Going green

July 13, 2007 at 2:28 pm | Posted in life | 6 Comments

I was just talking with Roberta about going green, and today I opened my electric bill. I can choose who supplies my energy. I can choose to get it from wind, small hydro-electric, biomass, or combinations of these. Here is the list. No solar in New York state right now. But we’ve got wind!

I’m thinking about maybe going with the first company’s option of 60/40 wind/hydro. But I’ve only just glanced at it. Jenny and I will look it over and figure it out.

Anybody out there going green with their electric company?

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  1. Keep in mind that no matter who you pick, you will still be getting your power from the national grid, so those actual electrons will come from all over the place. Your decision is mostly one of financial support.

    The power utilities use a system known as “settlement” to make this work. The utilities have meters to indicate how much power they send into the grid. Customers (like yourself) have meters that say how much you consume. Ideally, every power company produces exactly the amount of kilowatts that its own customers use. In practice, this never happens.

    When a company’s customers use more power than was produced, the company pays money into a pool. When a company’s customers use less power than was produced, the company takes money out of the pool. Every month (or whatever the interval is), the bills are settled, with the companies that owe money paying those that are owed.

    So, when you choose (for instance) a wind company, you are deciding which company to call your own, and where you’ll send the bills, but you only have an indirect impact on what’s actually being generated. The company will try to install enough windmills to cover their own cusomers’ usage (because settlements generally end up costing more than the actual cost of generation), but again, this is a purely financial relationship.

    If you could trace the actual electrons, you’d find that the green companies are sending it to non-customers (some very far away) and the green customers are getting some from all of the other companies.

    But, all that being said, I am curious about how much this will end up costing. It’s been my understanding that windmills are quite a bit more expensive (in terms of $/kWh) than more traditional sources (fossil fuels and nuclear).

  2. I can tell you that it would end up costing ME between 1 and 2.5 cents per kWh than if I didn’t go green. At least that’s what my link said.

    But doesn’t the cost of electricity fluctuate? How do they know exactly how much more it will cost? The link I posted doesn’t say it’s approximate. Hmm. Maybe I’ll compare rates when I get the bills.

  3. Dude, I’m in Georgia. The only color down here is red.

  4. GE’s current products go up to 3.6MW per turbine.

    In contrast, a modern coal-fired steam turbine recently put in operation produces almost 90MW under normal conditions – the equivalent of 25 wind turbines.

    Unless the costs of installing, operating and maintaining a wind turbine is less than 1/25th the cost of running a steam turbine, the overall cost won’t be lower. Keep in mind also that this cost includes the land.

    Of course, this is only talking about installation and operating costs. Taxes, subsidies and regulation can easily throw the end-consumer costs in either direction.

  5. On operating costs: the coal-fired steam turbines may well be over 25x more costly. Aside from installation and maintenance costs, wind turbines have no other costs. Coal-fired steam turbines need a steady supply of coal, which requires union employees and various mining equipment that has to be purchased and maintained.

    And that’s not counting the externalized costs — the damage to the earth, the associated pollution, poor health and accidental deaths of miners, etc. (I realize some of these are not externalized any longer for some companies.)

    For me, I’d pay a higher end-consumer cost for something that’s not coal. How much higher? Tough to say. Double? Yes. Triple? I don’t know. I’m in a financial position where I can, and so I believe I should.

  6. Don’t discount those installation and maintenance costs.

    I was listening to a program recently where a green-power proponent was discussing the subject. Several callers asked about the possibility of installing windmills for personal/corporate use. The guest (who is currently living entirely off the grid) said the maintenance costs for windmills are so great that there’s no point in even trying. (He recommends solar, which is almost entirely maintenance free, but has much lower yields.)

    Keep in mind also that you can’t cram a hundred windmills on one plot of land. They have to be spread out over many miles in order to catch enough wind to be useful. Even in rural New York, land isn’t free. And because of the settlement system of power grids, if your wind-power company signs-on more customers than they can power with their own windmills, they will have to buy power from the grid and much higher prices.

    WRT steam turbines, I was not advocating any particular fuel. It was an example I found while googling to determine the power output of a single turbine. Those turbines can be powered by coal, oil, gas, or nuclear. Different fuels will, obviously, affect the overall cost, as will the age of the facility and many other factors.

    Please don’t think I’m advocating coal over wind. I’m simply pointing out that wind is not necessarily going to be cheaper than more traditional power generation. If you’re willing to pay extra to support your cause, great, go for it. But I’d be very wary of advertising literature that claims you can get the best of all worlds by choosing one power company over another.


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