I was recently having coffee with a friend and we began talking about the role of nuclear energy, specifically whether Indian Point nuclear power facility, which you can see from my parents’ front yard, should be shut down.
My answer is: No. Now before yelling and opinion starts, let’s take a few minutes to investigate this issue a little more logically.
Ever-Increasing Demand for Power
We, as a society, demand ever increasing amounts of electricity. Every electronic device draws power, from your refrigerator to your cell phone, to the little green light on light switches that stays on all the time. None of this comes free of charge. Even the industries that draw huge amounts of electricity do so at our demand because ultimately industry supplies things we use from food to online banking to the server hosting this website. I realize it’s generally considered poor grammar to use demand twice in the same paragraph but it’s important to realize electricity and power are produced according to demand, the demand you and I put on the industry. Electricity producers don’t produce power willy-nilly and cause us to become addicted to it. It’s precisely the other way around, we demand more and the industry builds and produces in response.
In this series of articles I’ll begin discussing how power is made and distributed. Then I’ll compare “green” options such as wind power and solar power as alternatives to coal, gas and nuclear power and conservation. As will be seen there’s a startling disconnect between what people believe and what can actually be delivered in terms of electricity. We’ll always find electricity to meet demand, the problem arises in that Americans do not tend to want to use less or build (and pay for) more capacity to produce. It reminds of children who demand candy when they’re presented with spinach or broccoli with their dinner. It simply isn’t doable and eventually will land the child in bed early for the night. In our case this obstinance will simply give us higher energy costs. Suppose we live in an overly permissive household where the child gets candy for dinner every night. The child will get fat. In our demand for more power, we’ll experience ever increasing environmental damage and damage to human health.
The grid sounds a lot like The Matrix or the name of some other sci-fi movie. However it’s simply the network of power lines connecting power plants and electricity users together. On a map it looks like a big messy net of connections, and in fact it is. The electrical grid is a non-linear network of electrical transmission lines and power plants existing at points all over this grid. This system has grown in an organic fashion since the early 20th century and exploded in size after WWII.
The United States has several grids linked together – an Eastern sector, Midwest sector, Western sector and Southern sector (Texas). These are the areas of higher knottiness, and these can be broken down into smaller areas of tangled wires, especially around Northeastern Cities. The power facilities exist all over the grid. The upside of this system is that a power plant anywhere can put power in and it can be used anywhere else on the grid. If one area has excess production capacity they can shunt it over to places where more is needed. In New York State, New York City is a high demand area that uses more than one-third of New York State’s power. Not surprisingly Western New York often has excess power that is shunted downstate to meet NYC’s demands. This system also allows power to be routed around problem areas or even to push power to other grid areas in the US.
Where Does It Go?
On the other hand, electricity produced at a power plant must be consumed immediately. Thus power plants do not produce more or less than is needed. Power producers, and for New York State the Northeast Power Coordinating Council Inc (NPCC), carefully monitor this situation and make sure the power being produced is meeting the demand. It reminds me of that I Love Lucy episode where Lucy is working wrapping chocolates in a chocolate factory. When the line goes too slow there’s no chocolate but when the line speeds up too many unwrapped chocolates get through, forcing her to eat them and stuff them in her hat and clothes. Of course the controlling systems are more sophisticated than that, but the idea is the same. Excess or paucity of electricity leads to overloads or brownouts and blackouts. It is a delicate balancing act between customers and producers.
The NPCC was formed in the wake of a 1966 Northeast blackout similar to the one experienced in 2003. They create rules and regulations that allow efficient transmission of power and they also carefully monitor the demand and try to predict how much is needed.
Predicting Peak Power Use
The NPCC predicts a peak demand of about 37,000 MW (mega Watts or million Watts) for all of New York State in mid July of 2011– the height of the air conditioning season. At the same time, the New York State Independent Operators (NYISO) predicts a peak demand of approximately 33,000 MW for the same period, a bit less and perhaps more optimistic but in the same ball park. Both organizations report New York State has approximately 40,000 MW of total generating capacity. Or in other words, enough plants to produce 40,000 MW of power. Notice that the amount needed is 33-37,000 MW and the amount available is 40,000 MW? Since you need a buffer (i.e. can’t produce 40,000 and use 40,000 MW simultaneously) that leaves us with about 3-5 MW of reserve to be called up. Depending on the higher or lower end that is only three to five 1000 MW power power plants. For comparison, Indian Point produces 2000 MW and the Huntley Station in Tonawanda produces about 900 MW. The loss of a single power plant would put tremendous stress on the system.
Uh Oh, Blackout!
This is exactly the situation that caused the Northeast blackout of 2003. The July day was very hot and the grid was handling around 29,000 MW. A single power plant in Ohio shut down for repairs creating a low voltage region in the grid around it. The load began to try to balance itself by sending power (done by computer) to the effected region. Power lines, like all metals, expand when heated, and the huge amount of power flowing through caused them to sag until they touched tree limbs, caught fire and broke, isolating regions of the grid. Isolated regions of the grid suddenly had high voltages (all the plants were still producing full power to supply the grid) and automatic controls shut them down. The high voltage spike shot back and forth through the system from Ottawa to New York, to Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. Along the way plants disconnected and shut down to protect themselves from damage and ultimately shut down hundreds of power plant and left approximately 55 million people without power.
Next Up: How is electricity generated?