Electric Power Plants - Climate Effects

People seem to want to blame global warming on vehicles, and that is certainly somewhat true. However, it seems that little true scientific analysis has been done regarding specific other sources. As a (true) scientist (a Nuclear Physicist), around 1980, I felt the need to research the several major sources. I found that the companies involved in causing global warming and other deleterious environmental effects, do not seem to provide any data on which to develop scientific research! I guess it keeps them out of trouble if no one can realize the effects of what they are doing!

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There are actually two very different environmental major consequences that fossil-fuel-fired electric powerplants cause. THIS presentation discusses the far LESS crucial of them, essentially the HEAT produced and then disposed of into the atmosphere. This certainly causes huge ADDITIONS to the heat of the atmosphere in that local region, which can greatly affect local weather. However, those effects do NOT have long-term effects (which are commonly called Global Warming). The greater heat in that region simply causes that part of the Earth to radiate away more heat to deep space (not counting the effects of PREVIOUS actual Global Warming effects of sending carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which has the effect of TRAPPING the heat at the Earth and not letting that radiation escape to outer space. So the subject being discussed here only has a second-level effect regarding actual Global Warming.

The second and more dreadful consequence actually initially appeared to be very innocent and minimal! Coal-fired, natural-gas-fired, and petroleum-fired powerplants ALSO have the effect (oxidizing) of converting the carbon in fossil-fuels into carbon dioxide which is then released into the atmosphere. THAT effect, of essentially PERMANENTLY adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere from where it had been deeply sequestered inside the Earth, turns out to be horrendous. Please read a related presentation at Global Warming - The Physics of the Process, Coming Disaster

So it appears that TWO enormous contributions to environmental disruption are from Electric Power Generation Plants! I was very surprised at finding that, some years back, because they seemed to have been "under the radar" where many people consider electricity to be "part of the solution" and not really "part of the problem". It may be necessary to re-evaluate our attitudes toward such large issues!

Many people, especially politicians, seem to think that Nuclear power plants are a very attractive "solution". President Bush and Congress (2005) seem to want to start construction, and reduce safety requirements, on a hundred or more new nuclear power plants! It is hard to see who does the thinking regarding such things! EVERY Congressman and Senator has a paid staff of around 400 people, many of whom are supposed to research and provide accurate information for that Congressman or Senator. Those 20,000 people don't seem to do very good research! They don't seem to be aware that the US had essentially mined all the Uranium in the US long ago (by the mid-1990s) and that ALL the Uranium mines in the US closed down in the early 1990s! There have been NO active Uranium mines in the US for many years! (We IMPORT around 92% of the Uranium used as fuel in our own current nuclear power plants, with the remaining few percent coming from re-processed nuclear warheads, which we had mined long ago! There is essentially NO nuclear fuel in America to supply a hundred ADDITIONAL nuclear power plants, because there is none to supply the existing ones!) However, nuclear powerplants DO have one great advantage over fossil-fueled powerplants in that they do not constantly produce all that carbon dioxide! However, people seem to overlook that the US currently has stacks and stacks and stacks of USED nuclear fuel pellets, which no one has any idea of disposing of them! Those piles of scrap will be dangerously radioactive for at least 500,000 years! So wherever they are put, it would need to be incredibly durable! For now, they are often encased in concrete inside of steel drums. But the heat and radiation has been found to cause concrete to disintegrate and the steel drums tend to rust out! In eastern Washington State, a huge collection of such materials near Hanford has been causing dangerous radiation escapes as rain keeps washing away the now-radioactive concrete and steel into all nearby streams and rivers. Only token government concern seems to be yet occurring there (until lots of people start dying).

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The World Almanac (and other sources) say that during 2003, the 99 operating nuclear power plants in the United States SUPPLIED 763,744 MkWh of electricity. Since one kWh = 3412 Btu, this is the same as 2.605 * 1015 Btu. The same source(s) indicate that the U.S. CONSUMPTION of nuclear fuel in 2003 was 7.97 * 1015 Btu. It is also stated that nuclear power plants supplied 19.8% of the total electricity in the US in 2003.

We can calculate several things from this information. First, the nuclear power plants had an average operating efficiency of 2.605 * 1015 Btu / 7.97 * 1015 Btu or 32.7%. This number might sound low but it is due to the many processes involved in converting nuclear power to steam, then to rotary power in steam turbines, and then into electricity in spinning alternators. (Much of the heat that is lost is actually INTENTIONALLY dumped! Once the steam that was created has driven the turbines [once] it is sent to a cooling tower, to evaporate a lot of water and send amazing amounts of heat up into the atmosphere!)

Given this data, we can also calculate that the TOTAL SUPPLIED ELECTRICITY (from all sources) in 2003 was 763,744 / 19.8% or 3,857,000 MkWh, or 3.857 * 1012 kWh or 13.161 * 1015 Btu. We will use this number later.

