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Local Power Plants

May 31, 2005

A public radio commentary

In this energy conscious time of ours there is one single thing we could do to conserve billions of barrels of oil: Move our power plants closer to us!

Since the early 20th century we've build them farther and farther away from cities and towns. We learned with the first ones in the late 19th century that no one liked having a smoke-spewing plant next door.

So, by 1910 or so power companies built them far from city centers. At first moving them made for economies of scale because one plant could serve several cites. Yet we paid a penalty: A decrease in efficiency.

By efficiency I mean the fraction of energy that enters compared to the amount of electricity created. You see, a power plant burns oil to produce electricity. Each gallon of oil entering has a maximum amount of energy, but we don't convert all of that to useful electricity. Some it goes into running the equipment in the plant, some we lose as heat. Also transmitting the electricity long distances over power lines involves energy loss as heat, typically about 10 to 15 percent.

With all that in mind, here's an astonishing fact: Our peak energy efficiency occurred in 1910. Yes, that's right 1910. We converted about 65% of the input energy into useable electricity. My moving power plants further away we dropped by 1960 to an efficiency of about 30 percent. Partly this occurred because of lost energy in long transmission lines, but also because the heat from the plant could not be recycled and used in nearby buildings, instead they simply vented it.

With today's technology we can convert more than 50% of the energy from burning fuel into electricity, while at the same time giving off fewer pollutants. New technologies also create quieter plants, ones that would be good neighbors. In addition we could recycle waste heat to nearby office buildings and homes, and with nearby plants we would lose less energy to transmission.

All combined we could achieve between 65 and 95 plus percent efficiency. Creating an infrastructure of these smaller, delocalized plants would mean a savings, over three decades, of $5 trillion in capital investment, and would consume 122 billion fewer barrels of oil. All this means, of course, less carbon dioxide emission, less pollution, and cheaper energy.

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises