Friday, June 22, 2012

Natural Gas for Power Generation Not Cars

Today's  New York Times has an article crying out for government intervention to expand the use of natural gas in automobiles.  Of course, this will involve appointing another energy czar in the White House and sending billions tax dollars to favored special interests.  Our focus should NOT be here, but in electric power generation.  Why?

First, electric power generation is the biggest energy using sector in the US at 40 Quadrillion Btu in 2011, according to the Energy Information Administration.  Transportation is the next biggest user at 27 Quad Btu.  Increasing the efficiency of our national power grid, from generation through transportation and distribution benefits everybody, from every kind of business to state and local governments to individual households. Working on natural gas automobiles may benefit wealthy early adopters who don't need the subsidies and precious few others.

The business sector is already working on alternative fuel vehicles for trucks, vans and buses.  They know what to do: let them figure it out, and a private infrastructure will probably arise to serve this changeover. Railroads are already relatively efficient in costs per ton mile, but they too are working on alternatives and will bear the costs of changing over, which will also be passed on to final users.  There's little need to intervene here, as market signals are pretty clear and efficient. Taxes on things like diesel fuel, are not--just an aside.

We know that coal generated power plants are only about 35% efficient, but even integrated carbon capture plants, for all their huge costs and unknown technological risks, are only about 40% efficient.  Natural gas is a better way to go, but we're not going to repeat ourselves here. 

Transportation and distribution losses in the electric power generation sector amount to some 10 percent of generation.  Swapping out to high voltage DC, and using better transformers and connectors can make a significant dent in capturing this low hanging fruit.  We have huge global companies, as well as innovative smaller companies, with vast experience, competence and innovation in electricity transmission and distribution.  Readers know who they are. They just need to be put to work on these issues. 

By the way, the estimates of transportation and distribution losses don't include "congestion losses" which are borne by local power utilities, businesses and households as the utilities struggle to balance loads from peak demands with aging infrastructure and tools. 

At the local household level, we know that smart grid technology, especially meters and insulation, can make a huge difference, but we also know that adoption on the consumer level is constrained by income and by a lack of awareness.  There are worthy goals here and lots of savings to be had, but personal experience working on the consumer level tells me that this has to be driven at state levels down to the local levels.  This is not fertile ground for Federal involvement. 

Getting a smart power grid, per force more efficient, really improves our collective asset base and will allow everybody the potential to participate more freely in the burgeoning digital age.

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