Spain’s Massive Investment in Solar Power has Greatly increased the Cost of their Electric Power

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 24th, 2013

Week in Review

People think renewable energy is the answer to all our energy problems.  But that isn’t quite so.  In fact, all it does is increase the cost of our electric power.  For sunshine and wind may be free.  But the equipment to harness the energy in sunshine and wind is not free.  It is very, very expensive.  And you need a lot of it.  You will not see one wind turbine service the power needs of one metropolitan area.  You may see a wind farm providing a small percentage of the electric power needs of a large metropolitan area.  And only when the wind blows.

Wind can blow day or night.  But it can also NOT blow day and night.  While solar panels will not work at all at night.  So you have massive investments to install renewable energy generation capacity.  And there will be times when they will provide no power.  So what do you do?  What do you do when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine?  You turn to old reliable.  The electric grid.

This is why renewable energy is so costly.  It cannot replace our fossil-fuel power plants that can provide reliable power day or night in any type of weather.  It can only supplement what we call our baseload power.  Like our beloved coal-fired power plants.  One of the most cost-efficient ways to produce reliable electric power.  Which the power companies have to still run and maintain day and night.  For those who don’t have a wind turbine or a solar array providing their electric power.  And to light up the night.  So instead of one cost-efficient power generation system we have two systems.  One cost-efficient and one cost-inefficient.  And those who invested heavily into renewable energy are now having to deal with these very real problems (see Out Of Ideas And In Debt, Spain Sets Sights On Taxing The Sun by Kelly Phillips Erb posted 8/19/2013 on Forbes).

With so much sunshine at its disposal, Spain has aggressively pursued the development of solar energy: over the past ten years, the government has made significant advances in pressing solar energy and is one of the top countries in the world with respect to installed photovoltaic (PV) solar energy capacity.

It might, however, be too much of a good thing. Spain is generating so much solar power, according to its government, that production capacity exceeds demand by more than 60%. That imbalance has created a problem for the government which now finds itself in debt to producers. And not by a little bit. The debt is said to have grown to nearly 26 billion euros ($34.73 billion U.S.).

So how do you get out of that kind of debt? You propose incredibly onerous taxes and fines, of course. And you do it on exactly the behavior that you encouraged in the first place: the use of solar energy panels. That’s right. Spain is now attempting to scale back the use of solar panels – the use of which they have encouraged and subsidized over the last decade – by imposing a tax on those who use the panels…

…many residents in Spain generate enough electricity from solar that they get paid to selling the excess energy back to producers. This, it turns out, is a problem. The government is putting a stop to that, too: as part of the reform efforts (read: desperate measures), there will be a prohibition on selling extra energy.

If the power companies are providing all the power at night they have to maintain their power plants.  And their power distribution system.  Which means they even have to trim the trees away from their overhead power lines from people who use solar power during the day.  Nothing changes for the power companies.  Except that they can’t sell as much power as they once did.  So their costs of producing power remain the same.  But their revenue has fallen.  Forcing them to operate at a loss.  Or find other ways to replace their lost revenue.  Which they have to.  Because they must have the same capacity available during the day that they have at night.  Even if they aren’t selling as much power during the day as they are at night.  And the last thing they want to do is buy excess power back from homeowners with solar panels on their house when they’re producing their own power that they can’t sell.

Baseload power plants like coal and nuclear take time to bring on line.  They have to produce the heat that boils water into steam.  Then superheat the steam to remove all water from it.  So the steam can spin the generator turbines without damaging the vanes on the turbine.  And once they start these plants up they run these systems at full capacity where they produce power most cost-efficiently.  During peak demand they may bring on some gas-fired turbines that can start and produce power quickly.  And add them to the grid.  When the peak subsides they can shut down these gas-fired turbines and let the baseload generation carry the remaining load.

The Spanish government invested heavily into solar power for whatever reason.  It’s ‘free’ power.  It’s ‘clean’ power.  Or it was just a good way to create a lot of jobs.  But what Spain has now is a surplus of peak power generation during the day that doesn’t eliminate the need to maintain baseload power generation during the day.  Creating a surplus of electric power during the day no one wants.  While requiring power companies to maintain their baseload power during the day so they can provide power at night.  Incurring great costs on the power companies.  Which must be passed on to the same people who paid for the renewable energies subsidies.  The electric power consumer.

