Austin Energy is the nation’s 9th largest community-owned public utility, serving a 440-acre that includes the Texas state capitol. This utility is known for its involvement in the Pecan Street Project, a smart grid demonstration community in Austin, as well as its extensive energy efficiency program portfolio. In fact, Austin Energy is home to the nation’s first green building program, which was founded in 1990.
Through its energy efficiency programs, this utility has avoided building the equivalent of an 800 MW power plant since 1990. Their next goal is to do this again – in half the time – avoiding another equivalent 800 MW power plant over the next decade. These savings have been realized, in part, through their green building program but also through appliance and demand response (load shifting and reduction) activities. They have attacked low-hanging fruit like inefficient refrigerators through a you call – we haul program that will pick up your old refrigerator, and pay you $50 for it. Rebate programs for insulating your attic, replacing your hot water heater or dryer, and putting in energy-efficient windows are standards with Austin Energy. And, one MW at a time, these small projects have added up to big savings for the city and its residents.
Federal greenhouse gas regulations might have died this year in the Senate, but not in Washington. It appears that the Obama administration is going ahead with new greenhouse gas emissions limits via the Clean Air Act and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Under this federal clean air standard, the EPA has the ability to require pollution controls at both new and existing facilities – in this case, power plants and refineries. The President and his advisors previously laid out the Clean Air Act as a potential backstop to failure on the hill – and it looks like they weren’t bluffing.
A bold move – especially in the face of a shifting House of Representatives (Republicans will take control of the House in less than 30 days, with a new majority). The Obama administration is already preparing for a battle…
But, in the meantime, EPA has said that they will finalize rules for power plants by May 26, 2012 and for refineries by November 10, 2012.
“What in the world is pet coke?”
I was recently asked this question by a Corpus Christi resident who wanted to know my opinion on the Las Brisas Energy Center project in their hometown. This facility, a 1,320 MW power plant located in Corpus’s Inner Harbor, is designed to burn pet coke to generate electricity for the area. Technically classified as a coal plant (it uses the same technology), this facility has local residents up-in-arms as they try to decipher complex reports from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) that apparently ignore the fact most folks in the area don’t know what pet coke is…
Petroleum Coke (often called “pet coke”) is essentially a solid waste stream created at oil refineries that can be burned in power plants to generate electricity. This waste stream is produced when heavy crude oil is broken down under high temperature and pressure to create gasoline (and a few other things). It has been previously used in steel and aluminum manufacturing, but can also be used to generate electricity.
When burned, pet coke has very similar environmental impacts to coal-burning power plants. Both emit about the same amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and have similar effects on local air quality. Both require more than 400 gallons of water per megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity generated (the average Austin home uses 1.2 MWh per month).
In recent years, the U.S. Nuclear fleet has not grown, but the amount of electricity that it provides has. Today, plant operators are looking to get even more power out of our reactors, using new technologies that might increase the maximum power level that nuclear power plants can achieve. By “uprating” the country’s nuclear power plants, we might be able to get more from our fleet, without new construction.
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the amount of electricity (kWh’s) has more than doubled in the past 30 years, with a more than 6% increase in the last decade. On average, U.S. nuclear plants run with a 90% capacity factor – meaning that they run 90% (almost 329 days) of the year. In 1980, this value was 55% (201 days per year). While it is unlikely that we will increase our capacity factors much higher than their current 90% level (the plants need maintenance downtime), there is an opportunity in increasing the amount of electricity that they can generate when they are running.
“Uprates” refer to increasing the maximum power (kilowatts – kW) that a plant can achieve. By increasing this maximum, plants can generate more electricity in the same amount of time. In other words, we can get more electricity without building new nuclear power plants.
This increase in power comes with a bonus – in many situations, license renewals for these nuclear power plants require that technology be upgraded. This requirement can make uprating a plant affordable, with relatively little extra incremental cost. According to Excelon Nuclear, this incremental cost is about half of the amount needed to build a new equivalent facility.
From May 2008 to May 2010, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved nine plant uprate applications. It expects to receive 39 more applications over the next five years, as nuclear power plants file to renew their operating licenses.
For information on the technologies used to uprate nuclear power plants, see this article, which discusses optimization and efficiency improvements that are possible with currently available technology.
“I love science, and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science also means you cannot choose compassion, or the arts, or be awed by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and reinvigorate it.”
~Robert Sapolsky, “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” xi
David Wogan (friend and author of The Daily Wogan) and I co-authored a post for Scientific American’s Guest Blog. The article, published this morning, discusses Waste-to-Energy technology and the dirty image that might be keeping this technology from taking-off in the United States.
Check out the post here – and, if you have a moment, please share your thoughts and comments.