Friday, January 31, 2014

Two Nuclear Paths

In  a previous post I laid some groundwork for eventually arguing that different parts of the US are following two very different policies with respect to nuclear electricity.  It's not a new topic for me; I've written about the differences in the size of the role nuclear has in powering the three electric grids in the US; that nuclear power is much more important in the Eastern Interconnect than in the Western; and that the evidence provided by plans for new reactors suggest things will continue that way. Over the last several months there have been a number of events that reinforce my thinking on the subject.

Georgia Power placed the 900-ton bottom portion of the containment vessel for reactor unit 3 at the Vogtle power plant.  Georgia is an ideal example of a state that needs nuclear power.  The state has, at least compared to its growing demand, quite limited undeveloped renewable resources suitable for generating electricity.  For that matter, the state has little in the way of fuel resources, depending on imports of everything.  It always startles me to remember that the 3.5 GW coal-fired Scherer power plant is fueled exclusively with Wyoming Powder River Basin coal that travels 2,100 miles to be burned.  Long supply lines can be fragile.  The 2011 Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio river floods were only the most recent to create various disruptions in rail transport from west to east.  Nuclear fuel is much more compact and refuelings infrequent.

In a different direction, Southern California Edison notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that they will retire the two reactors (half of the California fleet) at the San Onefre power plant rather than repairing them.  The plant was taken offline in January, 2012 when excessive wear in steam-generation tubes resulted in the release of a small amount of radioactive steam.  Last summer, SCE urged conservation and the California independent system operator gave permission for two gas-fired generators to be temporarily restored to service.  Those generators had been shut down as part of a clean-air effort, with plans to replace them with new generators in a better location.

Also in the Western Interconnect, an interesting study of the Columbia Generating Station (the nuclear power plant in Washington State) was published.  The report estimates that the cost to produce electricity at CGS is significantly higher than the price at which the same amount of electricity could have been purchased in the wholesale market.  The report identifies several reasons why that is so, including: it's the only nuclear plant the owner operates, it is located far from the demand centers where its electricity is consumed, and that the region now has a surplus of renewable generating capacity.

On a final note, a number of industrial-scale solar power plants began delivering power to the grid.  These include the 250MW California Valley Solar Ranch (PV); the 130 MW Tenaska Imperial Solar Energy Center South project (PV); and the 392 MW Ivanpah Solar Electric plant (central-tower solar thermal).  Summer 2014 ought to be interesting in Southern California — particularly if it's a hot one — as they try to juggle intermittent renewables and natural gas to balance the decommissioning of San Onefre.

[1] Clean up the ash ponds.  Install new pollution control equipment for fine particulates and various noxious gases.  Potentially, pay a carbon tax or buy emission permits for the CO2.  There are a number of reasons to think that coal-fired electricity will cost more in the future.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Western Secession 6 - East vs West in Maps

The broad theme of this series of posts is that a peaceful partition of the US into at least two parts is likely in the middle sort of future (probably more than 25 years, probably less then 50).  The particular partition that I think about is East and West.  Previously, I argued that there is a natural geographic dividing line between the two: the Great Plains region, already pretty empty of people and generally getting emptier.  This post puts up a whole pile of maps in order to argue that there are fundamental differences in the situations faced by the East and the West, which will in turn lead them to want to take different paths in solving some problems.  When those differences become more important than the similarities between the regions, separation becomes a viable option.  Some of these maps have appeared in earlier posts.

Mountains.  One-third of the 48 contiguous states isn't like the other two-thirds, as shown in the relief map to the left.  From the western edge of the Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean, the terrain is dominated by
mountains.  East of the Great Plains, not nearly so much.  The highest point east of the Great Plains is only 1,400 feet higher than my house in a Denver suburb; I routinely make up that difference on "easy" hikes up into the foothills.  The difference in terrain has a number of consequences, as discussed along with the next several maps.  Map credit: U.S. Geological Survey. (Aside: I love this map.  The USGS says it's based on 12 million elevation data points extracted from their topo maps.  A 56"x36" paper version is available for $12.00.)

