What is the real cost of cheap power, and why isn’t it cheap?! As consumers we look at our power bills and see we are charged per Kilowatt-Hour while oblivious to cost factors such as maintenance, management, transmission, distribution, and profit. So let’s take a second to think about a few of these. Maintenance does not come cheap to commercial power generation, as the dangers of the career field require highly skilled and highly educated engineers. Linemen are particularly well paid due to the hazards they work with, and typically are required to work hours of overtime. Transmission is costly as “line-loss” (reduced voltage strength) is inevitable when transporting electricity over long distances. The United States electrical transmission system is an immense interdependent network of high-voltage power lines that transport electricity from commercial generators to the consumer. This grid is approximately 187,000 miles long, and operated by more than 500 companies (Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA], 2009). With three to four separate power lines per distribution system, one can spot a number of potential disasters in over half a million miles of non-insulated high-voltage conductors! Even with this hefty amount of aluminum draped over America, we are still failing to erect transmission lines fast enough to keep up with growing demand. “The lack of adequate transmission played an important role in exacerbating the problems created by the imbalance between California’s supply and demand for electricity (Abraham, 2002).” As far as profit, I have never known of a humble energy tycoon. The US government has long been calling for a “modernization” of our grid system; let’s redistribute the power to the people instead!
The hazards of being a lineman have been stamped into my mind ever since my first day of technical school at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas. The other airmen called us “Pole-jocks” because we had to wear special knee-high boots to be comfortable while climbing and working on utility poles. I volunteered to take night classes, so the earlier classes would typically be marching home as we arrived. On the very first day, a particular blonde-haired blue-eyed girl from the day shift had caught the attention of all us boys! I think initially she drew a lot of attention for being the only female lineman on base, but then we immediately noticed that chunks of flesh were missing out of her left cheek and temple. Apparently one should not hug the power-pole if one is to fall or, like this girl, the side of one’s face may become filled with splinters! While it goes against all human instinct, it really is the safer bet to push away from the pole as one falls; although an older gentleman from the day crew fell off the pole a few months later and broke his back. While working at pole-top, a lineman generally only has about ¼ inch of one foot-spike or “gaff” stuck in the pole, the other foot is used as a balancing point to keep steady. A leather strap attached to the lineman’s belt is wrapped around the pole once he/she has reached the work area height, but it’s mainly so that the lineman’s hands are free and does little to prevent a fall. As scary as an unexpected 20ft drop seemed at the time, I would soon learn that the real threat does not come from below, it comes from above.
“FORT WORTH — A single second changed the life of 24-year-old Dallas Wiens. He was doing repairs at a church in Fort Worth in November, 2008 when he suffered a devastating electrical shock. Wiens’ entire face and scalp were burned to the bone (Foster, 2009).” Dallas had just a small error of orientation when he touched his head to a power-line, and immediately both of his eyes were fused shut and his nose was gone. “Not being able to kiss my daughter is frustrating,” Dallas admits. The fact that Dallas can even walk and speak is a medical miracle. According to Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA], 60 to 100 linemen annually suffer “devastating” injuries that leave them permanently crippled, missing limbs, or severely burned (Gorman, 2006). “Since 2000, informal counts suggest that yearly fatalities have jumped to 20 from what had been an average of 12 (Barnes, 2004).”
Our transmission system, over the next decade, will fall short of the reliability standards that our nation requires. In fact, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering (IEEE) magazine recently stated: “Records show that between 1984 and 2000, utilities logged 11 outages affecting more than 4000 megawatts, making the probability of any one outage 325 times greater than mathematicians would have expected (Fairley, 2004).” Electricity cannot yet be effectively stored, and so the difficulties that we are facing matching supply with demand lies within the transmission lines. Transmission congestion, or “bottlenecking,” occurs when the transmission capacity cannot facilitate all requests for power. Unlike traffic congestion, transmission system operators must begin to deny requests for power in order to keep the lines from being overloaded. “Construction of high-voltage transmission facilities is expected to increase by only 6 percent (in line-miles) during the next 10 years, in contrast to the expected 20 percent increase in electricity demand and generation capacity (Abraham 2002).”