This is a classic example of a Hayekian malinvestment.  Friedrich Hayek of the Austrian school of economics said this is what happens when governments interfere with free markets.  They make investments to produce what they think is best while the market demands something else.  The market demanded low-cost electric power.  Which baseload power plants (coal and nuclear) provided.  But the government intervened and subsidized the more costly solar power.  This bad investment—or malinvestment—has only increased the cost of electric power for the Spanish consumer.  And now the Spanish have a big problem on their hands.  What to do with this surplus of peak power no one wants to pay for?  And how to replace the lost revenue of the power companies so they can cover their costs?  Two problems they didn’t have until the government intervened into the free market.

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Environmentalists are Killing Birds with their Big Spinning Wind Turbine Killing Machines

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 29th, 2013

Week in Review

Wind turbines are bird killers.  As their large blades slice through the air.  Chopping anything that is unfortunate enough to get in the way of those large, heavy, rotating blades.  Birds die flying into these killing machines whether they’re part of a large wind farm.  Or just one solitary wind turbine providing green energy to save the planet (see Rare white-throated needletail bird dies after flying into wind turbine off coast of Scotland by Euan Stretch posted 6/28/2013 on the Mirror).

Hundreds of twitchers travelled the length of the country to see the “bird of the century” – only for it to fly into a wind turbine and die.

Bird-spotters were ecstatic about the first UK sighting of the rare white-throated needletail since 1991.

But their excitement soon turned to horror when it hit the 120ft structure’s rotating blades…

The bird’s body has since been handed over to local conservationists.

James, 38, was joined by fellow twitcher Mark Batten, 49, who said wind turbines were a serious danger for birds.

He added: “This wasn’t even a turbine on a huge wind farm, it was a solitary turbine to provide power to a small community.

“There is huge concern in Scotland about plans for big wind farms and the danger they would pose to big birds of prey like golden eagles and sea eagles…

Website Rarebirdalert.co.uk recorded the death today and said it was “widely dubbed the bird of the century”.

It’s rather ironic, really.  The environmentalists won’t let firefighters cut firebreaks in forests because it may disturb the forest habit of the spotted owl.  Or the kangaroo rat.  And farmers can’t irrigate their land in California’s Central Valley because delta smelt are getting sucked up into irrigation pumps.  So they shut the pumps down.  And interrupt our food supply.  So something else way down the food chain can eat and procreate.  For these are endangered species.  Protected by the federal government.  So forest habitats burn down.  Killing these forest dwellers wholesale.  Destroying homes.  As well as killing people.  Just so we don’t disturb their environment.

These same environmentalists are pushing to reduce greenhouse emissions to save the environment.  So their beloved creatures can frolic on a pristine planet.  Unspoiled by man.  So they push for more wind energy.  Things with moving parts that can and do kill birds.  While the coal-burning power plants sit there with no moving parts that are a hazard to flying birds.  It is even not that uncommon for a bird to enter a power plant through a broken window to build a nest out of the elements.  That’s how dangerous these plants are to the birds.

There is no manmade global warming.  At least none that we can’t explain away by other means.  The environmentalists have been predicting since the Nineties that if we don’t act right now it will be too late to save ourselves from manmade global warming.  That the dying would only be years away.  And here we are.  Some 3 decades away and still living strong.  Even going through a cooling period.  Thanks to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO).  Warming and cooling cycles of the oceans (due to sunspot activity) redirecting the low-level jet stream.  Which real scientists have actually found the historical record supports.  Unlike those models that project doom and gloom if we don’t act right now.  Because 5 minutes from now will be just too late.

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Wind Power cannot work in the Free Market without Massive State Subsidies

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 9th, 2012

Week in Review

A typical size of a wind turbine is around 3 megawatts.  Whereas a typical steam turbine (the kind spun by a coal-fired power plant) can be as big as 500 megawatts.  So you would need about 167 wind turbines to produce the output of one steam turbine.  But even then they won’t produce the same amount of useable power.  Because the wind doesn’t blow all of the time.  Making wind power a very expensive, intermittent power.  So expensive that no free market solution exists.  Which is why the government heavily subsidizes wind power (see 7 Myths About the Wind Production Tax Credit by David Kreutzer, Ph.D., posted 12/4/2012 on The Foundry).