Settlement patterns.  The mountainous terrain dictated where people could settle (and continues to do so today).  Steep gradients mean that the rivers are generally not navigable over long distances (the Columbia being a limited exception).  Areas where agriculture is practical, and often the types of agriculture, are limited (the growing season at altitude can be remarkably short).  All of this dictates where significant numbers of people can live, summarized in the population map to the left (each white dot represents 7500 people).  In some ways, the western part of the US is more urban than the eastern part.  Not in the sense of tall buildings and small apartments, but rather that a larger majority of the people live in the urban and suburban areas of a few metro areas.  Metro areas are fewer, and much farther apart.  The spaces between metro areas are empty in a way that occurs rarely in the eastern part of the country.  Map credit: U.S. Census Bureau.

Transportation.  The map to the left shows truck freight volume by federal highway route for 2007, with thicker lines indicating more tonnage.  Just as the terrain had a large influence on where sizable cities are possible in the West, mountain ranges (and more importantly mountain passes) dictate where most of the transportation routes must run.  In some cases, the routes today are the same routes that wagon trains used when they headed out across the Great Plains headed for the West Coast.  Wyoming's South Pass is the only sane place for a busy freight route to cross the Rockies between Colorado and the Canadian border.  Implicit in this map is that a good deal of the east-west traffic involves transport between the coastal port cities and the more heavily populated East.  Rail freight volumes show a similar pattern, with the addition of a huge-volume route headed east from northwestern Wyoming.  That route carries very large shipments of Powder River Basin low-sulfur coal to eastern power plants.  Map credit: U.S. Department of Transportation.

Federal land holdings.  As a result of the settlement patterns and timing (the federal government made an enormous change in public land policy around 1900), the federal government has very large land holdings in the western states.  The cartogram to the left, where states have been resized to represent the area owned by the feds, illustrates the point.  This has made life difficult for state governments in many ways.  Policies affecting a variety of things — some not immediately obvious — can be difficult to manage when the largest landowner in the state (about 40% of the land, on average) is free to simply ignore the state law and do what it pleases.  Local resentment towards federal ownership rises and falls in cycles, and seems to be on the upswing again in recent years.  Map credit: author's own work, using a wrapper around Mark Newman's highly useful cart and interp programs.

Water.  Precipitation west of the Great Plains is very low compared to the areas on the east side.  The areas with the heaviest precipitation are, for the most part, mountain ranges or valleys between ranges where the water falls as snow in the winter.  Agriculture in the West has always been about storage and management of water.  As Mark Twain is famously credited for saying, "Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over."  Irrigation is important even in the Pacific Northwest, which appears to be much wetter, due to seasonal variations.  During the critical growing months of July and August, Seattle and Portland are as dry or drier than Phoenix and Denver.  Phoenix and Denver get summer rainfall from thunderstorms triggered by the North American Monsoon that does not reach Oregon or Washington.  The prime irrigation example is California's Central Valley: with irrigation it is perhaps the richest farming area in the world; without irrigation, it's a semi-arid near-desert.  Map credit: Oregon Climate Service.

Fire.  The last three maps painted a picture of a West that is sparsely settled, dry, and with large areas held by the federal government, much in the form of undeveloped national forests and wilderness areas.  That's a nice prescription for wildfires.  Fire is, in fact, a natural part of many western ecosystems.  For example, some tree species have evolved so that the heat of a fire (which burns off brush and grass that would compete with the seedlings) is required to release their seeds.  The map to the left illustrates the number of wildfires from 1980 to 2003 that covered more than 250 acres individually.  250 acres is, by western standards, a small fire.  In most recent years, at least one western wildfire has reached at least 100,000 acres.  Some have been several times that large.  Western wildfires have become much more dangerous and damaging in recent years, though, in part due to misguided fire-suppression policies on federal land during the first half of the 20th century that allowed huge amounts of fuel to accumulate.  Map credit: U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

US electric power grids.  The next few posts in this series are going to talk about electricity.  I make no bones about it — I believe that managing the transition from fossil-fuel powered electricity generation to something else, in quantities sufficient to support modern tech, is the public policy problem for the next 50 years.  The US power grid is actually three grids that are largely independent, illustrated in the map to the left.  The dividing line between the Western Interconnect and the others falls largely within the Great Plains.  That division isn't surprising.  Historically, the three grids grew out of the connections between large utilities, and the Great Plains are a wide (and expensive) barrier for long-distance high-capacity power connections to cross.  In addition, much of the Plains region is served by rural electric cooperatives rather than larger utilities.  The important point to make here is that the two large interconnects are managed separately.  Map credit: Real Energy Services blog.