The US Department of Energy (DOE) estimated the cost of transmission congestion in four major energy markets: PJM Interconnection, California, New York, and New England (Abraham, 2002). The DOE concluded that if increased electricity transfers were allowed in these four sections, consumer costs in these regions would decline by $157 million per year. It is important to note that this report does not include distinct sub-regions, so it reflects congestion costs going into New England (but not those already within) and does not consider California’s Path 15. The Independent Systems Operator of New England (ISO New England) estimates the cost of congestion within the region to be between $125-600 million per year. The California ISO (CAISO) estimates that a single transmission corridor, Path 15, had congestion costs of $222 million over a sixteen month period prior to December 2000 (Abraham, 2002). “New investments in generation and transmission are obvious reactions to reliability challenges, but we must consider the very real reliability benefits that can be captured from energy resources held by customers: efficiency and load management, customer owned generation, and customer responses to market prices (National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, 2005).”
Before moving forward to analyze future roles of commercial power, it is crucial to reflect on the long history of corporate energy in regards to public interest. Coal mining towns were very popular from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s. Commonly referred to as “coal camps,” they were developed by coal companies so that their workers could live next to the mine. These companies built, owned, and operated the community churches, schools, stores, theatres, and residential structures. Our American ancestors were basically duped into slavery, as the cost of living was most often higher than the paid wages. Best illustrated in the song “Sixteen tons” recorded by Merle Travis in 1947 about the life of a coal miner:
“You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go;
I owe my soul to the company store.”
Unfortunately the corporate mindset has not changed from a hundred years ago, and economic oppression has become the most common form of slavery today. Forward to the present: 29 miners from Massey Energy died in a massive explosion on April 5th in Montclair, West Virginia. Joshua Scott Napper, age 25, was one of these said miners. Just two months after being on a job in a new mine, he wrote a letter home to his mother, fiancée, and baby daughter expressing his love in case anything should happen. “There is something wrong with this picture,” said Cecil Roberts, a sixth-generation coal miner and president of the United Mine Workers of America. “When young men go off to war, they write these kinds of letters. But in America, you aren’t supposed to write that letter when you’re going off to work (Bowling 2010).” Massey Energy had a number of violations in this mine alone, according to the Washington Post:
“The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration cited the mine for 1,342 safety violations from 2005 through Monday [April 5th, 2010] for a total of $1.89 million in proposed fines, according to federal records. The company has contested 422 of those violations, totaling $742,830 in proposed penalties, according to federal officials (Mufson, 2010).”
So what happened to the money that should have been spent on the safety of these underground workers?
“That 2009 pay represents a $6.8 million raise over 2008 and almost double his compensation package in 2007 (Berkes, 2010).”
Even companies as mainstream as General Electric have not seemed phased by the penalty of law. According to the Federal Contractor Misconduct Database (FCMD), General Electric has a $2.83 billion Federal Contract, despite its 34 recent and very serious violations within the US. These violations include, but are not limited to: dredging the harmful chemical PCB from the widely-populated Hudson River, years of reporting false financial information, defrauding the government, misrepresentation of test procedures, misuse of government materials, several emission violations and broken hazardous waste laws, violations of the clean air act, violations of the clean water act, violations of PCB safety regulations, and the list just keeps going (Project On Government Oversight [POGO], N.d.). General Electric has been able to settle in court for $88.7m for these said violations. To make matters exponentially worse, the $100 million in lobbying funds that General Electric has spent over the past five years alone say that they will not have to worry themselves over committing future crimes (The Center for Responsive Politics, 2009). During a presidential administration devoted to continuing the business of deregulation, one can safely assume this $100 million of lobby money went to changing the laws in GE’s favor.
Personal energy independence can be achieved through an adaptive state-of-mind. From an engineering perspective, we are surrounded by unimaginable amounts of unutilized potential energy. Coal is a miniscule energy source compared to the abundance and raw power of nature. The Earth absorbs only a small fraction of usable energy from the sun, yet our planet relies on the sun as an external heat engine. Our planet also benefits from an internal heat source that flows about a mile below the surface. Wind and water also continue to prove their supremacy of power by show of force. Best of all, these elements are abundant enough that they cannot be cornered in any market. Granted, technology has yet to live-up to the promise of total energy independence, but that is something that must be worked toward. I believe the average American to be filled with ingenuity and resourcefulness. We are not to the point where water can solve all of our electrical needs, but we can utilize water to ease our burden. We cannot yet power our lives with the wind, but the wind can give us a good push-start. Warmth is available for the entire world, waiting just below the Earth’s surface. Power is everywhere; we just have to “plug-it-in!”