The wind production tax credit (PTC) has created an industry that produces overpriced, intermittent power, and it will continue to produce overpriced, intermittent power so as long as there is a PTC to pay for it…

… if wind were already cheaper, then it could compete right now. If it is on the verge, then wind-power producers could enter into long-term contracts (which they already do) that would allow them to recoup their investments in the near future when wind will supposedly be so cheap. Neither case argues for subsidies…

The legislation in force has been very clear ever since it was written: Wind turbines put in place by December 31, 2012, qualify for 10 years of production tax credits. Windmills placed in service this year will continue to receive credits—which are worth 40 percent or more of the wholesale value of electricity—for every kilowatt-hour generated until 2022…

Subsidies may well provide jobs and income for those receiving the subsidies, but, as the Spanish experience illustrates, whatever job-creating mechanism the subsidies put in play is offset by running this same mechanism in reverse elsewhere: Financing the subsidies requires taxing other parts of the economy.

A 40 percent or more subsidy?  Anyone that needs a 40% subsidy to stay in business shouldn’t be in business.  That’s a lot of money pulled out of the private sector to produce substandard electric power.  If we went with reliable electric power from coal-fired power plants we wouldn’t need to pull a 40% subsidy from the private sector.  And the power would be first-rate.  Whether the wind blows or not.  Which is why coal-fired power plants work in a free market economy.  And wind power does not.

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Electricity, Heat Engine, Superheated Dry Steam, Coal-Fired Power Plant, Geothermal Power Plant and Waste-to-Energy Plant

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 7th, 2012

Technology 101

(Originally published August 1, 2012)

Geothermal Power Plants and Waste-to-Energy Plants each produce less than Half of 1% of our Electricity

We produce the majority of our electricity with heat engines.  Where we boil water into steam to spin a turbine.  Or use the expanding gases of combustion to spin a turbine.  The primary heat engines we use are coal-fired power plants, natural gas-power plants and nuclear power plants.  The next big source of electricity generation is hydroelectric.  A renewable energy source.  In 2011 it produced less than 8% of our electricity.  These sources combined produce in excess of 95% of all electricity.  While renewable energy sources (other than hydroelectric) make up a very small percentage of the total.  Wind power comes in under 3%.  And solar comes in at less than 0.2% of the total.  So we are a very long way from abandoning coal, natural gas and nuclear power.

Two other renewable energy sources appear to hold promise.  Two heat engines.  One powered by geothermal energy in the earth.  The other by burning our garbage.  In a waste-to-energy plant.  These appear attractive.  Geothermal power appears to be as clean as it gets.  For this heat isn’t man-made.  It’s planet-made.  And it’s just there for the taking.  But the taking of it gets a little complicated.  As is burning our trash.  Not to mention the fact that few people want trash incinerators in their neighborhoods.  For these reasons they each provide a very small percentage of the total electric power we produce.  Both coming in at less than half of 1%.

So why steam?  Why is it that we make so much of our electrical power by boiling water?  Because of the different states of matter.  Matter can be a solid, liquid or a gas.  And generally passes from one state to another in that order.  Although there are exceptions.  Such as dry ice that skips the liquid phase.  It sublimates from a solid directly into a gas.  And goes from a gas to a solid by deposition.  Water, though, follows the general rule.  Ice melts into water at 32 degrees Fahrenheit (or 0 degrees Celsius).  Or water freezes into ice at the same temperature.  Water vaporizes into steam at 212 degrees Fahrenheit (or 100 degrees Celsius).  Or steam condenses into water at the same temperature.  These changes in the state of matter are easy to produce.  At temperatures that we can easily attain.  Water is readily available to vaporize into steam.  It’s safe and easy to handle.  Making it the liquid of choice in a heat engine.

Today’s Coal-Fired Power Plant pulverizes Coal into a Dust and Blows it into the Firebox

A given amount of water will increase about 1600 times in volume when converted to steam.  It’s this expansion that we put to work.  It’s what pushed pistons in steam engines.  It’s what drove steam locomotives.  And it’s what spins the turbines in our power plants.  The plumes of steam you see is not steam, though.  What you see is water droplets in the steam.  Steam itself is an invisible gas.  And the hotter and drier (no water) it is the better.  For water droplets in steam will pit and wear the blades on a steam turbine.  Which is why the firebox of a coal-fired plant reaches temperatures up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1,650 degrees Celsius).  To superheat the steam.  And to use this heat elsewhere in the power plant such as preheating water entering the boiler.  So it takes less energy to vaporize it.

To get a fire that hot isn’t easy.  And you don’t get it by shoveling coal into the fire box.  Today’s coal-fired power plant pulverizes coal into a dust and blows it into the firebox.  Because small particles can burn easier and more completely than large chunks of coal.  As one fan blows in fuel another blows in air.  To help the fire burn hot.  The better and finer the fuel the better it burns.  The better the fuel burns the hotter the fire.  And the drier the steam it makes.  Which can spin a turbine with a minimum of wear.

