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Archive for the ‘Electricity’ Category

Cyber-Security Grid

The Freedom of Information Act (5 U.S.C. 552) was originally enacted in 1966, and has been amended a few times since. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that “[t]he basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.” NLRB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co., 437 U.S. 214, 242 (1978). There are, however, nine exemptions, including three related specifically to law enforcement, under which the federal government can withhold information that would otherwise be disclosed under the FOIA.

At federal agencies today, and particularly at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, those exemptions from disclosure have been so broadly construed that one can say with reason that FOIA has been administratively repealed. Instead of starting with a policy of full disclosure, from which certain specific categories of information are carved out, federal agencies instead start with St. Peter’s maxim: they’d rather cut off their left hand than allow it to obtain information about their right. Imagine being at the British Admiralty circa 1906 and receiving a request from Kaiser Wilhelm for a complete set of plans for the H.M.S. Dreadnought. That will give you an idea of the view contemporary federal agencies take toward FOIA requests.

Like water in a state of nature, less interesting work in a bureaucracy always flows downhill, where it is handled by persons of lower seniority and even less authority. This leads to over-classification of agency materials as top secret and exempt from FOIA. After all, if you’ve been at your agency job for four years or less and your responsibilities include responding to FOIA requests, why would you release something and risk your superior’s ire, if not your job? Better to pick out an exemption or two from the FOIA menu and send back a response of

REQUEST DENIED

Of course FOIA provides for remedies to obtain disclosure, and those often work for large media companies and the like. But for the vast majority of Americans who lack the resources to commence a FOIA enforcement action in federal district court, those remedies are worse than useless. They’re a cynical joke played on the American people.

Now we have another FERC FOIA dust-up. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) submitted to FERC a Notice of Penalty against an electric utility for 127 cybersecurity violations between 2015 and 2018. The company agreed to pay a record-setting $10 million fine its cybersecurity violations. According to some reports the utility is Duke Energy, though that hasn’t been officially confirmed. FERC doesn’t want to publicly release the name of the electric utility.

Why shouldn’t the public be able to know whether their utility is the one that’s risking the reliability of their electricity supply and distribution system because they’re unable to get their cybersecurity act together? These violations, and the $10 million fine, are the fault of the utility’s management, not its ratepayers. Shouldn’t the ratepayers be allowed to know whether their utility is going to try to pass this cost onto them through rates?

Public Citizen, a watchdog group, has demanded that FERC disclose the utility’s name. They have stated that

“Concealing the name of the recipient of the largest fine in history sends a confusing message to the public that large penalties do not come with full accountability,” said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s energy program and author of the filing. “Future violators may be able to similarly hide behind the veil of anonymity. Moreover, keeping the public in the dark about the cybersecurity track record of our electric utilities may create a false sense of security and reduce the likelihood of more public awareness and vigilance needed to protect cybersecurity.”

The real problem is that bureaucracies like FERC do not want the curtain pulled back on anything they do, regardless of whether any exemption applies. Any unplanned exposure of their operations risks upsetting their messaging and tarnishing the public image they want to create. Every public performance by an agency has to be staged just so, or else, in this internet media-driven age, a public relations catastrophe could occur.

 

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Paradise (KY) Coal Plant

The Paradise 3 Coal Plant near Drakesboro, Kentucky

Today the Tennessee Valley Authority, the federally-chartered corporation that provides electricity to all or parts of seven southeastern states, will determine whether the Paradise 3 generating station near Drakesboro, KY and the Bull Run station in Clinton, Tennessee, both of which are coal-fired, will be closed. You might well ask why a coal-fired station would be named “Paradise.” If Adam and Eve had lived anywhere near the Paradise 3 station, as pictured above, they probably would have skipped that whole business with the serpent and just left on their own.

If the plants are to be closed, it won’t happen overnight. They’ll be phased out as part of a process that preserves grid reliability. President Drumpf has urged the TVA to keep the two plants open, which would help coal mining companies that contributed to his campaign. It would also help preserve some employment of coal miners, but any claim that keeping these two plants running is “bringing coal back” is absurd. The percentage of coal-fired generation has been on a steady downward march and, as explained in a recent post, that is not due to some alleged “war on coal.”

The reasons for shutting down these two plants shows the problems politicians encounter when their campaign claims to “dig coal” meet the real world. A report commissioned by TVA states that these two plants will have relatively high projected future maintenance costs and environmental compliance expenditures, high forced outage rates and are a “poor generation fit” for TVA’s future power demands.

Forget about air emissions for a moment. When coal is burned, it doesn’t just disappear. Just like the burned-out briquettes in the barbecue the morning after the party, coal leaves ashes behind; coal ash, to be specific. It’s a mess:

Coal Ash Pit

When it rains, water falls onto the open coal ash pit and seeps down through it, percolating into the ground below with bad effects on groundwater resources. When it’s dry, even a moderate wind can pick up coal ash and blow it over a wide area.

Coal-fired generation will be with us for some time yet, but over the long term it’s an 18th- and 19th-century technology that will go the way of the cross-bow, the walled city, and the eight-track tape.

