Powering Down

The California Water Resources Board has ruled that 19 natural gas power plants, located in coastal areas, are in violation of the Clean Water Act for using a technique called “once-through cooling.” According to this article, it appears that this ruling will result in the shutdown of most of these plants.

(Once-through cooling, which has been used since the days of James Watt, means simply that water is used to condense steam and is thence returned to the source from whence it came. The cooling water is not polluted, but is warmed up a bit. IIRC, the returned cooling water is somewhere in the range of 85-90 degrees F, i.e., less than the temperature of the typical hot tub.)

The state of California has taken other actions which make it difficult for the capacity of these 19 plants to be replaced. California has a moratorium on new nuclear power plants and coal plants. New natural gas plants, which are less polluting than coal plants (and emit less CO2, for those who care about this issue) are also banned in much of California.

A project to build large-scale solar plants in the Mojave Desert is encountering opposition from environmentalists who object to the construction of transmission lines to carry the power to San Diego. And California Senator Dianne Feinstein is apparently also opposed to this solar project on grounds that it threatens a species of turtle. There is also environmentalist objection to wind turbines because of the danger they pose to birds and bats.

If you live in California, expect your electricity bills to rise significantly. If you run an energy-intensive business located in that state, you probably need to think about alternative locations.

Although unfortunately, these California polities are merely the currently-most-extreme version of the policies that the Democratic Party, in its war on energy, wants to impose on the country as a whole.

The only possibility we as a nation have to overcome our very serious debt problems and to restore anything like full employment is to grow our way out of the problem. The Democrats’ war on energy is one of the primary threats to such growth.

39 thoughts on “Powering Down”

  1. This is nuts! If I were the owner of some of those natural gas power plants, I would just switch them off suddenly and watch as the entire state looses their electric lighting. I bet there would be cool YouTube satellite videos of the black-outs progressing across the state.

  2. The Democrats are not at war with energy. You can wage war on an abstraction. You wage war on people.

    The War on Terror is a war on terrorist and the members of terrorist supporting governments. The War on Drugs is a war against drug users.

    The Democrats are, and have long been, at war with our economic-creatives.

    Their goal has always been to enslave the economically-creative such that a political class can disburse the bounty economic-creatives produce. In order to enslave someone, you have to dehumanize them and create a rational for why it is acceptable to direct the violent power of the state against them.

    This is the principle function of environmentalism. Environmentalists don’t care about the environment. If they did, they would force mining, drilling and manufacturing to relocate to 3rd world countries where environmental protections are non-existant. Instead, environmentalism is used to attack the econmically-creative by casting them as greedy villains who will wreck the ecosystem and literally kill everyone unless they are constrained by the wise and noble politicians. Everyone who falls for the environmentalism scam becomes a foot soldier in the campaign to enslave the economically-creative. After all, if they wreck the environment, what other evil things must they be up to?

    However, since the real environmental problems (which resulted from a government imposed tragedy of the commons) have long since been resolved, environmentalist are forced to create hysterical panics over increasingly minor environmental effects.

    Worse, I don’t think most modern leftists really understand that material wealth is actually created. I think most people have intutively absorbed the old-school Marxist idea that material wealth i.e. infrastructure, factories etc spring from impersonal natural forces which no human can claim credit for. Therefore, they believe that material wealth is like Biblical manna that falls from the sky and that theonly real debate is how to distribute it “fairly.”

    The Democrats will destroy any area they dominate because they will blithely constantly attack and attempt to enslave the 20% of us who are key to producing all our material wealth. They either drive them away or prevent them from creating. Either way, the area grows poorer and basic systems stop working. Unfortunately, the Democrats have perfected the art of blaming the poverty on the economically-creative and in convincing the population that the cure is even more attacks on the economically-creative.

    California is boned. Within a decade we will see LA and other great California cities collapse like Detroit did in the 70’s. The transition will be just as fast and shocking as the transition of 1965 Detroit to 1975 Detroit.