In a geothermal power plant we pipe steam out of the ground to spin a turbine.  If it’s hot enough.  Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of geothermal wells that produce superheated dry steam.  Which limits how many of these plants we can build.  And the steam that the planet produces is not as clean as what man produces.  Steam out of the earth can contain a lot of contaminants.  Requiring additional equipment to process these contaminants out.  We can use cooler geothermal wells that produce wet steam but they require additional equipment to remove the water from the steam.  The earth may produce heat reliably but not water.  When we pipe this steam away the wells can run dry.  So these plants require condensers to condense the used steam back into water so we can pump it back to the well.  A typical plant may have several wells piped to a common plant.  Requiring a lot of piping both for steam and condensate.  You put all this together and a geothermal plant is an expensive plant.  And it is a plant that we can build in few places.  Which explains why geothermal power makes less than half of 1% of our electricity.

We generate approximately 87% of our Electricity from Coal, Natural Gas and Nuclear Power

So these are some the problems with geothermal.  Burning trash has even more problems.  The biggest problem is that trash is a terrible fuel.  We pulverize coal into a dust and blow into the firebox.  This allows a hot and uniform fire.  Trash on the other hand contains wet mattresses, wet bags of grass, car batteries, newspapers and everything else you’ve ever thrown away.  And if you ever lit a campfire or a BBQ you know some things burn better than other things.  And wet things just don’t burn at all.  So some of this fuel entering the furnace can act like throwing water on a hot fire.  Which makes it difficult to maintain a hot and uniform fire.  They load fuel on a long, sloping grate that enters the furnace.  Mechanical agitators shake the trash down this grate slowly.  As the trash approaches the fire it heats up and dries out as much as possible before entering the fire.  Still the fire burns unevenly.  They try to keep the temperature above 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (about 538 degrees Celsius) .  But they’re not always successful.

They can improve the quality of the fuel by processing it first.  Tearing open bags with machinery so people can hand pick through the trash.  They will remove things that won’t burn.  Then send what will burn to a shredder.  Chopping it up into smaller pieces.  This can help make for a more uniform burn.  But it adds a lot of cost.  So these plants tend to be expensive.  And nowhere as efficient as a coal-fired power plant (or nuclear power plant) in boiling water into superheated dry steam.  Also, raw trash tends to stink.  And no one really knows what’s in it when it burns.  Making people nervous about what comes out of their smoke stacks.  You add all of these things up and you see why less than half of 1% of our electricity comes from burning our trash.

This is why we generate approximately 87% of our electricity from coal, natural gas and nuclear power.  Coal and nuclear power can make some of the hottest and driest steam.  But making a hot fire or bringing a nuclear reactor on line takes time.  A lot of time.  So we use these as baseload power plants.  They generate the supply that meets the minimum demand.  Power that we use at all times.  Day or night.  Winter or summer.  They run 24/7 all year long.  Natural gas plants add to the baseload.  And handle peak demands over the baseload.  Because they don’t boil water they can come on line very quickly to pickup spikes in electrical demand.  Hydroelectric power shares this attribute, too.  As long as there is enough water in the reservoir to bring another generator on line.  The other 5% (wind, solar, geothermal, trash incinerators, etc.) is more of a novelty than serious power generation.

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Kerosene, Jet Fuel, Lockheed Constellation, Boeing 707, Boeing 747-400, Newton’s Third Law of Motion, Turbojet and Fan Jet

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 3rd, 2012

Technology 101

The only way to make Flying Available to the General Public is to put as many People as Possible on an Airplane

Refined petroleum products have made our lives better.  We have gasoline to drive wherever we want.  We have diesel fuel to transport things on ships and trains like petroleum oil, iron ore, coal, food, medicine, smartphones, coffee, tea, wine, scotch whisky, bourbon whiskey, beer, fresh fish, sushi, etc.  Pretty much everything we buy at a store or a restaurant got there on something powered by diesel fuel.  And sometimes kerosene.  If it must travel fast.  And if it does then it finds itself on a jet aircraft.

Today aviation has shrunk the world.  We can order a new smartphone sitting on a shelf in California and have it the next day in New York.  We can even travel to distant countries.  Some in the time of a typical working day.  Some a half a day or longer.  When but a 100 years earlier it took a couple of weeks to cross the Atlantic Ocean.  While 200 years ago it took a couple of months.  We can travel anywhere.  And get there quickly.  Thanks to the jumbo jet.  And not just the super-rich.  Pretty much anyone today can afford to buy a plane ticket to travel anywhere in the world.  And one thing makes this possible.  The jet engine.

