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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Optimization of Energy Sources

Going on a little tangent here today.  I'm looking out my hotel window on I-81 near Frackville, PA, at a nearby coal-fired power plant.  It's a relatively small one, a 48-megawatt unit owned interestingly enough by Waste Management and operated by its Wheelabrator Technologies subsidiary. It's a cold, clear day today, and a small steam plume is rising from the plant, but otherwise it looks pretty darn clean.

Frackville in is the middle of the mid-eastern Pennsylvania coal fields, famous for its high-energy anthracite coal that was mined heavily in the early 20th century. So it makes sense that some amount of its remnant coal be utilized for power production. It's there, we need the power, so even if coal-fired power is not the "greenest" option, why not use it? Current events in the middle east remind us that the current global energy supply chain can be a fickle partner.

As I turn my eyes to the west, I am also gazing on a line of graceful wind  turbines, those of the Locust Ridge Wind Farm. The two phases (2006 and 2008) of this wind farm contain a total of 64 turbines, each with a rated capacity of 2 megawatts. They produce in total 440,000 megawatt-hours of electricity, approximately enough juice to power 60,000 homes a year.

One could get caught up in a debate on the relevant merits and demerits of these competing energy resources, but looking at them side-by-side like this helps one have a larger perspective: that they are both there, both running smoothly and cleanly, and both providing the power that keeps our economy and our lives in order. The fact that one is "cleaner", and one is "cheaper", dissolves from the mind like sand stirred up by a frightened trout in a cold, clear stream.

In fact, it gives one a perspective of "global optimization" of resources, as we in operations research like to term it. We have an energy problem which has as its objective to sustainably produce the least expensive multiple forms of energy, given the constraints of the total demand within the region of possible delivery, current delivered price of each source, with the lowest possible environmental cost. The solution to this problem will be a solution utilizing all forms of energy, especially as demand and global instability grows.

So, within easy sight of all this coal and wind power, does wood energy make sense? Glad you asked.. :-) The mountain ridge upon which the turbines sit, and behind which the power plant is snuggled, is covered as far as the eye can see with small diameter, dense, hardwood forests. That is, perfect feedstock for wood energy. Firewood stacks are a common site in the small hamlets of this part of the state. By extension, it would make perfect sense for the hotel in which I am sitting and the Cracker Barrel restaurant next door to be heated by a small district heating solution, utilizing wood chips produced from the local forests. It would almost certainly reduce the heating costs of both facilities (hotels and restaurants use a lot of heat and hot water) as well as greatly reduce the electricity usage of both, thereby reducing the operational costs of both businesses.

Maybe then the owners could reduce their prices. Between dinner and a nice warm bed for the night, this has been an expensive post.


Anonymous said...

The fact shows when our oil-sourcing countries seize the resources with violence, we just couldn't get it. This is economy crisis, the economic rules don't work the same as before. I hate to see the gas price going up day by day when I have to pass the gas station. The earlier we rely on our domestic energy, the less danger we are put into. I believe wood is one of the options.

Chuck said...

Even when not in a crisis, it just makes sense to make our energy resources stretch as far as they can, doesn't it? Our kids and grandkids are already saddled with enough of our debt, they won't need super-expensive energy rationing piled on top.

Anonymous said...

And how exactly do you intend to harvest and transport that small diameter wood in a cost-effective manner? Prices will have to be sky high before that comes to pass, and by then it will be too late to stop global warming anyway.

Chuck Ray said...

Great question, Anon, and one that needs to be considered in depth. But it's kind of straw man, in a way...wood supply has always responded to demand in this country. Possibly, the average cost of chips will go up with lower productivity, but perhaps only slightly as competition in the logging community drives investment in automated harvesting and in-woods processing equipment.

They're harvesting small diameter stems every day in Scandinavia, in similar terrain and harsher weather. We can get it done here.