Fuel Cells are being specifically designed to provide that path off of the grid! Bloom Energy has found an efficient way to utilize solid-oxide for converting chemical energy directly into electrical energy (Ricker, 2010). Originally designed for NASA to create breathable air on Mars, the reaction was reversed to create electricity from oxygen and natural gas. By running natural gas on one side and oxygen through the other side of specially painted glass-ceramic plates in this innovative “Bloom Box,” an abundance of electricity is the product. “Now get this, skeptics: there are already several corporate customers using refrigerator-sized Bloom Boxes. The corporate-sized cells cost $700,000 to $800,000 and are installed at 20 customers you’ve already heard of including FedEx and Wal-mart — Google was first to this green energy party, using its Bloom Boxes to power a data center for the last 18 months (Ricker, 2010).” At the moment, Bloom Energy produces about one box a day, but they are working to drive down costs to about $3,000 per home-unit in 5 to 10 years!
The Great North American Power Grid surely can be seen as a miracle of man. I am humbled by the price that so many before me have paid to build and maintain our National Transmission System, but at some point we need to call the blood-debt paid. We are loading costly burdens onto this system by relying on commercial power for all of our electricity, and conditions are becoming more and more hazardous for our maintenance workers. Corporate America largely invests in the most environmentally harmful methods of power production because they are the cheapest. I do not believe this is how typical consumers would behave if they had the power of option, and I certainly know that the average citizen is not able to freely disregard law or drown out the voices of others with millions of lobby (bribe) money. As the broad private sector begins to fail in providing safe and reliable energy, power generation must come to the home. Commercial coal-powered plants typically produce upwards of 600 Mega-Watts of electricity; one would require considerably less for a self-sufficient home. If the consumer experiences power-failure, that person could have the option of buying excess electricity produced from his direct neighbors. Sharing ideas, adaptive thinking, and increased public awareness can bring us to this next age in energy!
Abraham, S. (2002). National transmission grid studies. U.S. Dept. of Energy. Retrieved from http://www.ferc.gov/industries/electric/indus-act/transmission-grid.pdf
Barnes, J., Korman R., & Hampton T. (2004). High-voltage power line work is a peril not yet mastered. Engineering News-Record. Retrieved from http://enr.construction.com/features/bizlabor/archives/040223.asp
Berkes, H. (2010). Massey CEO’s pay soared as mine concerns grew. National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126072828&ps=cprs
Bowling, B. (2010). Coal miners are well aware that any day could be their last. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Retrieved from http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/s_677025.html
Fairley, P. (2004). The unruly power grid. Spectrum, IEEE magazine 41-8, pp 22-27. DOI 10.1109/MSPEC.2004.1318179
Federal Emergency Management Agency. (2009). United States transmission grid. Retrieved from http://www.nrel.gov/gis/data_analysis.html
Foster, T. (2009). A devastating shock; a remarkable recovery. Retrieved from http://www.wfaa.com/news/local/A-Remarkable-Recovery-80181962.html
Gorman, P. (2006). Wired for tragedy. Fort Worth Weekly. Retrieved from http://archive.fwweekly.com/content.asp?article=3528
Mufson, S. (2010). Massey Energy has a litany of critics, violations. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/06/AR2010040601531.html
National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. (2005). Documents and resources on underutilized transmission rights of way. Retrieved from http://www.naruc.org/Publications/RIGHTS%20OF%20WAY_INVENTORY.pdf
Project on Government Oversight. N.d. General Electric; incidences of misconduct. Federal Contractor Misconduct Database. Retrieved from http://www.contractormisconduct.org/index.cfm/1,73,221,html?ContractorID=27
Ricker, T. (2010). The Bloom Box: a power plant for the home. Retrieved from http://www.engadget.com/2010/02/22/the-bloom-box-a-power-plant-for-the-home-video/
The Center for Responsive Politics. (2008). General Electric client profile: Summary, 2008. Retrieved from http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/clientsum.php?lname=General+Electric&year=2008: Opensecrets.org