  3. To carry Shannon’s idea a little further:

    There are no ‘Democrats’. There are only people who vote for and support Democratic polices.

    And there’s a lot of them. People, I mean.

  4. I am curious exactly how much generating capacity will be lost, and what fraction of demand the loss will be. There is not much leeway now between demand and blackouts. From what I understand of the way California restructured its power supply after the last time they had blackouts; their only option they have is for the state to buy power from out of state. Since the California state government has no power to regulate out of state power prices, they are scrod.

    Southern California is going to be fun the first summer after the plants are closed. Nothing draws tourists like no air conditioning and blacked out tourist attractions. And nothing will make the remaining middle class people [probably newly unemployed] happier than seeing the politically and socially connected given free passes for their own power generating equipment while they swelter in the dark.

    My oldest daughter is part owner of a specialist firm that that provides services vital to the operation of any commercial seaport. They have been expanding into related fields, and now can operate their company from any commmercial port on any coast, and possibly move their company inland to get more involved in the related fields. I am hoping that they decide to move out of that hellhole of a state before it is too late.

    Subotai Bahadur

  5. I understood that California suffered from a cold ocean current. So why are they against locally warming the ocean by some trivial amount?

  6. The alternative to once-through cooling is cooling towers. Only a few of these plants have the physical space to build these. The neighbors would complain in any case since it towers through a lot of salt particles into the air and hence ruining a lot of automobile finishes.

    This is a substantial hit on the system capacity. According to this:


    We’re OK now as Spring is the annual low point in electric demand. The summer following the closedowns will be the tough period. All that wind power we’ve invested in has proven of little use during California heat waves:


    This provides justification for state control of consumers’ demand for energy,

  7. I should add that one of California’s natural resources USED TO BE cold sea water. Any thermal power plant’s conversion from once-through cooling with sea water to cooling towers will reduce the thermal efficiency by 2 to 3% (or more) and reduce net electrical output by even more.

    Some of our major plants in the northern part (like Moss Landing and Humboldt Bay) have the room for new cooling towers. Others in SoCal (like Morro Bay and Carlsbad) will not and will close.

  8. Liberal Economics

    Money falls from heaven for everyone to use. But, the immoral and sneaky rich gather more than their share. The government’s purpose is to redistribute the money the way God intended. Or, if you wish, the way Gaia, or the Tooth Fairy, or whoever intended.

    Taxes remove the excess income of the rich and give it to the voting poor, through a fair and organized bureaucracy. The rich oppose this action by selfishly and spitefully decreasing employment. Government responds by increasing grants and spending, to boost employment. The government runs a deficit while it discovers the “knack” for creating the jobs that the rich are hiding.

  9. Some of our major plants in the northern part (like Moss Landing and Humboldt Bay) have the room for new cooling towers.

    And even the capital costs of those will raise the cost of electricity — though it’s vastly preferable to none.

  10. Interesting. I worked on an upgrade to Mirant’s Potrero plant about 10 years ago and we ran into a similar issue. An old coal fired unit was going to be converted to a combined cycle unit. Although the plant already had a permit for their once through cooling, the new project was essentially litigated to death over water use issues.

    The entire facility, including its peaker units is scheduled to be closed in a couple of years. The lost generation will be made for via a new transmission project. What I find deliciously ironic is that the existing plant is one of the few black start units in the area, and considering the Bay Area’s vulnerability to seismic events, even a modest earthquake could sever the Bay Area’s power supply and leave them in the dark for weeks … even months.

  11. Mike H….”black start”…meaning?

    I’m *guessing* it means “capable of starting without taking power from an already-functioning grid.” Did I get it right?