Airplanes are expensive.  So are airports, air traffic control and jet fuel.  Airlines pay for all of these costs one passenger at a time.  Their largest cost is their fuel cost.  The longer the flight the greater the cost.  So the only way to make flying available to the general public is to put as many people as possible on an airplane.  Dividing the total flying cost by the number of passengers on the airplane.  This is why we fly on jumbo jets for these longer flights.  Because there are more people to split the total costs.  Lowering the cost per ticket.  Before the jet engine, though, it was a different story.

The Boeing 747-400 can take up to 660 Passengers some 7,260 Miles at a Speed of 567 MPH

One of the last intercontinental propeller-driven airplanes was the Lockheed Constellation.  A plane with four (4) Wright R-3350-DA3 Turbo Compound 18-cylinder supercharged radial engines putting out 3,250 horsepower each.  Which is a lot considering today’s typical 6-cyclinder automobile engine is lucky to get 300 horsepower.  No, the horsepower of one of these engines is about what one modern diesel-electric locomotive produces.  So these are big engines.  With a total power equal to about four locomotives lashed up.  Which is a lot of power.  And what does that power allow the Constellation do?  Not much by today’s standards.

In its day the Lockheed Constellation was a technological wonder.  It could take up to 109 passengers some 5,500 miles at a speed of 340 mph.  No bus or train could match this.  Not to mention it could fly over the water.  Then came the age of the jet.  The Boeing 707 being the first largely successful commercial jetliner.  Which could take up to 189 passengers some 6,160 miles at a speed of 607 mph.  That’s 73.4% more passengers, a 78.5% faster speed and a 14.1% longer range.  Which is an incredible improvement over the Constellation.  But nothing compared to the Boeing 747-400.  Which can take up to 660 passengers (506% more than the Constellation and 249% more than the 707) some 7,260 miles at a speed of 567 mph.

Now remember, fuel is the greatest cost of aviation.  So let’s assume that a intercontinental flight costs a total of $75,000 for each plane flying the same route.  Dividing that cost by the number of passengers you get a ticket price of approximately $688, $397 and $114 for the Constellation, the 707 and the 747-400, respectively.  So you can see the advantage of packing in as many passengers as possible into an airplane to lower the cost of flying.  Which is why the jumbo jets fly the longest routes that consume the most fuel.  And why we no longer fly propeller-driven aircraft except on short routes to airports with short runways.  These engines just don’t have the power to get a plane off the ground with enough people to reduce the cost of flying to a price most people could afford.  Only the jet engine has that kind of power.

The Fan Jet is basically a Turbojet with a Large Fan in front of the Compressor

Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Think of a balloon you just blew up and are holding closed.  If you release your hold air will exit the balloon in one direction.  And the balloon will move in the opposite direction.  This is how a jet engine moves an aircraft.  Hot exhaust gases exit the engine in one direction.  Pushing the jet engine in the opposite direction.  And because the jet engines move the plane moves.  With the force of the jet engines transferred via their connection points to the aircraft.  The greater the speed of the gas exiting the jet the faster it will push a plane forward.

The jet engine gets that power from the continuous cycle of the jet engine.  Air enters one end, gets compressed, enters a combustion chamber, mixes with fuel (kerosene), ignites, expands rapidly and exits the other end.  The hot (3,632 degree Fahrenheit) and expanding gases pass through and spin a turbine.  Then exit the engine.  The turbine is connected to the compressor at the front of the engine.  So the exhaust gases spin the compressor that sucks air into the engine.  As the air passes through the compressor it compresses and heats up.  Then it enters the combustion chamber and joins fuel that is injected and burned continuously.  Sort of like pouring gas on a burning fire.  Only enormous amounts of compressed air and kerosene are poured onto a burning fire.  As this air-fuel mixture burns it rapidly expands.  And exits the combustion chamber faster than the air entered it.  And shoots a hot stream of jet gas out the tail pipe.  Which produces the loud noise of these turbojets.  This fast jet of air cuts through the surrounding air.  Resulting in a shear effect.  Which the next generation of jet engines, the fan jet, greatly reduces.

The fan jet is basically a turbojet with one additional feature.  A large fan in front of the compressor.  These are the big engines you see on the jumbo jets.  They add another turbine inside the jet that spins the fan at the front of the engine.  Which feeds some air into the compressor of what is basically a turbojet.  But a lot of the air this fan sucks in bypasses the turbojet core.  And blows directly out the back of the fan at high speed.  In fact, this bypass air provides about 75% of the total thrust of the fan jet.  Acting more like a propeller than a jet.  And as an added benefit this bypass air surrounds the faster exhaust of the jet thereby lessening the shear effect.  Making these larger engines pretty quiet.  In fact a DC-9, an MD-80, a 707 or a 727 with standard turbojets are much louder than a 747 with 4 fan jets at full power.  They’re quieter.  And they can push a lot more people through the air at incredible speeds over great distances at a reasonable price per passenger than any other aircraft engine.

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Electricity, Heat Engine, Superheated Dry Steam, Coal-Fired Power Plant, Geothermal Power Plant and Waste-to-Energy Plant

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 1st, 2012

Technology 101

Geothermal Power Plants and Waste-to-Energy Plants each produce less than Half of 1% of our Electricity

We produce the majority of our electricity with heat engines.  Where we boil water into steam to spin a turbine.  Or use the expanding gases of combustion to spin a turbine.  The primary heat engines we use are coal-fired power plants, natural gas-power plants and nuclear power plants.  The next big source of electricity generation is hydroelectric.  A renewable energy source.  In 2011 it produced less than 8% of our electricity.  These sources combined produce in excess of 95% of all electricity.  While renewable energy sources (other than hydroelectric) make up a very small percentage of the total.  Wind power comes in under 3%.  And solar comes in at less than 0.2% of the total.  So we are a very long way from abandoning coal, natural gas and nuclear power.

Two other renewable energy sources appear to hold promise.  Two heat engines.  One powered by geothermal energy in the earth.  The other by burning our garbage.  In a waste-to-energy plant.  These appear attractive.  Geothermal power appears to be as clean as it gets.  For this heat isn’t man-made.  It’s planet-made.  And it’s just there for the taking.  But the taking of it gets a little complicated.  As is burning our trash.  Not to mention the fact that few people want trash incinerators in their neighborhoods.  For these reasons they each provide a very small percentage of the total electric power we produce.  Both coming in at less than half of 1%.

So why steam?  Why is it that we make so much of our electrical power by boiling water?  Because of the different states of matter.  Matter can be a solid, liquid or a gas.  And generally passes from one state to another in that order.  Although there are exceptions.  Such as dry ice that skips the liquid phase.  It sublimates from a solid directly into a gas.  And goes from a gas to a solid by deposition.  Water, though, follows the general rule.  Ice melts into water at 32 degrees Fahrenheit (or 0 degrees Celsius).  Or water freezes into ice at the same temperature.  Water vaporizes into steam at 212 degrees Fahrenheit (or 100 degrees Celsius).  Or steam condenses into water at the same temperature.  These changes in the state of matter are easy to produce.  At temperatures that we can easily attain.  Water is readily available to vaporize into steam.  It’s safe and easy to handle.  Making it the liquid of choice in a heat engine.

Today’s Coal-Fired Power Plant pulverizes Coal into a Dust and Blows it into the Firebox

A given amount of water will increase about 1600 times in volume when converted to steam.  It’s this expansion that we put to work.  It’s what pushed pistons in steam engines.  It’s what drove steam locomotives.  And it’s what spins the turbines in our power plants.  The plumes of steam you see is not steam, though.  What you see is water droplets in the steam.  Steam itself is an invisible gas.  And the hotter and drier (no water) it is the better.  For water droplets in steam will pit and wear the blades on a steam turbine.  Which is why the firebox of a coal-fired plant reaches temperatures up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1,650 degrees Celsius).  To superheat the steam.  And to use this heat elsewhere in the power plant such as preheating water entering the boiler.  So it takes less energy to vaporize it.

To get a fire that hot isn’t easy.  And you don’t get it by shoveling coal into the fire box.  Today’s coal-fired power plant pulverizes coal into a dust and blows it into the firebox.  Because small particles can burn easier and more completely than large chunks of coal.  As one fan blows in fuel another blows in air.  To help the fire burn hot.  The better and finer the fuel the better it burns.  The better the fuel burns the hotter the fire.  And the drier the steam it makes.  Which can spin a turbine with a minimum of wear.

In a geothermal power plant we pipe steam out of the ground to spin a turbine.  If it’s hot enough.  Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of geothermal wells that produce superheated dry steam.  Which limits how many of these plants we can build.  And the steam that the planet produces is not as clean as what man produces.  Steam out of the earth can contain a lot of contaminants.  Requiring additional equipment to process these contaminants out.  We can use cooler geothermal wells that produce wet steam but they require additional equipment to remove the water from the steam.  The earth may produce heat reliably but not water.  When we pipe this steam away the wells can run dry.  So these plants require condensers to condense the used steam back into water so we can pump it back to the well.  A typical plant may have several wells piped to a common plant.  Requiring a lot of piping both for steam and condensate.  You put all this together and a geothermal plant is an expensive plant.  And it is a plant that we can build in few places.  Which explains why geothermal power makes less than half of 1% of our electricity.

