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Choices, Part 1

Vogt-10102014As parents and grandparents, my wife and I have some experience with providing guidance to the munchkins which we have been blessed to have in our family. Some of the experiences have even been positive! One approach we have used involves simply asking the children this question, “Was that a good choice?” The intent is always to encourage them to consider not only the choices they make, but also the consequences that will follow.

Does this prevent one grandson from knocking down his toddler brother just for the fun of it, regardless of the circumstances? Does it prevent the granddaughter from making a necklace and sneaking it to school so she can wear it for kindergarten school pictures as a surprise to her parents? Certainly it does not. One has to admit, though, that choices can certainly be entertaining at times.

In the final analysis, we all understand the choices we make have consequences. Some of them are anticipated and welcomed; others are unintended and not always pleasant.

I am interested to watch the recent trends in energy-related choices being made in the United States, in particular, but also on a global scale. As I observe, I am again reminded that choices have consequences.

For several decades, our electric utility generation choices have been large units dispersed widely across the country and interconnected with a high-voltage transmission grid. Electricity cannot be stored. Generators must exactly match the demand at any particular time to keep the system stable and the lights on. Electricity demand varies constantly, so a mix of generators are required.

Large base load units can generate at relatively low cost, and can run at high capacity very efficiently to meet the underlying base electric demand. The majority of base load generation units are fueled by hydropower, nuclear and coal.

As demand varies, other plants “swing” with the load and pick up the variation over and above the base demand. Generating plants used for this component of load often have relatively higher production costs, but they have the ability to operate efficiently while varying production levels. These units are typically fueled by coal and natural gas.

Finally, relatively high-priced production units are brought online to handle the infrequent times when electrical demand is very high. These are often referred to as peaking units, and are often relatively small oil and gas generators which are widely distributed geographically.

This generation scenario has reliably and affordably served our nation’s electrical system for a number of decades. Yet, recent choices are changing the generating landscape. To highlight just a few recent trends:

  • Coal and nuclear generation are falling out of favor for a number of reasons
  • Natural gas price volatility has stabilized with increased domestic production
  • More gas-fired generating is being installed
  • Solar and wind generation are expanding rapidly

As a society, we are making choices. We are moving away from base load coal and nuclear generation. We are replacing base load generation with natural gas, which at this time appears to have stable pricing and reliable domestic supplies. We are embracing and moving forward aggressively with solar and wind generation investments. Wind and solar essentially offset other generation sources. Without viable storage options this is the current role of wind and solar. They do not function as base load, swinging or peaking sources.

We are making choices. These choices are being driven largely in response to decisions we have made regarding the man-made effects on climate change and our ability to affect these changes.

My purpose in part one of this discussion is not to debate the larger questions, but to point out that we are making very important decisions related to our electric power system in the United States, and our decisions have critical consequences. We need to seriously consider and evaluate if we are making good choices, because our choices have significant consequences.

I need to end this blog session. One grandson is crying in the next room and his brother is laughing. I need to go and ask a question…

About the author

Marlon is our account executive in the Power market. He has more than 35 years of experience with all aspects of planning, design and construction of 12.5 kV-345 kV distribution and transmission systems, including right-of-way, design, regulatory coordination, public information meetings, public testimony and project management. With an extensive background in power transmission and distribution, Marlon brings a wide variety of knowledge in discussing the energy industry and the issues it faces. From education of future engineers to critical infrastructure analysis, he offers a unique perspective on the industry and where it's headed.