Solar and onshore wind renewable energy resources.  I also believe that there will be important differences in opinion on how to solve the supply problem, divided largely along the line between the Eastern and Western Interconnects (or down the middle of the Great Plains, or between mountain and non-mountain, wet-vs-dry, or any of several other factors that all yield much the same result).  Think of it in terms of the answers to the question, "Where will the non-fossil-fuel supply of electricity come from?"  Wind and solar (and conventional hydro) are renewable sources with large potential.  The map to the left shows where good on-shore wind and solar resources occur in the US.  Basically, from the Great Plains west.  Another important east-west difference is that many of the best resources in the West are relatively close to major population centers.  This map doesn't include conventional hydroelectricity; compared to demand, the large share of undeveloped hydro also falls in the Western Interconnect.  Map credit: Recycled Energy blog, using data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Nuclear power plants.  The other large existing source of non-fossil source that is commonly discussed is nuclear fission (commercial fusion has been 30 years away for the last 60 years, and according to the ITER time table, still is).  The map to the left shows the location of all commercial power reactors in the US.  Fission power is very much an eastern thing.  There were never a large number of reactors in the Western Interconnect, and the number has been steadily declining: the Ft. Saint Vrain generating station in Colorado, the Trojan station in Oregon, and most recently the pair of San Onefre reactors in California have been decommissioned.  The highlighted reactor is the Columbia Generating Station located on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington, which was the subject of a recent analysis whose conclusions were quite negative.  One might think that the geographic distribution would also make the problem of storing long-lived nuclear waste largely an eastern thing, but political power has — so far — dictated that waste burial will be consigned to the West.  The overall distribution of fission plants seems unlikely to change; all of the proposed new reactors that have reached the NRC license review stages are located in the Eastern or Texas Interconnects.  Map credit:  McCullough Research's Economic Analysis of the Columbia Generating Station.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Internet of Things

One of my friends makes an annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show, walks tens of miles of the convention floor aisles, and sends out a sometimes serious, sometimes tongue-in-cheek review of the overall theme.  This year he reports that it's "the internet of things."  The chip makers are producing the hardware to make it cheap to embed a processor, wifi, and IP stack; the consumer companies are racing to put the hardware into everything you can imagine (and some that I certainly didn't).

Interestingly, along with his e-mail announcing this year's report, I found an article from the BBC about a smart refrigerator that had been hacked and included in a spam-bot network [1].  I suspect that this is just the beginning of the problem.  As the article notes, security is probably not high on the list of features the consumer electronics firms are working on.  After all, security is hard, it's largely invisible (except when it's annoyingly visible), and who's going to buy their smart refrigerator based on how secure it is?  Like most consumer things that have become smart, it's going to be all about screen real estate and the size of the app store.

This is a subject that I thought about a lot in a previous career.  I have a patent for a software architecture that allowed smart devices (cable television set-top boxes specifically) to live behind a stout firewall and extend limited functionality to the Internet in a controlled manner.  Because even back then I was really afraid about the damage that could be done to the devices and that the devices could do if they were just attached transparently to the Internet.  Even with this sort of protection, having lots of relatively simple-minded devices running in my house was a scary thought.  Part of my job was finding ways to use little cracks in a firewall to implement gross security breaches.  It's amazing what you can do if you can get the right one piece of software to run on something behind the firewall.  Given enough devices behind my home's firewall, especially if some of those devices are portable and get attached to other networks occasionally, somebody is going to figure out a way to get that first piece of code in place.

On a lighter note, smarts are going to be embedded in things we wear as well.  I eagerly await reports of the first celebrity wardrobe malfunction that gets blamed on "somebody hacked the clothing."