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AOC

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY, 14th Dist.)

There’s a lot to digest in the Green New Deal Resolution introduced by New York Representative Ocasio-Cortez.

First, though, I have to hand it to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. Being referred to just by your initials is a mark of high achievement in American politics. Exactly what it means can be debated, but there can be no doubt that it implies some degree of general recognition among the public. We had FDR. We had JFK. Then came LBJ. Eisenhower was called Ike, of course, but he never ascended to the heights DDE. That was probably better for him since those initials are uncomfortably close to DDT. Reagan was never RR. These instances could be multiplied.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez has been in office for just over a month and she’s already earned her initials: AOC. Whether or not you like her or her views, she’s gained recognition, and some popularity, because she’s correctly viewed as putting the demos back in (little “d”) democracy. Democracy is not equivalent to populism, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Back to the Green New Deal. Section (2)(C) of the GND Resolution calls for meeting 100 percent of the power demand of the United States through “clean, renewable and zero-emission sources…” That could portend some problems for AOC’s supporters because “renewable” and “zero-emission” are not the same. As Voltaire said, “if you wish to debate with me, define your terms.”

Exelon views nuclear generation as zero-emission. Is nuclear generation “clean”? If you formerly lived near Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Fukushima, your answer is probably a resounding “no!” Likewise, as people who live (or used to live) in those three places will tell you, nuclear power is zero-emission…until it isn’t.

That’s not to say that nuclear should not be part of a balanced power generation portfolio, but, as  I’ve discussed in the Sparkspread over the last several years, two major problems in nuclear generation have to be addressed: spent fuel disposition and regulatory capture. Dealing with those two issues will go a long way to clearing various energy-related poisons from the American political bloodstream. Unfortunately, there has been thus far insufficient political will to deal with either of these issues.

A ten-year schedule to move the U.S. to 100% renewable electricity generation is a laudable goal. But it will be far more ambitious than JFK’s end-of-the=decade moonshot goal of 1961.

If you want more renewable generation, you’ll need more transmission lines – new ones. Not everybody likes new transmission lines, especially when they come to close to their homes and farms, or affect the vistas of nature in America.

Renewables are generation resources, and while renewable generation forecasting has improved with improved meteorology, renewables are not dispatch resources. If a coal-fired or natural gas-fired station goes down, or if its access to the transmission grid is lost for some reason, that incident may occur at a moment when sunlight or wind conditions are insufficient to enable a renewable generating station to supply power to the system.

That is not to say that renewable generation should not be developed, or that it’s worse than coal or natural gas or nuclear, or that there should be no ambitious plan to substantially expand renewable generation over the next ten years. But every form of electricity generation, just like every other discrete product of human ingenuity, has its problems. I’m a big believer in making no small plans, but at the same time don’t get too far away from the known facts.

 

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Electric utilities have to worry about a lot of stuff that sounds mundane, including that part of system maintenance that goes under the heading of “vegetation management.” In plain English, that means trimming trees so that they don’t interfere with transmission and distribution lines. The problem is very large and very complex because many miles of utility lines run through remote areas in which trees and brush, left to grow over decades (plural), can cause problems for both inspection and access for maintenance. In the eastern U.S., vegetation management is primarily a matter of system reliability: A branch or fallen tree can press one wire against another, causing a short or other disruption in service.

But in the western U.S., vegetation management is also very much a safety concern. A tree branch doesn’t need to touch a line to cause a fire. If it gets too close, electricity can arc from the line to the branch. If the branch is dry, which is often the case in rural California, it can burst into flame. Sparks, embers or burning fragments of the branch may drop to the ground. The ground is usually full of dry leaves and underbrush. Combine that with strong winds and within a few minutes a vast area of dry forest will be turned into a blazing inferno. The proximity of suburbs and exurbs to these forested areas only increases the risk to lives and property.

California generally, and PG&E in particular, has had a very tough history in this regard. going back decades. The Camp Fire, which raged through much of last November in PG&E’s service territory, shows that vegetation management is literally a matter of life and death: 86 persons died in the Camp Fire, which also destroyed 14,000 homes, more than 500 businesses, and 4,300 other structures. Estimates of damages are in the range of $7 billion.

CNN reports that California utility PG&E will file Chapter 11 at the end of this month. It’s believed that a PG&E power line came in contact with nearby trees and sparked the fire. The Camp Fire comes on the heels of a series of wildfires, also blamed on PG&E, in 2017. Those fires caused $10 billion in damages and 44 deaths. In 11 of those fires, state investigators found the company violated codes regarding brush clearance near its power lines or had made related violations.

 

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coal-mining-scene2

Coal mine, early 20th century

“Friendly fire” is one of those euphemisms that’s hard to square with reality. It occurs when some of your troops are out ahead, most likely going toe-to-toe with enemy forces. Reinforcements arrive. But the reinforcements mistake their own troops for the enemy and start firing at them. Whoops.

It’s nothing new. In Britain’s First Afghan War (1839-42), a contingent of Indian troops were arriving by sea at Karachi, Pakistan, the closest port of call to the front lines. They were to join up with other local troops from the Sindh who were also allied to the British. These Sindhi soldiers were stationed at a combination lighthouse-fortress that guarded the mouth of the harbor at Karachi.

