Now, here’s something I didn’t know: since mid-2007, electric utilities have added a total of 1,360 megawatts of new electricity generation capacity in the Seattle-to-Portland corridor.
First the details. Then I’ll explain why this number is so important.
- In June of 2007, Portland General Electric opened the Port Westward Generating Plant about an hour’s drive north of Portland. The plant has a rated capacity of 400 MW, and is considered one of the most efficient gas power plants in the country.
- Then, in January of 2008, Puget Sound Energy opened its 310 MW Mint Farm Generating Station.
- Finally, in April of 2008 the Satsop Combustion Turbine Project came online in Grays Harbor, WA, adding up to 650 MW of power to the grid.
Why do I mention this? Well, because the 1,360 megawatts of brand-new, highly efficient generating capacity are nearly equal to the maximum generating capacity of the coal-fired power plant located in Centralia, Washington. Take a look at the chart below: the pink represents actual hourly generation from Centralia’s coal-fired power plant from 2006 though 2008, and the green line represents the peak capacity of new gas-fired plants that have been brought online since mid-2007. (Click the chart to embiggen…)
Looking at the numbers, the new gas generating capacity, if fully utilized, could have completely covered Centralia’s power output a little over 75 percent of the time. And in theory, these new gas plants were just 104 MW shy of covering Centralia’s coal-fired power output over the entire three-year period.
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Now, here’s the thing. The Centralia coal plant, owned by Canadian energy giant TransAlta, happens to be the single largest greenhouse gas emitter in Washington state. It’s also a major source of conventional air pollutants, like smog-forming compounds and mercury. In fact, the National Park Service says that the Centralia plant is the third worst of all power plants in the nation for degrading visibility at wilderness areas and national parks—a testament both to how dirty Centralia is, and how close it is to natural areas.
So a lot of folks in the Northwest have been calling for an accelerated shutdown for Centralia—asking Washington to follow the lead of Oregon, where aggressive regulation convinced owners of the Boardman to phase it out by 2020. But Washington hasn’t been nearly as quick on its feet about Centralia as Oregon has been about Boardman—in part because the state is concerned that phasing out Centralia will make it harder to keep the lights on in Seattle and Portland.
But given all the new gas plants that have been added to the grid, perhaps Centralia is no longer quite so critical to the region’s power picture. Of course, I’m not saying that turning off Centralia is a no-brainer. Still, given how much new gas power has come online in the past few years—not to mention about 1,000 megawatts of new wind power in the state since 2007, or the fact that Satsop is asking to add an additional 650 MW of gas power at the Grays Harbor facility—you have to wonder if ramping down Centralia is actually a lot less of a stretch than one the conventional wisdom says.
Interesting point. Transferring to gas also won’t be as costly as it might have been a few years ago. Check out our story on the impact of cheap gas on the state economy at Seattle Business Magazinehttp://www.seattlebusinessmag.com/article/where-theres-drill-theres-wayLeslie HelmEditorSeattle Business Magazine
From what I’ve read we need to be careful about jumping on the natural gas band wagon. This fracturing technique being used around the country to release natural gas has some potenitally devastating problems. http://theseventhfold.com/2010/04/04/shale-gas-is-a-giant-loser/
As Tim points out, there is no “free lunch” when it comes to Natural gas.That said, natural gas fired plants are a much better match for intermittent renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Gas plants can be brought online rapidly to fill in when the wind stops or the clouds show up. (See “Centralized Gas Turbines” and “Combined Cycle Units” here) Gas plants are also relatively cheap to build and, at least for now, relatively cheap to fuel.There are relatively clean, although currently uneconomic, ways to turn coal into a synthetic pipeline grade Natural Gas, but that’s a ways off. Thankfully, the proven reserves of Natural Gas in the US are climbing, buying time for a conversion to a less fossil fuel dominated energy mix.The question is: Can we learn from the past and not squander this opportunity to convert to a greener energy mix *BEFORE* we actually start to run out of a particular fossil fuel?
Hi VeloBusDriver,Joshua Green, of The Atlantic, attempts to answer a similar question in this awesome in-depth article, which is linked to by David Roberts of Grist in this great article.Green’s conclusion, in short:”The interplay of technology, policy, and finance has always determined the rate at which clean technologies advance. Today these are aligned for the first time since Jimmy Carter —- and more strongly now because the environmental imperative and global concern are so much greater than they were in 1977. “The key to our energy future lies in exploiting two often opposing forces without having them trample or undermine each other: Silicon Valley’s free-market culture of innovation and Washington’s power to set the terms by which everyone operates…” (Hat tip to Alan Durning for the link to Dave’s article, as found here.)
It is easy to assert that natural gas is a cleaner option than coal… but in order to really know whether this is true or not requires a full life cycle analysis on: GHG emissions (not just carbon, but methane, ethane, etc. which may be emitted during the fracing process) and energy return on energy investment (not to mention the sources of the energy used!).That said, I believe we are missing the forest for the trees in at least two important ways. First (here comes the technocratic environmentalist argument) we can gain a huge amount of demand leveling through a smart grid. Think about all those refrigerators, electric heaters, air conditioners, etc. that pull lots of energy from the utilities. Plug these appliances into a smart grid, and when the power surges arrive, a central unit could start doing short, localized ‘light brownouts’ where the power to half of the refrigerators on any block are turned off for 15 minutes while the other half are on, then back and forth…Or what if we made a real effort at evening out the workday? Imagine how the grid would be affected if employees were scheduled to work at staggered hours. Imagine what that could do for traffic and carbon emissions!Now think about the tons (literally) of batteries that we have plugged in at all times charging whether they need a boost or not. Right now I have a laptop plugged in, a toothbrush, an electric shaver, and my wife has a phone. My mom has one of those electric bike batteries (350 watts) plugged in pretty much at all times. It is not beyond technical reason to imagine setting up a system where power is allowed to be pulled from these devices during demand surges. In fact, I know of a company that is trying to figure out how to do just that! Now think about rolling out a few thousand electric vehicles…But alas, we are missing the forest for the trees in a second and even more profound way! We *waste* an incredible amount of energy every day. Why do we waste all this energy? Because for many of us it is basically free. Stop building out capacity and the price will go up, and we’ll start using less energy. Or, simply make a conscious decision to use less energy (I just unplugged all those appliances – and in fact am on a hydrocarbon fast for the month of May). Building more natural gas plants is NOT a *real* solution! Conservation is the only real solution. And conservation, believe it or not, does not require a net sacrifice!Finally, thank you Tim for promoting my blog – theseventhfold.com – where I make these arguments from a peak oil informed, social justice and ecological perspective.-Derik Andreoli