A Moonshot Too Far. (Part 2)

Posted on Sun 07/20/2008 by



Mr Gore has spectacularly said that we should make it our mission to replace all the coal fired power plants in the US, and to do it within the next ten years. He likened the task to landing a man on the Moon. He said that this just has to be done to lessen our reliance on fossil fuels. It would effectively save the environment, and he dramatically stated that it is something that just has to be done.

Can it be done?

Click on the Image to open in a larger window.

I want you to look at these two diagrams. They are hand drawn, so even though they may not look professional, it is a true indication of actual power usage within the United States.

The horizontal axis of both diagrams shows the hours in the day from midnight to midnight.
The vertical axis is actual total power consumption from zero to 100%.
The black broken line approximately half way through each diagram is the power required ABSOLUTELY to run your cities, industry, your businesses, your shops, your high rise buildings, your traffic. It just has to be there otherwise all of that just stops, not here and there, but everywhere, because it’s all on the grid, and if it gets overloaded not even load shedding can stop those plants just grinding to a halt.

The top diagram shows winter power consumption. There’s the hump in the morning when everyone gets up, turns on the heaters showers, breakfasts and gets ready for work. Then that hump eases slightly with everyone at work. The next hump is when everyone gets home, turns on the heaters, cooks their dinner, washes and dries their clothes, fire up all the televisions. Those two humps are personal usage. The green shaded area is actual power used.

The bottom diagram shows the Summer power usage. Same baseload, just no real hump for breakfast showing that heating is not really a problem. The different sized hump is now mid afternoon at the hottest part of the day when all the air goes on overdrive. Keep in mind air conditioning in every high rise building is not required for heating in winter and cooling in summer, but to actually provide breathing air inside all those tall structures. Again, the green shaded area is actual power used.

Only 38 % of all power goes towards household usage. The remaining 62% is consumed by that baseload, industry, commerce, and the rest. That has to be there. It’s not a case of just turning out the lights. IT HAS TO BE THERE.

Now see the red line there. If you were to remove all those coal fired plants from the grids all over the Country, that is the reliable dedicated, constant power remaining, supplied from Nuclear plants, and some of the larger hydro electric plants. These plants CAN run constantly at close to 100% of their capacity, and they are specifically designed to do just that.
All those other plants are for what is called ‘Peaking Power’. They are jet turbines fuelled by Natural Gas, other gases, sources from wind power, solar power and all other smaller types of plants. The nature of their design is that they only run for short times to top up that baseload power for the big humps in Winter and the middle of day hump in Summer. They run up quickly work at 80% or so, and then shut down. By their very nature they are only a fraction of the size of those larger plants, hence they only produce a fraction of the power, and that’s why there are so many of them. The really big turbines in this category drive generators that might produce a maximum of 400MW, about one fifth of those huge constantly running plants. THEY CANNOT BE USED TO SUPPLY BASELOAD POWER.

So what has to be done is to find a way to provide that baseload power just to keep everything going, or life as you know it WILL just stop dead in its tracks.

That red line is the worrying part of the whole equation. That will be all the constant power there will be if all those coal fired plants are closed. Here, I also need to say that this is a conservative red line location. The actuality could be even lower again, and you’ve also got to keep in mind that the location of those nuclear plants are not evenly spread across the grid, but in different places across the US, and some areas are nowhere near where a nuclear plant can provide that baseload power.

Can anything be done at a personal level? Probably, but the result would be so minimal as to be almost non existent, so I’ll just canvass a couple of them.
Let’s replace every incandescent light globe in the Country with the new fluorescent lighting. Lighting makes up around 5% of the household total because in nearly every part of industry and commerce, they already use fluorescent lighting. So, to replace all the household ones, and that’s if they can actually supply that many to every household, it amounts to a saving of half of 5% of 35%, or maybe just on 1% of the total power, and this amounts to the total output of say 5 coal fired plants at best. Another saving might be hot water for every household in the Country. To replace this we could mount solar panels on every roof of every house to heat household water. Now keep in mind you need constant Sun all year round to actually heat that, so for Winter that counts out the whole North half of the Country, and the bulk of US population is in the North East. Hot water accounts for 20% of household consumption, so a saving here is 20% of 35%, and only one third of that at best taking out the North. This might actually account for a further 15 at best of those large plants. Consider the cost of those panels. Three Grand each. Who pays for that then? That also depends on if they can be supplied.

So, if all that is done, that only leaves us around 950 of those coal fired plants left to replace, so this exercise is just tinkering at the edges, and as worthy as it might seem, it is an option worth looking at.

