Energy makes America go.
But the way we get it is more complex and vulnerable than most of us realize.
The truth about energy is that change won't come easily.
Here, you can explore America’s energy stories, meet the people behind the debate and join the conversation about our future.
The U.S. energy grid is in trouble. The crumbling infrastructure and lag in construction of power lines have set the stage for more serious and frequent blackouts in the coming years.
At 5 p.m. after a long day’s work, you drive your plug-in electric car to your garage. The car’s battery is fairly full because you drove little today. You plug your car into a charging station, but rather than recharge, you de-charge, pumping excess energy back into the power grid system and helping meet peak energy demand.
“It’s like the Internet,” says Dr. Alex Huang, an electrical engineering professor at North Carolina State University, “but rather than share bits of information—such as Twitter messages and YouTube links—you share electrons.”
Sharing energy is just one use of what has been dubbed the Smart Grid, a leaner, more intelligent version of the existing grid. As envisioned, it would use information technology and two-way digital communications to increase grid productivity, diagnose and treat its own problems, and allow consumers to better manage their energy use.
Experts claim this technology will save money for both consumers and utilities and will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Department of Energy, for example, estimates that increasing the grid’s efficiency by 5 percent would be the equivalent of removing 53 million cars from the road. But some observers note the high cost of equipment to operate a smart grid system could short-circuit the effort.
The way the grid stands now, utilities transmit power whenever a user flips a switch. Companies cannot monitor where the energy actually goes or where it is lost along the lines. During peak hours, companies meet demand by using backup “peaker plants,” such as coal-fired power plants, or by buying energy on the stock market. The expense eventually is passed to the consumer, and because the backup system generally relies on dirtier generation methods, it produces more carbon.
Homes with smart meters connected to the Smart Grid could help to reduce lost power and save money. For example, a consumer could program his or her air-conditioning system to raise the thermostat in warm weather when demand for air conditioning rises or prices are high.
The Smart Grid could also increase access to distributed generation, or on-site renewable energy sources. Huang envisions intelligent homes equipped with small-scale solar generation units that could feed a large battery located at the edge of town.
“When demand is high, it’s more economical to use energy stored in a battery rather than turn on a coal-fired power plant,” Huang says. In addition to his work at North Carolina State University, Huang directs the National Science Foundation’s FREEDM Systems Center, which is developing Smart Grid components capable of storing and distributing renewable energy.
These transitions will not happen overnight.
The Department of Energy would like to see a comprehensive national Smart Grid by 2030. In northern Kentucky and parts of Ohio, Duke Energy, the nation’s third largest electric utility, will install 700,000 electric smart meters and 450,000 natural gas smart meters during the next five to seven years. The installation will cover 84 percent of Duke Energy’s utility customers in these two states.
Developing this system is also costly. Although Duke Energy has allocated $1 billion for hardware installation in Ohio, Indiana and the Carolinas over five years, these funds "won’t build our entire service area,” says Paige Layne, the marketing communications manager for Smart Grid technology at Duke Energy.
The future cost to consumers will vary by state. In Ohio, for example, consumer rates increased 50 cents per month this year and will increase by $1.50 in 2010. But since customers will be better able to manage their consumption with Smart Grid technology, the bills will go down, says David Mohler, vice president and chief technology officer for Duke Energy. Last year, 35 participants in a pilot study in Cincinnati reduced their consumption by 10 to 20 percent.
The biggest challenge is battery technology, Mohler says. Vehicle batteries require a carrying capacity thousands of times that of a cell phone battery. Engineers have yet to develop one that is both cheap and reliable.
Still, pilot projects provide a glimpse of the future.
Xcel Energy aims to make Boulder, Colo., the first “smart” city by the end of 2009. And Duke Energy has already launched a self-healing grid in Hendersonville, N.C. When a tree fell on Duke Energy lines in June 2009, a nearby network station sensed and isolated the problem area. The station sent an automatic SOS to Duke Energy, quarantined the outage, and rerouted power to affected homes and businesses in a matter of seconds.
Without this intelligence, homeowners must report disruptions to the power company. Then a team of linemen rides the lines—through forests and up mountains with flashlights if necessary—to locate the injury. In the Hendersonville case, an additional 1,500 customers would have lost power.
“With Smart Grid, you don’t have to worry,” says Huang, “because software and communication take over.”
But developing a Smart Grid system alone will not solve all the problems of the existing grid or eliminate the need for additional power lines to acquire electricity from renewable resources, Mohler says. “Ultimately, we need to do both.”
The residents of Meigs County, Ohio, live beneath the towering smokestacks of four coal-fired power plants. A fifth plant has been proposed, the latest salvo in a battle over the way the U.S. gets electricity.
Once considered a burden, the wind is now reviving the Texas town of Roscoe by creating new jobs and bringing people back, giving a second chance to this once-dying community.
