Last year, a student send me a 12-minute bit from 60 minutes on coal power. The piece is centered on an interview with Jim Rogers of Charlotte’s own Duke Energy. Watch this, then read on:
*IF the embedded video will not play, try this link: Powered by Coal (60 minutes)
So…what do we do in the short term? Build the “cleanest” coal-powered plants we can build AND try to capture the carbon in the ground? Regardless of our efforts, does it matter if China is not even trying while starting up one new coal-fired power plant A WEEK?!
Is our future “blowing it the wind?”
NPR posted a wonderful series last spring called Power Hungry: Reinventing the U.S. Power Grid. While some place great hopes in wind and solar, the fact remains that coal (and nuclear) provide reliable sources of power for our grid. In the segment, Constant Challenge: Constant Current from Fickle Winds, NPR exposes the main limitations of putting our hopes in wind:
At the Midwest ISO’s control room in Carmel, Ind., talk of a major increase in wind power sends chills down the spine of Rob Benbow, a grid manager. Before dawn on a spring morning, Benbow and a few dozen grid operators are shouting electricity jargon at each other in front of a massive curved screen that’s 20 feet high and 150 feet long.
As people in the Midwest wake up and turn on coffee makers and hair dryers, the operators make sure enough power is being generated to match the surge in demand. A warning signal alerts them that a power plant has unexpectedly turned off. This time, it is someone else’s problem. But Benbow worries that when wind power makes up a significant portion of his grid’s electricity, managing it will cause him frequent problems.
“My biggest fear is if you see 20 percent wind on your system, and then it comes off at a time period where you don’t have resources to replace it — that’s going to, could, result in a blackout situation,” he says.
Wind power is not predictable. That morning, the wind is steadily producing about 3,000 megawatts — about 5 percent of the total power being used in the region. But Benbow says he’s seen wind power become increasingly variable as more wind farms come on line. And grid operators can’t order wind plants to produce like they can other power plants.
“If the wind is not blowing, you just don’t have that resource available,” he says. And when the wind is blowing, it can be hard to make wind turbines shut down. “A lot of these plants are not manned — if we need to turn them off, we have to send a person out to actually do that,” he says.
Lots of other things about wind frustrate the Benbows of the world — wind blows hardest at night when electricity demand is lowest, there currently aren’t ways to store wind for later use, and you can’t count on it on hot summer days when you need it most.
“You can put all that wind in, but I still need to have all this other generation that I need to have available — all my coal, nuclear, all the gas — for my peak load day,” Benbow adds.
So, what do we do?