What’s that about “Intermittent Power”? Without Rain, Texas Coal Plants will have to shut down.

August 24, 2011

I’ve already reported on how Texas fossil fuel plants have been hampered by high heat conditions, and how wind energy has been vital and reliable, producing more than the expected amount of energy through the unprecedented drought. An even more pressing long term showstopper will be water.  According to the National Atlas, Large Thermal power plants “account for about half of total water withdrawals. Most of the water is derived from surface water and used for once-through cooling at power plants. About 52 percent of fresh surface-water withdrawals and about 96 percent of saline-water withdrawals are for thermoelectric-power use.”

Fuel Fix:

A number of Texas power plants may need to cut back operations or shut down completely if the state’s severe drought continues into the fall, an official with Texas’ main transmission manager told FuelFix.

At least one North Texas power plant has had to reduce how much it generates because the water level in its cooling reservoir has fallen significantly, said Kent Saathoff, vice president of system planning and operations for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

If the state’s drought continues for much longer and water levels continue falling at other power plant reservoirs, other units could be forced to curtail operations or shut-down completely, Saathoff said.

“Right now we don’t have a significant problem with it, but it could become one,” Saathoff said in an interview. “This has been the driest 12-month stretch we’ve seen in Texas in a long time.”

IEEE Spectrum:

Plug your iPhone into the wall, and about half a liter of water must flow through kilometers of pipes, pumps, and the heat exchangers of a power plant. That’s a lot of money and machinery just so you can get a 6–watt-hour charge for your flashy little phone. Now, add up all the half-liters of water used to generate the roughly 17 billion megawatt-hours that the world will burn through this year. Trust us, it’s a lot of water. In the United States alone, on just one average day, more than 500 billion liters of freshwater travel through the country’s power plants—more than twice what flows through the Nile.

When you’re forced to choose between power to keep the lights on, and water for your children to drink, thank a climate denier.

5 Responses to “What’s that about “Intermittent Power”? Without Rain, Texas Coal Plants will have to shut down.”

  1. otter17 Says:

    Ah, nice IEEE Spectrum reference. The Spectrum often times has articles that can appeal to non electrical engineers.

    Anyway, thanks for bringing up an often overlooked drawback to large scale fossil fuel power generation.

  2. masudako Says:

    While it is true that water is required for existing power plants to work, it seems that several issues are conflated. We need to be clear about the definition of “requirement of water to generate power” when we discuss numerical values. I have not understood yet which one below the writer of IEEE Spectrum refers to.

    (Is seems very likely that the following thing are already written in some of the articles of the IEEE collection, perhaps better than I can, but it is hard for me to find them.)

    A heat engine, including those used by power stations, requires a heat source, a heat sink and a working material. The heat source is usually given by combustion (of fossil fuel or biomass fuel) or nuclear fission.

    The heat sink is usually the environment. The heat can be given from the heat engine to the environment by warming the air, warming the water (both as sensible heat) or evaporating liquid water and giving water vapor to the air (as latent heat). If the plant is cooled by sensible heat to water, a certain amount (1) of water (either freshwater or seawater) in the environment is needed to generate a certain amount of power. If it is cooled by evaporation, a certain amount (2) (different from (1)) is required.

    The working material is often (though not always) water, which morphs between liquid and vapor phases. For a heat engine to generate a certain amount of power, a certain amount (3) of water must go through the machine. But the material is use again and ideally not consumed. Things are not perfect, however, and a certain amount (4) of water is lost and needed to be replenished.

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