We generate approximately 87% of our Electricity from Coal, Natural Gas and Nuclear Power

So these are some the problems with geothermal.  Burning trash has even more problems.  The biggest problem is that trash is a terrible fuel.  We pulverize coal into a dust and blow into the firebox.  This allows a hot and uniform fire.  Trash on the other hand contains wet mattresses, wet bags of grass, car batteries, newspapers and everything else you’ve ever thrown away.  And if you ever lit a campfire or a BBQ you know some things burn better than other things.  And wet things just don’t burn at all.  So some of this fuel entering the furnace can act like throwing water on a hot fire.  Which makes it difficult to maintain a hot and uniform fire.  They load fuel on a long, sloping grate that enters the furnace.  Mechanical agitators shake the trash down this grate slowly.  As the trash approaches the fire it heats up and dries out as much as possible before entering the fire.  Still the fire burns unevenly.  They try to keep the temperature above 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (about 538 degrees Celsius) .  But they’re not always successful.

They can improve the quality of the fuel by processing it first.  Tearing open bags with machinery so people can hand pick through the trash.  They will remove things that won’t burn.  Then send what will burn to a shredder.  Chopping it up into smaller pieces.  This can help make for a more uniform burn.  But it adds a lot of cost.  So these plants tend to be expensive.  And nowhere as efficient as a coal-fired power plant (or nuclear power plant) in boiling water into superheated dry steam.  Also, raw trash tends to stink.  And no one really knows what’s in it when it burns.  Making people nervous about what comes out of their smoke stacks.  You add all of these things up and you see why less than half of 1% of our electricity comes from burning our trash.

This is why we generate approximately 87% of our electricity from coal, natural gas and nuclear power.  Coal and nuclear power can make some of the hottest and driest steam.  But making a hot fire or bringing a nuclear reactor on line takes time.  A lot of time.  So we use these as baseload power plants.  They generate the supply that meets the minimum demand.  Power that we use at all times.  Day or night.  Winter or summer.  They run 24/7 all year long.  Natural gas plants add to the baseload.  And handle peak demands over the baseload.  Because they don’t boil water they can come on line very quickly to pickup spikes in electrical demand.  Hydroelectric power shares this attribute, too.  As long as there is enough water in the reservoir to bring another generator on line.  The other 5% (wind, solar, geothermal, trash incinerators, etc.) is more of a novelty than serious power generation.

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Windmills, Waterwheels, Steam Engine, Electric Power, Coal, Heat Engine, Steam Turbine, Generator and Coal-Fired Power Plant

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 11th, 2012

Technology 101

By burning Coal to Boil Water into Steam to Move a Piston we could Build a Factory Anywhere

We created advanced civilization by harnessing energy.  And converting this energy into working power.  Our first efforts were biological.  Feeding and caring for large animals made these animals strong.  Their physiology converted food and water into strong muscles and bones.  Allowing them to pull heavy loads.  From plowing.  To heavy transportation.  To use in construction.  Of course the problem with animals is that they’re living things.  They eat and drink.  And poop and pee.  Causing a lot of pollution in and around people.  Inviting disease.

As civilization advanced we needed more energy.  And we found it in wind and water.  We built windmills and waterwheels.  To capture the energy in moving wind and moving water.  And converted this into rotational motion.  Giving us a cleaner power source than working animals.  Power that didn’t have to rest or eat.  And could run indefinitely as long as the wind blew and the water flowed.  Using belts, pulleys, cogs and gears we transferred this rotational power to a variety of work stations.  Of course the problem with wind and water is that you needed to be near wind and water.  Wind was more widely available but less reliable.  Water was more reliable but less widely available.  Each had their limitations.

The steam engine changed everything.  By burning a fuel (typically coal) to boil water into steam to move a piston we could build a factory anywhere.  Away from rivers.  And even in areas that had little wind.  The reciprocating motion of the piston turned a wheel to convert it into rotational motion.  Using belts, pulleys, cogs and gears we transferred this rotational power to a variety of work stations.  This carried us through the Industrial Revolution.  Then we came up with something better.  The electric motor.  Instead of transferring rotational motion to a workstation we put an electric motor at the work station.  And powered it with electricity.  Using electric power to produce rotational motion at the workstation.  Electricity and the electric motor changed the world just as the steam engine had changed the world earlier.  Today the two have come together.

