areas where the liquid CO2 will be stored haven’t even been found yet, other than being told we can use existing depleted oil fields. At best, and if the processes theory can be proved at all, it cannot be brought into mass usage on a scale needed before 2035 at the absolute earliest.
Why this option is being pursued at all is that the burning of coal on the scale used for power production consumes more than ONE BILLION TONS OF COAL EACH AND EVERY YEAR. Coal currently sells at $150 per ton, so a one third reduction in coal usage is a financial hit that coal mining companies just cannot take. That is what is driving this option, and you’ll hear a lot of it in coming times from politicians who are from those coal mining States, because those States also receive royalties from the mining of coal in their State.

The realisation is slowly sinking in that huge coal fired baseload power in the capacity around 2000MW cannot be simply replaced. There are no hard and fast large scale options that can be used for this purpose.
At the moment in the US, you are actually driving the rest of the World. Each individual process is being developed in other Countries, but in the US you are finding ways to replace power on the scale required. The US uses coal for 50% of its total, while the rest of the Planet’s average is close on 75% The US is moving away from using coal fired plants. The rest of the World is ramping up their construction.
The US is producing 3.5% of its total power from those alternative sources and that percentage is rising each month as evidenced from the monthly pie charts from the EIA, the rest of the World produces less than 1% of its power from alternative sources, and that is shrinking.
Options need to be found, and the best thing is also looked upon as the worst thing.
Because time is needed to actually construct these replacements.

There is an individual process that can be used to assist in this replacement process, one that is an older type, so it tends to be overlooked. That process is Combined heating and Power, and can be used in the commercial and industrial areas, so each of those areas can incorporate into their buildings the power plant to supply all their electrical needs for heating, airconditioning and all their own power.

Also, now that time has come back into the equation, then options not really deemed acceptable also come back into the picture. Large scale hydro electric plants, and I’m not talking hundreds of these, say a couple of large scale schemes similar to what was done in Australia with the Snowy Mountains Scheme, using snow melt to fill dams to drive hydro plants. Nuclear Power plants now also come back into the equation also. The safety aspect is not a problem any more as these are so highly regulated that they are safer than any other type of plant for the production of electrical power. I’m also not talking numerous Nuclear plants, just three or four large ones in strategic positions where there are large concentrations of power consumers, keeping in mind the biggest users are the industrial and commercial sectors, the residential sector only consuming 38% of all power.

No, the process is well under way in the US, keeping in mind that you are the only Country not to ratify Kyoto, and are actually the only Country working hard at the task of actually finding replacements.

Kyoto calls for the US to build replacements, to pay carbon taxes for producing power from coal fired means, to assist with their construction in those developing Countries, and to pay the money to have them constructed in those Countries.

The carbon tax alone has been mooted at close to Trillions. To replace power plants in your own Country will cost the same. To do it elsewhere on the Planet, then double the other two numbers added together.

Kyoto might be a document for preserving the environment, but the cost will be horrendously and incredibly, even unimaginably huge, and you in the US are expected by the United Nations to foot this bill.