  12. The warm water in the cooling canals at FPL’s Turkey Point nuclear plant in South Florida has become habitat for American crocodiles, which IIRC are a protected species on account of low numbers. I suppose this makes FPL lucky. FPL and Florida residents are doubly lucky because FPL is being allowed to build a second reactor, essentially a new power plant, at Turkey Point based on old expansion plans. Very lucky indeed, since Turkey Point is around 40 years old and it’s almost impossible to build new power plants elsewhere in the state.

  13. Dave, that is correct. Most large generators do not use permanent magnets in their rotors and rely on “excitors” to induce a magnetic field. No magnetic field, no electricity. A station that can “blackstart” usually has a large diesel generator with a permanent magnet generator to excite the larger generator or has smaller steam generators with permanent magnets. Potrero has this capacity.

    The 230KV line that was installed to make up for Potrero’s closure is all underground (to appease the untainted vistas crowd) and will make any repair even more difficult.

    But could you even imagine large metropolis like San Fransisco being without power for weeks? The prospect is frightening.

  14. A friend of mine was a marine biologist and his company had a contract to monitor the effect of the warm water returned to the ocean by the San Onofre nuclear plant. The outflow site became a very active area for marine life and I expect the same applies to most of these sites. Maybe some are endangered. It would be amusing to use the left’s favorite weapons to frustrate their antipathy to energy generation.

  15. What you are seeing with California is that people will “vote with their feet” and move to more forgiving states. Their energy policy and their water policies are insane. And their tax policies are insane. Any business owner that isn’t in the entertainment industry is likely to high-tail it out of there over some period of time, as it becomes practicable.

    This is very sad for the economy as a whole because California was once the growth engine of the economy, with IPO’s and new industries being incubated there. Either someone else is going to take up the slack or, more likely, the nation’s growth will be permanently impaired.

    Essentially when you short California you short the United States. This is more or less happening. The new IPOs are overseas, and much less investment is going into the US stock market.

    What happens in California, and New York, and New Jersey, and Illinois, and Texas(one bright spot), matters. And it is mostly bad for the US economy and growth.

  16. The vulnerability of California’s electrical grid to earthquakes is something the state should think about a lot more.

    In addition to the fragility of the grid itself, what happens to wind turbines and solar panels after an earthquake? These are by necessity large, lightweight structures so they will be more affected by earthquakes than a short, squat, solid fossil fuel plant.

  17. I sent this posting to a friend of mine at the California Public Utility Commission and another one who is a former Cal Energy Commissioner.

    The PUC guy’s take was that this “ruling” came down in 2006 (per linked article) and was being forced by the US EPA. The state’s response was essentially “when we getaroundtoit” – when we have replacement infrastructure. There, as of yet, is no firm date for the shutdowns.

    The EPA has banned NEW permits for once-through cooling since 1972. Now they want to backfit existing power plants.

    Studies have been done, to my knowledge, at California’s two nuclear power plants. The environmentalists argue that the temperature rise for water passing through the plant (less than 20 deg F) kills plankton and fish eggs and the data does suggest some mortality. However, as Mr. Kennedy reports in #18, the POSITIVE effects from the warmer local water are not considered. The good could easily overbalance the negative. I saw this at the Crystal River 3 nuke in Florida where the manatees LOVED the warmer discharge waters, especially during a cool spell.

    My PUC friend thinks replacing existing power plants with new combined cycle gas turbines (CCGTs) is all to the good. I disagree. Certainly, the fuel economy is better with the CCGTs but the old plants are fully depreciated and paid for (except perhaps for the new owners who picked them up in the forced sale by the utilities following the state’s deregulation.)

    The net effect (and maybe intent) of the EPA’s push is to build pressure for more wind and solar and to enrich the rent-seekers who support the Democratic Party.

    All in all, a needless initiative.

    As to black start, good issue! PG&E and SCE have black start hydro up in the Sierras – didn’t know about Portero in SF. My personal crusade is to require all new nukes to have net load rejection so that the heavies can help restore the grid following a blackout rather than sitting around for 48 hours and being a drag on grid restoration.

