Home > Electricity Generation, Energy Policy, Environment > Take Big Bites – Chew Carefully, But Not Too Much

Take Big Bites – Chew Carefully, But Not Too Much


The following post is largely a product of a hilarious (fabulous) conversation I had in July with a friend and fellow graduate student at UT, Emily Grubert.

Today’s energy is HUGE. When discussed, we use terms like…

Megawatts and Megawatt-hours

Quadrillion BTU’s

Mountain-top (not hill-top) Removal

Thousand short tons

Trillion Cubic Feet (TCF)

Seemingly small changes in our energy systems result in huge changes – lots of money, lots of area, lots of time.

Lets run through a quick example –

If the total summer peak demand (the most energy used at any instant in time during the summer) in the area overseen by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) – about 85% of Texas – increased by just 1%, state utilities would need to build new power plants to meet 634 MW of additional demand.

Why 634 MW?

On July 19, 2009 a record setting summer peak was 63,400 megawatts (MW) or just over 63 gigawatts (GW) was reached in the ERCOT system. ERCOT is responsible for ensuring that future peak demands in the system can be met by keeping excess capacity – called a reserve margin – in the system. This “excess” capacity makes it possible for the system to meet increasing demand, even when plants are taken offline for maintenance, etc.

A 1% increase in this peak demand would create a need for 634 MW of capacity.

Breaking this down into $$, this 634 MW of capacity would cost:

$1.1 Billion – if we use wind power ($1,750,000 per MW of capacity)

$602 Million – if we use natural gas ($950,000 per MW of capacity)

$3.2 Billion – if we use nuclear power ($5,000,000 per MW of capacity)

That’s a LOT of money – with only a 1% increase in demand.

FYI – This summer (on August 10, 2010) the summer peak demand in the ERCOT system reached an all time high of 63,830 MW – a 0.7% increase.

When discussing the country’s energy challenges, the scope is huge – the timelines long. Big changes are unlikely to happen over a period of years, much less months or days. Instead, the choices we make today are more likely to cause slow cascading effects – like a snowball rolling down a hill.

Facing these huge challenges and long timelines can be daunting, intimidating, and may quickly lead to discouragement and a feeling of being overwhelmed. At these times, it’s easy to jump toward the “solution” that appears to be the easiest or quickest – but these “solutions” are likely to be mere Band-Aids – temporary fixes instead of permanent solutions.

So what do we do?

My advice…

Take Big Bites

Chew Carefully

But Not Too Much

Take Big Bites

If we run from these challenges because of their enormity, we will not achieve our goals. Developing a successful strategic plan toward a sustainable energy future for our country will not be a quick process but we cannot let this intimidate us. We must take big bites – pushing ourselves further than we thought we could go. This is the only way we can achieve our goals and keep the bigger picture in mind.

Chew Carefully

But with big bites comes the risk of choking – of becoming overwhelmed with the tasks before us and eventually giving up. So, we must chew carefully – thinking through each motion and not pushing the process too quickly (resulting in a situation that relies on a quick Heimlich Maneuver to have any change at future survival).

But Not Too Much

While chewing carefully is important – chewing too much can cripple our ability to affect the changes we want. Waiting too long can be as detrimental as rushing.

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  1. August 29, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    Very good post regarding the scale of the issue.
    Be sure to double-check your numbers here for a type-o:
    “$3.2 Billion – if we use nuclear power ($5,000 per MW of capacity)”

  2. August 29, 2010 at 10:38 pm

    Also – quick question:
    In your calculations for capacity costs-
    Are those strictly capital expenditures? Or, do you have O&M/Fuels expenses figured into the numbers.

  3. August 29, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    Hey Chad – thanks for the comments and the feedback.

    Good catch on the typo – it should read $5,000 per kW or $5,000,000 per MW. Fixing now…

    On the calculations – these numbers do not include o&m or fuel costs, or PTCs for wind fars, etc. They are strictly cap expenditures and are very conservative since they assume that the project is paid for in cash (no interest payments on loans).

    So, to get the nuclear number for instance
    ($5,000,000 per MW)*(634 MW) = $3,170,000,000

  1. August 29, 2010 at 11:06 pm
  2. December 12, 2010 at 11:39 am

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