[1] The use of a picture of a Samsung smart refrigerator should not be taken to indicate that the hacked refrigerator was a Samsung product, or that Samsung refrigerators' security is either better or worse than that of any other smart appliance.  It's just a convenient picture.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Western Secession 5 - The Great (Plains) Divide

In a previous post, I wrote about some of the ways that people have proposed partitioning the United States (in relatively large chunks; a future post will discuss why I'm not interested in proposals to carve off little pieces).  This time, I'm going to lay some groundwork for a geography-based partition that is seldom considered.  The mesh-based population cartogram shown in this post suggests the starting point.

The Great Plains region occupies portions of ten states.  In the upper map to the left, the Great Plains counties in those states are shown in white, and the remaining portions of the states in various colors.  I've intentionally left out any state boundaries within the white area in order to emphasize the point that I'm writing about a situation that is regional rather than state-based.

There have been a lot of different definitions of the Great Plains over the years [1], so it's worth saying where this one came from.  I started with the US Census Bureau's publication Population Dynamics of the Great Plains: 1950 to 2007 [2].  Then I removed seven counties from the Front Range area of Colorado and four counties from the Austin area in Texas.  I had three reasons for trimming out those 11 counties: (1) they sit on the periphery of the Plains and different standards might or might not include them; (2) they have grown enormously in population for reasons that have nothing to do with the Plains; and (3) that large population growth doesn't fit my narrative.  Sometimes there are just outliers in the data that should be excluded.

The Great Plains as shown here is a large region: somewhat smaller than Alaska but almost twice the size of Texas; 50% larger than the Pacific Coast states of California, Oregon, and Washington combined; 20% larger than the 15 Atlantic Coast states combined.  The Great Plains are also quite empty, at least so far as people go.  The lower cartogram resizes each county based on its population.  The Plains don't exactly disappear, but they become a narrow strip.  The strip is less narrow at the north and south ends, where there are large fossil-fuel deposits that have been or are being developed.  Many parts of the Plains are getting emptier as time goes on, with populations that are shrinking in absolute terms.

This is a long-term trend; the Census Bureau document mentioned above identifies a large number of counties whose population peaked more than 80 years ago.  Nor is the population situation likely to reverse itself.  Agriculture has become increasingly mechanized, requiring fewer people.  The same is true for the energy resources that occur in some parts of the Plains: it doesn't take a lot of people to extract a million tons of coal from a Wyoming surface mine, or to maintain a large wind farm, or to drill the oil wells in the Bakken area of North Dakota.  Generally speaking, the area lacks the kinds of infrastructure that would attract businesses that aren't concerned with natural resources.  In many cases, the infrastructure -- in the sense of services like medical care or education -- are declining.

In a future where distance becomes more important than it is today, the wide, empty expanse of the Great Plains is a natural dividing line between eastern and western parts of the country.  Always keep in mind the scale of things: the width of the Plains ranges from 250 to about 550 miles.  Compared to the Boston-to-Washington, DC megalopolis, the Plains have eight times the area but only one-tenth the population.  Even in a local comparison, the bulk of the Front Range population -- the large yellow bulge on the cartogram -- lives in a strip 30 miles or so wide on that portion of the Plains immediately adjacent to the Rocky Mountain foothills.

The next question to consider is "Are there important differences in the two parts of the country separated by the Great Plains?"  In the next post in this series, I'll show a variety of such differences.

[1]  There has always been some uncertainty about the dividing line between wetter, lower-altitude prairie and the drier, higher Great Plains.  Some cartographers extend the Plains much farther to the east, including parts of Minnesota and Iowa.  Some definitions also stop the Plains on the south end before they reach the Rio Grande, asserting that that area becomes so dry that it should be categorized as desert.

[2]  Unlike some works, in this one the authors did not include a list of which counties they had chosen.  That's a shame, given that there are FIPS (federal information processing standards) codes for every county and county-equivalent in the country, and lots of useful data indexed by FIPS code.  I generated my list after a relatively miserable afternoon spent with Figure 6 from the publication and some other information sources.