Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Hot Days Incinerate Oil

If you're an electric utility, you don't take the dog days of summer lying down. No, when it's 95 degrees outside, that's when you want to burn millions of gallons of oil in your oldest, least efficient power plants. Beat the heat by starting a thousand-degree inferno.

That's exactly what's happening across the northeastern United States this week, as record temperatures are also breaking records for electrical consumption. It's the first law of thermodynamics writ large: as millions of office buildings, supermarkets, and houses work their AC units to stay cool, the region's utilities need to put massive amounts of heat into the system, and they fire up every power plant they have at their disposal to meet the demand.
Most utilities keep a handful big power plants in reserve, maintained year-round just to operate a handful of times a year when the grid needs to call in the cavalry. Many of these plants tend to be old and relatively inefficient: they're not economical to run on a daily basis, but they're maintained in running condition for the handful of days each year when they might come in handy, and when spot-prices for electricity rise high enough to justify their high costs of operation.

One such power plant is located right on the edge of scenic Casco Bay, visible from Portland's Eastern Promenade Park and from thousands of other waterfront vistas in greater Portland. Wyman Station, about which I've blogged previously here, is a 1970s-vintage oil-fired power plant capable of generating more electricity (over 800 megawatts) than any other plant in Maine. It's old, it's inefficient, it burns expensive fuel, and it occupies extremely valuable coastal Maine real estate. But it's still there for those few times when a million air conditioners ask the grid to turn the juice up to eleven, and pay for the privilege.

In 2005, the most recent year for which data is available, Wyman Station, in spite of its sporadic use, still managed to produce 2860 tons of sulphur dioxide, 155 tons of carbon monoxide, and 736 tons of nitrogen oxides (source: US EPA). According to the US Energy Information Administration, burning a thousand gallons of heavy oil in a typical boiler yields about 47 pounds of nitrogen oxides, so a little math tells us that Wyman burned somewhere on the order of 30 million gallons of oil in 2005.

In SI units, that is 1.3 shit-tons of filthy fuel. Imagine the Deepwater Horizon oil leak spilling into Casco Bay for 7 days, and you'll have a rough idea of how much oil Wyman burns every year. Go ahead, imagine it.

As I said before, this is for a plant that's only run for a few days each year. So here's the good news: every New Englander who turns off the lights in their office, or shuts down their computers during the hottest mid-afternoon hours to do some old-fashioned analog work, can help save a few gallons of oil from going up in smoke. Many utilities are giving large customers a price break if they do this on the hottest days, since asking your customers to turn off the lights can be cheaper than running expensive diesel backup generators. Right now, this is all done with polite phone calls, but in the near future, appliances will develop a hive mind to communicate with the electric grid, take turns sucking down scarce juice, and keep places from Wyman Station from starting fires on hot days. Others have argued that the situation calls for more solar panels, which tend to generate the most electricity on these hot and sunny summer days.

In the meantime, consider giving your appliances - and your local power plant - a break on these hot afternoons. With or without futuristic "smart grid" technology, if a few thousand New Englanders manage to cut back their consumption on hot days, we could shut places like Wyman Station down for good.

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