Tuesday, March 7, 2017

More Infrastructure

Electricity generation and transmission is a big part of our infrastructure too. Most people have no idea how it’s generated.

This is another piece that you have to click through to see the interactive graphics. Here’s a non-interactive sample showing where solar power is generated in the U.S.


17-03-07 Capture from The Washington Post of Solar Generation

Nationwide, most of our electricity still comes from burning coal in large powerplants (like the one outside of Delta, or the smaller one along I-80 on the way from downtown Salt Lake out to the airport). Coal is down to about 1/3 of the total, but in Utah it’s about 80%. This is because of the large coal fields in northeastern Wyoming, and the far better than adequate freight rail network in the intermountain west.

Natural gas also powers about 1/3 of what we do. This is a fairly recent development, mostly related to technological advancements in (primarily) horizontal drilling and (secondarily) fracking. One thing I am curious about, but have not been able to document, is that it seems to me that there must have been excess capacity in gas pipelines before that happened, because it doesn’t seem like they’re building pipelines everywhere.

Nuclear power is next, with about 1/5 of our power generation. This is mostly in the eastern half of the country. Nuclear plants use about twice as much water for cooling as other power plants (although they contaminate none of it, and recycle most of it). There’s a reason the Fukushima plant was hit by a tsunami: they put it on the coast on purpose.

BTW: many people think any cooling tower is a sign of nuclear power, but they can be used for any sort of plant.

Oil is down near the bottom of the list. We use oil for a lot of stuff, but it has transportation costs that are on the high side for electricity generation, so it isn’t used much for that.


There’s a huge problem with electricity generation infrastructure that is not mentioned in this otherwise useful source. This is that electricity is very hard to store: you generate, and you use it. Generally speaking, batteries are lousy: inefficient, toxic, and not biodegradable. That’s why we use them in our small devices, but not in, say, hairdryers.

The four sources listed above are the ones that can be ramped up and down to satisfy peak demand (late afternoon into late evening, mostly in the summer). The ones below are unlikely to ever fit our usage patterns, unless we figure out better storage solutions (e.g., molten salt, kinetics, flywheels).


Collectively, wind, solar, and hydro cover about 1/7 of our needs.

Hydro appears to be stuck at current production: no one wants any more dams. And, really big ones, like the Hoover and Lake Powell dams don’t generate that much power (I personally recommend a dam tour sometime, it’s sort of amazing how little they actually accomplish with this huge structure). Wind power is starting to be subject to the same problems: the same places with wind are the ones where people have clear views they’'. Solar is fine, but nowhere near as important as people think it is: it won’t be until it’s a lot cheaper.

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