You can tell a Power Plant uses a Scrubber by the White Steam puffing out of a Smokestack

Coal has a lot of energy in it.  When we burn it this energy is transformed into heat.  Hot heat.  For coal burns hot.  The modern coal-fired power plant is a heat engine.  It uses the heat from burning coal to boil water into steam.  And as steam expands it creates great pressure.  We can use this pressure to push a piston.  Or turn a steam turbine.  A rotational device with fins.  As the steam pushes on these fins the turbine turns.  Converting the high pressure of the steam into rotational motion.  We then couple this rotational motion of the steam turbine to a generator.  Which spins the generator to produce electricity.

Coal-fired power plants are hungry plants.  A large plant burns about 1,000 tons of coal an hour.  Or about 30,000 pounds a minute.  That’s a lot of coal.  We typically deliver coal to these plants in bulk.  Via Great Lakes freighters.  River barges.  Or unit trains.  Trains made up of nothing but coal hopper cars.  These feed coal to the power plants.  They unload and conveyor systems take this coal and create big piles.  You can see conveyors rising up from these piles of coal.  These conveyors transport this coal to silos or bunkers.  Further conveyor systems transfer the coal from these silos to the plant.  Where it is smashed and pulverized into a dust.  And then it’s blown into the firebox, mixed with hot air and ignited.  Creating enormous amounts of heat to boil an enormous amount of water.  Creating the steam to turn a turbine.

Of course, with combustion there are products left over.  Sulfur impurities in the coal create sulfur dioxide.  And as the coal burns it leaves behind ash.  A heavy ash that falls to the bottom of the firebox.  Bottom ash.  And a lighter ash that is swept away with the flue gases.  Fly ash.  Filters catch the fly ash.  And scrubbers use chemistry to remove the sulfur dioxide from the flue gases.  By using a lime slurry.  The flue gases rise through a falling mist of lime slurry.  They chemically react and create calcium sulfate.  Or Gypsum.  The same stuff we use to make drywall out of.  You can tell a power plant uses a scrubby by the white steam puffing out of a smokestack.  If you see great plumes puffing out of a smokestack there’s little pollution entering the atmosphere.  A smokestack that isn’t puffing out a plume of white steam is probably spewing pollution into the atmosphere.

Coal is a Highly Concentrated Source of Energy making Coal King when it comes to Electricity

When the steam exits the turbines it enters a condenser.  Which cools it and lowers its temperature and pressure.  Turning the steam back into water.  It’s treated then sent back to the boiler.  However, getting the water back into the boiler is easier said than done.  The coal heats the water into a high pressure steam.  So high that it’s hard for anything to enter the boiler.  So this requires a very powerful pump to overcome that pressure.  In fact, this pump is the biggest pump in the plant.  Powered by electric power.  Or steam.  Sucking some 2-3 percent of the power the plant generates.

Coupled to the steam turbine is a power plant’s purpose.  Generators.  Everything in a power plant serves but one purpose.  To spin these generators.  And when they spin they generate a lot of power.  Producing some 40,000 amps at 10,000 to 30,000 volts at a typical large plant.  Multiplying current by power and you get some 1,200 MW of power.  Which can feed a lot of homes with 100 amp, 240 volt services.  Some 50,000 with every last amp used in their service.  Or more than twice this number under typical loads.  Add a few boilers (and turbine and generator sets) and one plant can power every house and business across large geographic areas in a state.  Something no solar array or wind farm can do.  Which is why about half of all electricity produced in the U.S. is generated by coal-fired power plants.

Coal is a highly concentrated source of energy.  A little of it goes a long way.  And a lot of it produces enormous amounts of electric power.  Making coal king when it comes to electricity.  There is nothing that can match the economics and the logistics of using coal.  Thanks to fracking, though, natural gas is coming down in price.  It can burn cleaner.  And perhaps its greatest advantage over coal is that we can bring a gas-fired plant on line in a fraction amount of the time it takes to bring a coal-fired plant on line.  For coal-fired plants are heat engines that boil water into steam to spin turbines.  Whereas gas-fired plants use the products of combustion to spin their turbines.  Utilities typically use a combination of coal-fired and gas-fired plants.  The coal-fired plants run all of the time and provide the base load.  When demand peaks (when everyone turns on their air conditioners in the evening) the gas-fired plants are brought on line to meet this peak demand.

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