Sunday, December 18, 2016

Electric Power Wonk Fun

Brad Plummer at Vox discusses a new paper and interactive electric power map from the University of Texas. 

The map is here:

The map allows one to tweak various factors to figure out the Levelized Cost of Electricity for producing new electric power generation in any given county around the United States. Pretty fun stuff for energy wonks. It needs to be emphasized that in many counties the most cost effective approach might be to buy new electric power from elsewhere. The paper that goes with the map program lays out a number of reasonable scenarios to demonstrate how the map works.

Scenario 4 is a fairly reasonable starting point is fairly reflective of current conditions.

On a national level natural gas (orange), wind (light green) and solar (purple and gray) are the dominate new generating sources. The map is not a very good outlook for coal (yellow). The map is reasonable reflection on how new electric energy sources including replacement of old power plants has been taking place - lots of new combined cycle natural gas plants and wind as well as solar in the southwest.

Narrowing down the view to Washington State:

The map of Scenario 4 in Washington State shows combine cycle natural gas (orange) as being the cheapest source of new electric generation. Yellow is coal! How could that be? If one would want to add electric generation say in Port Angeles, natural gas does not work so well as there is a lack of natural gas pipelines. The same is true for Island County and southwest Washington. In all practical purposes those yellow areas will likely but new electric energy capacity from elsewhere. The same would be true of that light blue area swath in northeast Washington. Lack of natural gas and no ability to cost effectively ship coal into the area means that if one wants to put in new electric generating capacity one would go nuclear.

The gray in Skamania County and San Juan is for solar. This designation captures the permitting issues for wind generation.

Scenario 4 shown above does not reflect very well new generation approaches in Washington State. Obviously wind and solar have both been factors in the state with large wind generation in several south central counties. Other factors are playing a role which means going into the map calculator and tweaking numbers.

One aspect to consider though is avoidance of the need for new electric generation. Most utilities in Washington State have recognized there is a huge advantage in reducing electric demand or leveling the demand curves so that new generation capacity is not needed. I also suspect that how hydroelectric systems are operated in conjunction with other power sources is a big deal that might be hard to capture while tweaking inputs to the map.

A calculator where one can input a county and compare various power source costs is here:

The paper behind the map and program is here:

While the costs of power generation in any given county are interesting to consider, it is also worth considering another aspect of the cost of energy: transmission lines. My own county, Whatcom, is and has been a net exporter of electricity with dams on the Skagit River run by Seattle City Light and on the Baker River run by Puget Sound Energy as well as a couple of natural gas power plants. An interesting article on that is here:

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