  18. Mr. Love,

    The main grid vulnerabilities are in the switchyards and substations. The big high voltage breakers (230 kV and 500 kV) have been know for years to be easily toppled. Fortunately, new Japanese designs are being used as replacements that are much better.

    The problem is economic. We engineers can build a grid that can survive a California earthquake. The issue is, do the people of California want to pay the price in their electric bills?

    I don’t know specifically about the seismic vulnerability of wind and solar hardware. I’d bet they have no special requirements imposed on them for post-earthquake operability so any seismic resistance is based solely on their owner’s economic analysis. Without an obligation to serve, very few generation asset owners will spend an extra dime since it won’t pencil out for them.

    In other words, count them OUT after an earthquake.

  19. California imports some of its electricity already, hydro from the Northwest, coal from the Four Corners area, et cetera. Anyone have any idea how big a share that imported electricity provides California right now?

  20. The latest IEEE Spectrum magazine has an article about trying to keep the one and only Palestinian West Bank power plant running. Scrounging/making spare parts. Fuel rationing, Overloaded equipment. Having to go door to door to collect utility bills and pulling out the wire cutters when they didn’t get paid. Damage from military attacks (from both sides) Not enough fuel to get the engineers and maintenance guys to the plant. At one point they rounded up a bunch of car batteries to cold start the plant after a complete failure.

    Rooftop solar should be fine after a earthquake( assuming that the house is OK), but with no grid to backfeed, they will not be useful, even to the homeowner, unless they have planned ahead and have a battery based system. Even then, their batteries will be dead in short order unless they become their own utility and actively manage their own load. Been There, Done That. A Toyota Prius + a 1KW 12V-> 120V Inverter works surprisingly well as an emergency generator.

  21. California, Arizona, and the Pacific Northwest (including British Columbia) swap power seasonally altough the Pacific Intertie. The latter is a network of high voltage (AC and DC) transmission lines that reach from outside Phoenix (Palo Verde nuke switchyard) up to big hydro plants in the Canadian Rockies.

    The customers in the south need air conditioning during the summer while the people up north want electric heating in the winter. So there’s been a long standing swapping arrangement but as California has grown, we’ve become a major importer.

    Only about 72% of total consumption is generated in-state (http://energyalmanac.ca.gov/overview/energy_sources.html).

  22. “Their goal has always been to enslave the economically-creative such that a political class can disburse the bounty economic-creatives produce.”

    I agree with Shannon to an extent but I part company with the idea that the Democrats want our creative ppl to be all that productive even for the purposes of redistribution.

    Lower standards of living accentuate the gap between the elite with wealth based on government connections. Having to wait to get an MRi that “no one” can get but you can because you are a big shot, for example, is preferred to a situation where they are relatively available. Apply that to any useful service or product.

    Limiting access and lowering standards of living is a potent form of power and can only be leveraged in terms of conditions of scarcity. That the scarcity is artificial is even better because that demonstrates your power to those who do not have it. And those who do not have it have to spend more time trying to get by and have less time and less tolerance for risk to political resist you.

    Much like O’Brien explained to Winston Smith in 1984, relative asceticism is a path to social control.

  23. Shannon Love wrote:

    The Democrats are not at war with energy. You can wage war on an abstraction. You wage war on people.

    I haven’t been counting the number of times you’ve done this recently, but if you meant to say “You can’t wage war on an abstraction. You wage war on people.” whatever software you’re using to post is changing the “can’t” to “can.” Or there’s some sort of database corruption going on. Please look into it.

  24. Listen to the liberals discuss traffic sometimes. Only THEY deserve automobiles. The rest of us need to take mass transit.

