Monday, June 23, 2014

Infrastructure Needs - A Cartogram

From time to time you find articles that talk about how far behind the United States is in infrastructure spending.  The American Society of Civil Engineers maintains an entire web site dedicated to the topic.  I have often wondered whether there are geographic patterns to the infrastructure shortfalls.  One of the things that raises that question for me is the stuff I read about how the electric grid is falling apart.  In the Denver suburb where I have lived for the last 26 years, and the Front Range generally, there's been an enormous amount invested in the electric grid and service seems to be noticeably improved compared to what it was when I moved here.

Bloomberg maintains an interesting collection of state-by-state numbers, including infrastructure needs.  They only consider a limited number of things: roads, drinking water, and airports.  I'd like to have figures that included more factors — ah, how pleasant it would be to have minionsgraduate students to do the grunt work — but Bloomberg is an easy-to-use starting point.  The cartogram at left — double-click in most browsers for a larger version — shows US states sized to reflect Bloomberg's figure for annual per-capita infrastructure spending needs for the period 2013-2017.  West Virginia has the largest value at $1,035; New Jersey has the lowest value at $78.  While there are lots of things that would be interesting to regress against the numbers, in this essay I'm just thinking about geography.

One of the obvious things that jumps out is that high-population states do better.  California, New York, Florida, and Illinois all fall into that group.  The most likely reason would seem to be that there are economies of scale involved in the things Bloomberg measures.  An airport can serve more people in a high-population state; highway lane-miles are used by more people; doubling the capacity of a water- or sewage-treatment plant doesn't mean that the cost of the plant will be doubled.

Another factor appears to be that states with high population growth over the last 20 years do better.  California, Colorado, Texas, Georgia and Florida are examples.  In this case, the likely reason would be that rapidly growing populations have made infrastructure spending a critical need.  To use Colorado as an anecdotal case, since I live here and pay some attention, Denver built a major new airport, my suburb greatly expanded its water-treatment plant, and I-25 along the Front Range has been subject to an entire series of improvements (if you drive its length, it's not whether part of it is under construction, it's a matter of how much).

Finally, some simple regional observations. Here's a standard map of the 48 contiguous states using an equal-area projection for comparison.  The 11 contiguous western states appear to be in much better shape than the country as a whole.   As might be expected, Wyoming and Montana, the two western states with the smallest populations, do the worst in that region by a wide margin.  With a caveat that this is state-level data, the upper Great Plains, New England, and Appalachia all do very poorly.  With a small number of exceptions, the East Coast looks particularly bad.

I think I'll just sum this up with the obvious statement: "There are new parts of the country, and old parts of the country, and the new parts tend to have more and shinier stuff per person."

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Western Secession 7 -- The Age of Electricity

Lots of people who believe that Civilization is Doomed because of energy constraints talk about this being the Age of Petroleum. As far as transportation goes, that's absolutely true. But it's not really the most critical aspect of our current high-tech society. This is really the Age of Electricity.

If petroleum were to slowly go away, eventually reaching zero, there are alternatives. Existing land transportation can become much more efficient: smaller vehicles, trains instead of trucks, etc. Alternate power sources are available, at least for some applications: smaller electric vehicles, electric trains instead of diesel, etc. Goods can be produced closer to where they are consumed in order to reduce the amount of transportation required to deliver them. Slower transportation and delivery of objects helps — delivering the small package by electric train and electric vehicle uses much less energy than flying the package overnight. More expensive synthetic alternatives to petroleum-based liquid fuels exist for situations where alternatives are impractical.

OTOH, we have reached a point where there is no substitute for electricity. This short essay was written on a computer; it was uploaded to Blogspot and copied into some number of their computers; the copy you're reading was downloaded from one of those servers. The non-electric alternative is paper and ink (since radio and television also require electricity in large quantities).  If that were the only medium available, chances are that you would never see this. Paper and ink distribution imposes serious limits on how many people's writing gets distributed widely.  I'm using "widely" in the sense of making it possible for many people in many locations to read it. Having the NY Times publish it would count, as the NY Times is popular enough to have nation-wide physical distribution (although without electricity, that may mean being a day or two behind).  Putting it up on a wall in a public place in Arvada, CO doesn't count.

Recall that the original "wire services" that distributed stories to local newspapers were called that because it was a description of what they did. Stories were collected and distruted by telegraph and later teletype, both of which require electricity. David Weber's popular Safehold series of science fiction novels, set on a world where the use of electricity is strictly forbidden, envisions a semaphore network instead. It's slow, it's even slower at night, it fails temporarily when the weather is bad enough, and it fails completely when the message has to cross a large enough body of water (discounting transcribing the content, moving it physically across the water, then putting it back on the semaphore network).  High-speed communication means electricity.