If coal fired power plants supply half the US power and light bulbs and solar panels for hot water are just fiddling at the edges, we still need to replace 2.1 trillion KWH of power.
Currently, power supplied from nuclear plants amounts to 800 Billion KWH, so you need a little more than the double what you already have. There are 63 sites in the US with 104 reactors in total each reactor driving one generator, so you’re effectively looking at building another 60 or so of those plants, with two reactors at each plant to take up most of the coal fired power removed from the grid. The cost of each plant would be a conservative 3.5 billion, which because of the cost of money at the front end effectively doubles between the time of turning the first sod, and the plant coming on line. So best case might put this up to around 8 Billion per plant, so that will cost around 500 Billion.
Now you know as well as I do that is totally out of the question. Not the money, but constructing that many nuclear power plants, because in that time, you would be extremely lucky to get 10 of them off the ground.
To actually be thinking of this you’d realistically need to be turning the first sods for those plants right now, so even ten plants is a long way off into the future, let alone 60 of them.

So then, let’s try and do Mr Gore’s ideal plan, and construct plants using solar and wind power.
We need 2.1 trillion KWH of power. The largest wind turbine can produce 5MW of nameplate maximum power, and to do something on this scale you’d be looking at nearly one million of them. That number is so high because they can only operate at around 35% efficiency for the total power output. Working on the size of the proposed offshore plant in Nantucket Sound, you’ll need around 600 of these, and the Nantucket sound plant will cost around $1 Billion so there’s $600 Billion as a cost for that.

The same rough cost would apply for the equivalent solar replacement. These plants cover huge areas for the photovoltaic plants that use the panels to generate the electricity, and produce minimal power because at best they are also only 30% efficient. The newer solar thermal plants where the sun is directed via mirrors to heat water to steam to drive turbines also cover huge areas as well. Some of the newer thermal plants that direct the Sun via mirrors to heat salts to a molten state to use the heat from that to boil water etc, are also coming on line, but these also are hugely expensive as well. These plants using solar power would run at about double the cost of wind generating plants.

Now considering that the Northern half of the US is out of the question for Solar power, then a half and half situation could be effective. Cover the North with say 300 or 400 wind farms connected to the grid, and cover the Southern US with solar plants. The cost would be enormous but it could work at a pinch.

The ‘pie in the sky’ of Carbon Capture and Storage is a dream that is out of the question and the only sector thinking this is a possibility, let alone within ten years, is the coal mining sector, it’s lobbyists and politicians in those coal mining States, and their friends.

A further aid in this is that all sectors of industry, commerce, and every high rise building could be moved to the new technology of Combined Heat and Power, generating on site all their own Power requirements. This would start at around $3 to $25 Million per high-rise building, and up to $100 Million for larger industrial plants, and they would need to be retrofitted. This form of power uses a turbine powered by one of the lower carbon, better burning Gases. (Not the stuff you put in your car, but the LNG’s.) The large turbine drives a generator, and the generated heat is then recycled to drive a second smaller turbine/generator, and the excess heat then powers the conditioned air for the building. Using this form of power would greatly assist in the task, and could just be done within that time frame. Again, a lot of work so that workforce would also need to be considerably ramped up, but the cost would still be quite huge, and add the benefit of removing those industrial and commercial enterprises from the grids. The added benefit would be that in time when the original cost is recovered, then the only outlay would be for fuel, and there would be no huge cost of the electricity used from the grid itself.

Added to the cost of constructing the all these forms of plants themselves would be the huge infrastructure costs of constructing the vast network of transmission lines to then get all this power back to the end consumers.

So going on Mr Gore’s assessment of the costs, maybe just maybe you might get away with if for the figure of $3 Trillion, but I would suspect that might be considerably higher when the inherent problems of flow ons are taken into account.

The big sticking point however, in Mr Gore’s rallying call is this. His time frame of ten years.

To actually construct the mirrors and the wind turbines, production in these areas would have to ramped up probably one thousand fold. If that was the case, then RIGHT NOW, if production was at its maximum, then those mirrors, solar panels, wind turbines and infrastructure would still not be constructed within that ten year timeline.
The cost may be close within ballpark figures, but if this is to be done, then those plants need to be having the first sods in the dirt being dug right now.
Before the engineering even starts there’s the commissioning development, the planning, the permits, and licensing arrangements to be done, and this will also take years, and the sites need to be selected, and not just anywhere, but actual viable sites.

All this is a positively fine ideal to aspire to. The cost we could maybe, just maybe afford, and I might even suggest that the top figure from Mr Gore, that of the $3 Trillion could actually double.
No, time will be the enemy here, and really, it’s not just the US we need to be doing this is, but those other huge emitters China and India, otherwise anything we do will just be cancelled out by them.

Mr Gore likened this to landing a man on the moon. I just wish it was that easy.
This is more like sending a colonising fleet to the third moon of Saturn sight unseen, and then towing it back into Earth orbit.
Still, if has achieved one thing, we’re all talking about it.

Now you know where the red line is, scroll back to the top of the page and look again at the diagram.