The Future of Electricity
Global warming and efficiency
While the environmental and political issue of greenhouse gases and climate change continues to generate headlines, the folks who generate and transmit electric power to co-op members continue to search for practical answers.
The main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, is difficult to control for many reasons--and any meaningful reductions would have to come not just from electric utilities, but also from a variety of businesses and even individuals.
Power plants that generate electricity from coal are only one source of carbon dioxide (C02). Other industries, as well as America's millions of cars and trucks crisscrossing the nation's roads, and even boats, locomotives, and lawn mowers, all add huge amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
It's a scientific fact that burning fossil fuels for whatever purpose releases greenhouse gases--and nobody's figured out a way to change that yet. Among all the man-made sources of carbon dioxide, power plants and their greenhouse gas emissions have attracted attention because they're big and in obvious, stationary locations.
But as noted in last month's column, carbon dioxide also occurs naturally in the Earth's atmosphere. In fact, greenhouse gases are a vital part of all life. Animals breathe in oxygen and exhale CO2, while plants breathe in CO2 and exhale oxygen.
And that's where the problem of attempting to regulate or control the emission of greenhouse gases gets complicated--and where consumers can really make a difference.
Under the provisions of the Clean Air Act of 1990, utilities of all kinds have been required to monitor and report their carbon dioxide emissions. Phased in gradually over several years, continuous monitoring and once-an-hour reports of greenhouse gases have become a basic part of generating electricity nationwide since 1995.
Here in Kentucky the TVA, at its Shawnee and Paradise generating stations, Big Rivers Electric Co-op plants at Reid, Coleman, and two other sites, and East Kentucky Power Co-op at each of its three eastern Kentucky sites, all have monitors on their stacks measuring and recording data as they generate electricity for co-op members. But for now, reporting CO2 emissions is the only requirement--there are no limits or standards.
Although proven technologies already exist for removing some things from boiler flue gases (for example, scrubbers for sulfur dioxide, SCRs for nitrogen oxides), presently there's no proven technology for removing CO2. After all, the release of carbon dioxide is one of the normal physical results of combustion. So the focus for now--and in the immediate future--is to improve efficiency.
"If we can produce more electricity with less coal, then we'll emit less carbon dioxide and all the other pollutants," says Bob Hughes, Environmental Affairs manager for East Kentucky Power, which generates electricity for 17 co-ops in Kentucky. "Improving efficiency is to our benefit all the way around."
Mike Thompson, the Power Generation technical advisor at Big Rivers (which generates electricity for 22 western Kentucky counties), notes, "New boiler technology is much more efficient than it was 20 years ago. One of the newest technological innovations is the 'super-critical' boiler, made of high-tech metals. These new building materials offer a way to burn coal at extremely high heat and high pressure." That means there would be fewer emissions byproducts for every megawatt of electricity generated.
But replacing old boilers with new ones takes a lot of time and enormous amounts of money.
"As a co-op, our obligation is to serve, to provide our members with electricity," East Kentucky Power's Bob Hughes says. "Co-ops are typically small, with a small technical staff, and generally aren't in the position to install and operate such large expensive equipment as 'super-critical' boilers."
For now, that kind of technology seems to be for the industry giants among the investor-owned, for-profit utilities. "The biggest thing we can do now, as co-ops operating smaller coal-fired generating plants," Hughes says, "is to continue to look for ways to become more efficient as we operate the facilities we already have."
Improving efficiency isn't just a goal for the generation and transmission sector of the electric utility business. It's also a key for the local co-ops who distribute that electricity to members who use electricity for their businesses, farms, and homes. The idea is to make sure that every kilowatt sent through the power lines is used in the most efficient way possible.
Kentucky's 24 local distribution co-ops offer a variety of programs designed to help people use electricity wisely, an approach to efficiency and energy conservation known as "demand side management."
Local distribution co-ops offer different types of energy-saving services for their customers, depending on what works best in their local communities.
At Jackson Energy Cooperative in McKee, for example, Vice President of Customer Service Rodney Chrisman describes several popular options.
"In our 'All-Seasons Comfort Home' program, we work with people who're building a new home and their building contractors to make sure they get the most efficient heating and air conditioning system possible, meet our standards for proper insulation, and also install energy-efficient lighting and appliances," Chrisman says. This summer more than 20 co-op members have taken advantage of this no-fee service.
"For existing homes," Chrisman continues, "our co-op offers a 'Heat Pump Tune-Up Program.' At a co-op member's house we'll seal the ductwork, change air filters, and often make recommendations for any other improvements that will mean the electricity used for heating and cooling isn't wasted." Private contractors would charge up to $300 for similar services, but the co-op charges only $40.
Jackson Energy Co-op also offers free energy audits, as well as a "Button Up" program of rebates to co-op members who meet certain requirements when they improve their older homes' insulation.
While cutting out waste in one house may only save a few kilowatts each month, as Big Rivers' Thompson points out, "If everybody does it, we'll see significant improvements."
To find out what programs your co-op offers, give them a call or check out the energy-efficiency ideas at the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives Web site at www.kaec.org/energy/efficiency.htm. Also, make sure you read the "Cut Your Utility Bills" column in this magazine every month. You can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions while you save money.
Next month: Mercury--the next target for regulation