Electricity is a key consideration in developing countries as well, with China as the most interesting case. Their population is extremely large. As recently as three decades ago, that population was desperately poor. The government is working — at a pretty hectic pace — to urbanize and find non-farming work for what was an enormous peasant population. In order to do that, electricity is vital. As a result, if it will generate electricity, China is deploying lots of it. Coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, wind, solar... China's rate of growth in the use of all of those is among the very highest in the world.  India has been less aggressive about expanding its grid, leading the head of one of that country's software development firms to say, "Job one is acquiring the diesel fuel to power our private generators; job two is writing software, and doesn't happen if we fail at job one."

Dependency on electricity has been greatly increased by the integrated circuit revolution. The common design approach for an enormous range of things is now a processor, a batch of sensors (some as simple as push buttons), and a handful of actuators. All of the difficult parts are implemented using software. Television is now digital, and depends on billion-transistor integrated circuits for every step from source to final viewing by the consumer. Film has disappeared. Music is (at least the vast majority is) delivered in digital formats dependent on those same integrated circuits. The banking system depends on computers to run the check clearing house, the stock markets are all electronic, the Post Office depends on computers to read addresses and route mail...  I told my bosses at Bell Labs that it was a software world back in the late 1970s; it has only become more so.

All of this may seem trivially obvious, but any plan to ensure that modern technology continues on into the future depends on maintaining robust reliable supplies of electricity.  The next post in this series will look at where the US gets its electricity today.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Thought on the EPA's New CO2 Rule

Recently, the US EPA announced its proposed regulation of CO2 emitted by existing power plants.  The proposed rule follows as a consequence of (a) the Supreme Court's finding that greenhouse gases are an air pollutant under the language of the Clean Air Act, and that the EPA is therefore required to regulate it if it is harmful, and (b) the DC Circuit Court's subsequent finding that greenhouse gases are harmful.  Everyone knows that the matter will wind up back in the courts.  Ben Adler at Grist provides a nice summary of the potential legal vulnerabilities of the proposed rule.

As described in an earlier Grist piece, each state will have its own target for reduction of CO2 emissions, and each state will be allowed to develop its own plan for achieving the necessary reduction.  Washington will have to reduce its emissions by about 70%; North Dakota will only have to reduce its emissions by about 10%.  The EPA formula(s) (PDF) for calculating the required emissions targets are complicated and consider a number of factors.

One of the factors that is not included is where the electricity is consumed.  Some states produce more electricity than they consume, others produce less.  The graph to the left shows the approximate net exports for each state, in megawatt-hours [1].  California is at the top, with a negative value indicating they are a large importer of electricity.  Pennsylvania is at the other end of the chart and is the largest exporter.

Tracking exports and imports in more detail can be difficult.  Some cases are relatively straightforward.  Xcel Energy owns the coal-fired Comanche power plant in Pueblo, CO and sells the electricity generated there to consumers up and down the Front Range.  The 1.9 GW coal-fired Intermountain power plant in Utah is owned by utilities in California and Utah.  75% of the plant's output goes by HVDC transmission directly to San Bernardino County, CA; the remainder goes to utilities and electricity cooperatives in Utah.  The coal-fired Jim Bridger power plant in Wyoming is owned by Berkshire Hathaway and sells its output to two utilities operating across six states.  Oregon is one of those states.  Oregon is a net exporter of electricity, primarily hydro electricity sold to utilities in California.  Oregon generates a modest amount of in-state power from coal and imports coal-fired electricity from Wyoming and Utah.

Reducing CO2 emissions will require that money be spent on coal-fired power plants -- on sequestration technology, or on efficiency improvements [2], or on fuel conversions.  That money will eventually be collected from the pocketbooks of electricity consumers.  The fact that there are states that are exporters and importers of electricity would seem, at least to me, to create an opportunity for a certain amount of mischief.  That is, a state's plan for reducing CO2 emissions might be structured so that, as far as is possible, out-of-state consumers pay for the necessary changes.  From the examples in the preceding paragraph, Wyoming and Utah have an interest in getting California and Oregon to foot as much of the bills as possible.  In addition to Ben Adler's list of reasons that the EPA's final rule will end up in court, look for the distinct possibility of some states (and interstate companies) suing other states over their plans.

Myself, I'm in the camp that says, "A carbon tax would have been enormously simpler."  Reality, though, forces me to acknowledge that politics is the art of the possible, that such a tax would be DOA in Congress, and that not allowing Congress to delegate taxes and tax rates to the EPA is a good thing.

[1] Data from the EIA's state electricity profiles for calendar year 2012, total net generation minus total retail sales.  For the US as a whole, net generation exceeds retail sales by about 10%.  Each state's generation figure is scaled down by the US ratio so that the US Total exports comes out zero.

[2] An older conventional coal-fired plant may have 30% thermal efficiency.  That is, 30% of the heat energy released by burning the coal is converted to electricity.  New technology may achieve 45% thermal efficiency.  Such technology would lower CO2 emissions by 33% for the same amount of electricity.