  25. Joseph Somsel…combined cycle turbines…but don’t these need cooling, too? For the steam cycle?

    I’d think they’d need less cooling than a pure steam plant of the same capacity, but surely once-thru water cooling would still be more efficient than a cooling tower? (in addition to the capital cost difference)

  26. Mr. Foster,

    You are correct, in a CCGT, the steam turbine needs cooling water to condense the steam. The gas turbines and the steam turbines and all the generators probably need internal cooling water. The waste heat of the gas turbines is rejected directly to the atmosphere in the exhaust, after passing through a waste heat recovery boiler.

    But overall, a CCGT needs only a fraction of the cooling water capacity compared to a gas-fired steam plant. Hence air cooling is much less of an economic penalty or cost factor. A steam turbine needs to reject about 60% of the fuel heat input via cooling water. A CCGT might be only 20% of the same fuel input AND make a third more electricity. (These are off the top of my head numbers.)

  27. Phil,

    I haven’t been counting the number of times you’ve done this recently, but if you meant to say “You can’t wage war on an abstraction. You wage war on people.” whatever software you’re using to post is changing the “can’t” to “can.” Or there’s some sort of database corruption going on. Please look into it.

    Unfortunately its just me. If my grammar/spelling checker misses my mistake I am unlikely to catch it because I am a terrible proofreader of things I have just written.

  28. This decision by the CWRB is insane, but they are just the deputies for EPA. However, they are not responsible for the downstream problems, so to speak, caused by the ruling on electricity consumers in the state. We have regulators, and we have problem solvers. There are many millions of dollars invested in these plants which are now thrown away. A huge waste of precious resources, and shooting yourself in the foot, to boot (heh).

    Aside from this insanity is the fact that the rejected heat is not fully utilized. Take a look at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s ENERGY FLOW GRAPH FOR THE US. Look at the thermodynamic losses for energy production. Pretty big! Wasted energy means wasted resource.

    Now we are stuck with the laws of thermodynamics, regardless that the Dems are in power. But no thermal power plant should be constructed that does not utilize heat recovery for something like low level district heat or absorption refrigeration for air conditioning, to give examples. If you want to make something a criminal offense, then designing something without low level heat recovery is it.

    Here in Alaska, in smaller villages, we design power plants with engine jacket heat recovery. With the high cost of fuel, it makes a tremendous difference in the cost of operating a local school or water treatment plant. Larger power plants can utilize exhaust heat recovery, though that can be potentially problematic.

    We need problem solvers, not politicians. They do not know the laws of physics or economics, and they are a threat to our civilization, and even to themselves.

  29. Alaska Paul…I think district heating/cooling makes a lot of sense, at least in the right geographies/climates. My post Macrogrid and Microgrid addresses this point.

    The article that I link there asserts that the overall efficiency of power generation in the US has gone *down* since 1880, despite the fact that the generating stations themselves have become much more efficient…because district heating to recapture waste heat is now used much less than it was in the olden days.

  30. One alternative energy idea is to put small — and thus inefficient — generators in homes, where they wouldn’t be inefficient at all, because all that “waste” heat could go toward heating the home, in winter, or the water, which would normally need a dedicated water heater. (Obviously you wouldn’t want to run the generator on an August afternoon.) So, instead of burning natural gas for heat, you could burn it for useful electricity and heat. In return for buying excess, distributed capacity, you get near-perfect efficiency.

  31. Guys,

    This idea of using waste heat, called “co-generation” has been around for over a century. Just about every economic installation has been exploited. Yes, we could force more but it would be a waste of capital.

    Alaska will have many good opportunities, given the cost of fuel and the need for heat.

    But let the engineers and the accountants decide on a case-by-case basis. Keep the politicans out of it!

    BTW, such facilities already have favorable tax treatment.

  32. Alaska Paul…the article I linked suggested that there are regulatory factors that inhibit district heating installations. Haven’t researched this, but as an example I do know a major coal plant (mid-Atlantic area) which is about a half mile from a couple of thousand apartment units, and only a mile or so from an urban district with probably 50,000 residents.

    Current political pressures are to shut it down and build a new plant “somewhere else.”

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