Black Magic

In the early days of electrification there were stories of old-timers who would not stand near outlets for fear of the electricity leaking out and on to them. It is called “current” and it is said to “flow” so it is not surprising they would feel as they did. Many descriptions of electricity concepts involve analogies with water systems—battery voltage as a kind of “pressure” for example, much like a municipal storage tank on a tower. These analogies always fall apart because electricity is not at all like water and to grasp what it is requires an effort of imagination much like wrapping your mind around geologic time. Oh, the electricians will tell you they get it, and the electrical engineers will throw differential equations at you, but that is not what I would call “understanding” electricity. Perhaps a few hundred dozen people in the world can communicate in QED, Quantum Electrodynamics, the contemporary theory that covers electromagnetic phenomena. The rest of us can’t or won’t do the math. I’m happy to think of it as magic. It’s a magic we mortals can manipulate, quite skillfully in fact, but a magic nonetheless.

What’s most magical to me about electricity is how swiftly it overtook our lives. James Clerk Maxwell published his eponymous equations in the 1860s and within twenty-five years Nikola Tesla was demonstrating AC induction motors. Within 100 years the developed world was electrified. Perhaps a billion to a billion and a half people in the world today live without electric power but for those of us reading blogs on Facebook life without electricity is unimaginable. Everything we do depends on plugging in. Safe and reliable electrical energy makes our modern world and our modern way of life possible. Did I mention affordable? Electricity in the U.S. is cheap, absurdly cheap. Right now I pay about 15¢ to the folks at Pacific Power for a kilowatt-hour. That means I can burn ten 100-watt light bulbs for ten hours for a buck-and-half. Or I can run my 300-watt computer continuously for a week, that’s 24/7, for about eight bucks.

I’m astonished and amazed by this. Abundant energy at a very low cost is available to me all the time wherever I go. I need not think about it. But I do think about it, it’s my curse. I think about everything. Here’s what I think: we should all know where our good life comes from. We should know what it takes to live the way we do. And what it takes is an elaborate system of resource extraction, power generation, and electricity distribution. Here’s a map from PacifiCorp, the parent company of our local utility:

power grid

Out in Wyoming in the southwestern corner you might be able to discern a dump truck icon which marks a coal-fired generating station. In this case it is the Jim Bridger Plant in Point of Rocks. Wyoming supplies more coal than any other state, meeting about 40% of the nation’s demand. In the Green River Basin there’s an underground mine—The Bridger—that produces about four million short tons of coal annually. That’s pretty small as the big surface mines in other parts of the state can crank out ten to twenty times that. But it’s enough for PacifiCorp to generate two Gigawatts of electricity, of which half goes to Pacific Power customers in Oregon, Washington, and Northern California. Pacific Power’s total capacity is about eleven Gigawatts so the coal plant represents less than ten percent of their energy portfolio. It’s about the same as hydroelectric which is also roughly one Gigawatt. By comparison PacifiCorp’s Top of the World wind farm (the largest of two dozen such facilities) in Wyoming puts out about 200 Megawatts or 0.2 Gigawatts.

Coal is messy, dirty stuff. Like oil. It’s also abundant. The United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal and Wyoming is the Ghawar Field. With carbon emissions and climate change the hot topics these days coal has lost its allure. But the resource isn’t going anywhere. And it is still the largest source of energy for electric power generation in the world and will remain a valuable part of the mix for the foreseeable future. We may stop demanding coal, but we won’t stop demanding electricity. I’ll take a look at the black stuff in my next post.

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