Since 2001, U.S. energy companies have proposed more than 150 new coal plants. But a loose network of environmental activists, aided by uncertain economic conditions, has forced plans for more than 100 of the plants to be abandoned. Dozens more are clogged up in the court systems. One such coal fight is unfolding in Meigs County, Ohio, which is already surrounded by four coal-fired power plants. American Municipal Power has proposed building a new Meigs County coal plant, slated to begin construction late this year or in early 2010. The following information provides background to explain why coal plants are at the center of a national debate over energy production and consumption.
Nearly 50 percent of U.S. electricity comes from coal. Coal-fired power plants burn coal to generate steam, which is used to turn the turbines of an electrical generator. The U.S. has one of the largest coal reserves in the world and burns it at about 600 plants across the nation. Generating electricity from coal is common in the South and in the heartland, but less often used in regions such as the West Coast, where hydroelectricity and natural gas are bigger sources of power.
Coal plants emit carbon dioxide, a major ingredient in climate change. In recent years, NASA climate scientist James Hansen has advocated a moratorium on building new coal plants until technology is developed to prevent the carbon dioxide from escaping into the atmosphere. Hansen has warned that continuing to release carbon dioxide at current rates – even just for the next 10 years – will create “a different planet – one without sea ice in the Arctic; with worldwide, repeated coastal tragedies associated with storms and a continuously rising sea level.” The proposed American Municipal Power plant in Meigs County would release an estimated 5.5 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to CARMA, a nonprofit group.
Coal has been a dominant industry for most of the region’s history. The county’s newest mine began producing coal last February. An experimental site for carbon capture and sequestration, a technology to store carbon dioxide underground, is under construction in West Virginia near Meigs County's southern border. In addition, a coal-to-liquids facility and two other coal-fired power plants have been proposed for the region, although at least some of those plans appear to be on hold. Meanwhile, Meigs County is one of the poorest counties in Ohio, according to 2000 U.S. Census data. Elisa Young, a Meigs County resident who has organized opposition to the new plant, argues that poverty reduces local opposition to the coal industry. “When you have an economy that's entirely wrapped around coal, you can't speak out about it,” she says.
In 2007, the four existing coal plants near Meigs County released millions of pounds of toxic chemicals, including arsenic, chromium, manganese, mercury, sulfuric acid aerosols and selenium, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Each of these chemicals has been linked to human health problems, such as cancer, gastrointestinal disorders, impaired motor skills and neurological damage. Kent Carson, a spokesperson for American Municipal Power, said the proposed plant will use new technology to control pollutants. “This will be the cleanest facility of its type in the state,” he said.
It can be hard to prove that any one of the chemicals caused health problems of a particular individual. “We’re exposed to a soup of chemicals,” said Kevin Crist, director of the Center for Air Quality at Ohio University. Crist said health problems can be influenced by interactions between chemicals, as well as by lifestyle factors. In addition, low income – a common characteristic in Meigs County – is correlated with health problems. One reason is that poor people are more likely to smoke than their wealthier counterparts. More than 30 percent of adult residents of Southeast Ohio smoke, compared to only about 25 percent of residents of other Ohio counties. Crist said tall smokestacks on the existing plants probably disperse most pollutants away from Meigs County. But he said it is impossible to know for sure what residents are being exposed to, because no agency monitors the county’s air.
An analysis by USA Today estimated that the air quality at Southern Elementary School in Meigs County is worse than the air quality at 97 percent of the nation's schools. USA Today identified two of the coal plants near Meigs County as major contributors to pollution at the school. In addition, men in Meigs County have the lowest life expectancy among men in any Ohio county, according to data compiled by Harvard University (women ranked 26th worst of 88 counties). Meigs County also has the highest death rate of any Ohio county for lung and bronchus cancer, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
Blue-collar labor is especially important in Meigs County, where fewer than 5 percent of adult residents hold college degrees and more than 25 percent have no high school diploma, according to the Ohio Office of Policy, Research and Strategic Planning. In 2007, Meigs County's median income was $27,287, about half the national average. Many Meigs County residents support the new plant for the jobs it may bring to the community. Construction worker Greg Sheets has testified in favor of the plant at public hearings. “My family will benefit by me going up there and working,” he said. “If I reached in your pocket and took $200,000 out of your pocket, would you like it?” he said, referring to the income he estimated he could earn during the four years it would take to build the plant. But no one can guarantee how many jobs will actually go to Meigs County residents or how much they will pay. “We all know that not all the workers are going to come from Meigs County,” said Sheets, the construction worker. “They’ll be from all over the country.”
Before construction can begin on a new coal plant, an energy company must receive pollution permits from a state regulatory authority. Carson, the American Municipal Power spokesman, said his utility has received all the permits it needs and that construction on the plant will start in late 2009 or early 2010. Opponents of the plant have appealed the plant’s permits. The state of Ohio will allow construction to proceed during the appeals process.
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