When the warship carrying the Indian troops arrived in the harbor, the commander of the fort made the unfortunate decision to greet it with an artillery salute. The ship mistook this for an attack and opened fire. Within a very short time many of their Sindhi allies lay dead underneath the smoking rubble of what used to be a lighthouse and a fort.

And that’s the problem with the war on coal. There is no war on coal, but politicians can use it to get votes. Get people angry. Make them feel like victims. Then they’ll vote for you. Remember “Trump Digs Coal”?

CNN (yes, I know, it’s CNN) put out an interesting clip yesterday on whether Trump has fulfilled his promises on restoring coal mining jobs. Electricity generation is the leading use of coal in the United States, but the fact is that more and more  coal-fired generation is shutting down not  because of any Obama-era war on coal, but because coal-fired generation just cannot compete on price with natural gas-fired generation and, increasingly, with renewables.

But it’s easier to win votes if you can say there’s a war on. Then you have an enemy. In fact, it’s pure economics.

The reason that natural gas is cheaper is because of fracking and the development of reserves in what were previously hard-to-reach (if not impossible-to-reach) shale formations. Fracking and natural gas spurred economic development in Texas and Louisiana, along the Gulf Coast, in an area running through Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York known as the Marcellus shale, and in North Dakota in the Bakken.

Cheap natural gas is good for the manufacturing sector. You need steel to drill for natural gas. With cheaper natural gas, steel manufacturing costs go down. Which makes steel equipment for fracking less expensive. Which makes for more natural gas…and so on.

Cheap natural gas is a feedstock for other products, such as ethylene for plastics. You may not like plastics, but, face it, you use them every day without noticing it.

One of the concerns sparked by the recent death of FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre is whether natural gas projects, such as pipelines, might be delayed. FERC has tried to allay those fears, but the magnitude of the concern shows one of the economic differences between coal and natural gas: transportation. Natural gas moves by pipeline. Coal moves by railroad. Large portions of the railroad infrastructure in the United States is in a dangerous state of decay, and needs to be rebuilt. In terms of economic returns, railroad repair would be a much better use of $5 billion than a wall along the Rio Grande.

Sure, environmental regulations hamper coal-fired generation, but the real deciding factor is the price of the coal-fired kilowatt-hour.

Coal-fired generation will continue to be used in the U.S., but it will decrease. If the government decides to keep coal alive, that’s a subsidy no matter what it’s called. To the extent you subsidize one player (coal) in a market (electricity), you hurt others (natural gas, renewables), and the other industries that depend on those other fuels — whether in North Dakota, along the Gulf Coast, or in the Marcellus.

And that’s why the war on coal is a war of 100% friendly fire.

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FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre passed away this past Wednesday after a battle with cancer. Our condolences to his family and colleagues.

His passing leaves FERC with four remaining commissioners, two Republicans and two Democrats. According to the Washington Post, as of January 3, 2019, of 707 federal executive branch appointments requiring Senate confirmation (like the FERC chairmanship), 127 have no nominee. Given the other storms that are likely to hit the White House in 2019, the FERC chairmanship may not be high on the list of the administration’s priorities.

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transmission line

The transmission lines you see along the highway may strike you as ugly eyesores or as proud monuments to modern civilization. But whatever your point of view, one thing is certain: every one of those lines is the result of a complex physical and economic calculation, including a number of forward projections on load and capacity. Plus, while some stand-up comedians are called high voltage, the real high voltage is in those lines. Why is the voltage high?

Under the second law of thermodynamics, whenever power is transferred, some of it is lost. In the case of transmission lines, losses take the form of heat emanating from the conductors, leakage of current across insulators, ionization of pathways in the air surrounding the conductors, or just current running to ground. Also, magnetic and electric fields are created around the conductors, which create inductance and capacitance in the lines. The short answer is that the higher the voltage, the smaller the losses.

Under Ohm’s Law, the voltage (V) is equal to the product of the current (I) and the resistance (R) in the circuit, or V = I*R. The power (P) is the amount of the energy absorbed in the circuit (i.e., delivered to a load such as a customer’s machinery), which is equal to the voltage (V) times the current (I), or P = V*I. The power lost (PL) when current flows through a conductor is the product of the resistance (R) of the conductor through which the current flows and the square of that current. PL = I2*R. Thus, if you lower the current (I), you reduce the amount of power lost.

But if you lower the current, under P = V*I you would have to raise the voltage in order to keep the same amount of power going to the load; that is, the power must be constant, so under P = V * I, V has to increase if I is lowered.

The reverse is also true. If you raise the voltage, you can decrease the current and keep the power constant. So if we were to raise the voltage by a factor of 100, the current would be reduced to 1/100th of its former value.

Going back to our loss equation, since power lost is proportional to the square of the current (I2*R), reducing current by a factor of 100 reduces losses by a factor of 10,000 (.01 * .01 = .0001).

And that’s why high voltage makes sense.

 

 

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