The greatest efficiency losses are due to the massive amounts of 1000°F steam which is no longer needed or wanted once it has driven the steam turbine [once], and huge cooling towers (and many equivalent devices) then "get rid of" the remaining heat to cool the steam back down to being just warm water. For many years, all that heat was transferred into hot water that was sent out into rivers and lakes, but that was found to warm up all those lakes and rivers which caused massive biological growths and other environmental hazards. When that method of dumping their excess heat was no longer allowed, they still had to get rid of the heat, so virtually all of that waste heat was transferred to the atmosphere, through cooling towers, etc. There was apparently an ASSUMPTION that there were no bad effects that would result. Since the air was generally quickly carried away by winds, that appeared to be the case. The single exception was regarding power plants that used "high sulfur coal" which came to be criticized for creating "acid rain" since the sulfur dioxide they emitted [from their smokestacks, another large source of heat and here also pollution, sent up into the atmosphere] combined with water vapor to create (fairly weak) sulfurous and sulfuric acids in the air. But little other criticism seems to have been directed toward electric power generating plants for many years.

Most Electric Power Generating Plants (in the U.S.) are set up to use coal as the fuel for producing steam for the turbines/alternators that produce a constant amount of electricity, along with other [spare] alternators that are normally not running. This makes it so that around 50.8% of the electricity generated in the United States is produced from burning coal. (The United States has the world's largest supplies of coal.)

Those other alternators are generally powered by modified airplane jet engines that use natural gas or (refined) petroleum as the fuel source. Those jet-engines/alternators have lower efficiencies, usually in the high- 20% range, and so they are usually not relied on as the primary electric power generators. Their advantage is that they can be started and be generating electricity within a few minutes of a required power demand surge. This allows the main coal-fired generators to be designed smaller than would otherwise be necessary. In any case, such plants use a combination of coal, natural gas and petroleum products as fuel, with coal being the major component and the other fuels varying depending on demand surges. In 1999, coal was burned to produce 50.8% of the electricity in the United States, with another 15.4% being produced by burning natural gas, and another 3.3% produced by burning petroleum products. This means that a total of 69.5% of the electricity produced in the US was from burning fossil fuels.

The point in this presentation is that each of those technologies have the same large thermal losses as for the nuclear fuels mentioned above. For coal, the overall thermal efficiency is comparable to that calculated above for nuclear, in the lower 30% range, for the exact same reasons, but lower due to several percent of additional losses due to inefficient burning. For jet engine driven alternators, the thermal losses due to heating water to create steam and then discarding that waste heat are avoided, but the jet engine exhaust has enormous amounts of heat in it. A jet engine operating at maximum efficiency is around 32% efficient, with the rest mostly getting wasted as the hot exhaust gases. There are mechanical losses and then electric-magnetic losses in the alternator, which explains the "28% or 29% range" total thermal efficiency mentioned above.

There is another major source of electric power, that from hydroelectric dams. They are wonderful in several ways, because NO fuel is burned, so there is no contribution to atmospheric heating or global warming, and the falling water directly drives turbines that drive the alternators, so that much higher overall efficiencies are possible. Unfortunately, we don't have enough mountains! Only around 8.5% of American electricity is generated by hydroelectric power plants. Unfortunately, they also have some very serious problems of their own, such as causing immense amounts of sediment to accumulate under the reservoir in front of the dam (reducing reservoir capacity and interfering with natural processes). There is also evidence that some of the giant dams, such as Glen Canyon Dam (in Arizona) have a lot of water already seeping through the soft rock AROUND the dam. This is clearly weakening the attachment of the dam to the rock, and seems to imply that possibly within 20 years, there is danger of that entire dam breaking loose and falling over! If that 600 foot tall dam comes loose and breaks, the immense amount of water and sediment in the reservoir would them devastate everything downstream, a true disaster.

Given that hydroelectric plants only supply around 8.5% of our Nation's electricity, and there are no remaining large rivers that could have additional dams built, we will focus on the 90% of electric power generation that produces large amounts of atmospheric heating [from fossil fuels and nuclear fuel]. From the comments above, the net thermal efficiencies of those methods (using nuclear, coal, natural gas and petroleum products) is all in the general area of 30%. This means that of the (100%) power created from the fuel, 30% winds up as electric power leaving the alternators. And as calculated above, the TOTAL amount (in 2003) was 763,744 / 19.8% or 3,857,000 MkWh, or 3.857 * 1012 kWh or 13.161 * 1015 Btu. Ninety percent of this is 11.845 * 1015 Btu. THIS is the amount of electricity generated, in other words, 30% of that in the source fuels' chemical energy.

The first Law of Thermodynamics said, among other things, that energy must be Conserved, it cannot be created or destroyed. This is very well established. So, the point here is, what happened to the OTHER 70% of the heat from the fuels' chemical energy? Well, since it cannot be destroyed, it must all still exist, but as OTHER types of energy. It turns out that nearly all of it is converted into heat that gets released into the atmosphere. The numbers above tell us that in 2003, that was 27.64 * 1015 Btu of waste heat from electric power plants that was intentionally dumped into the atmosphere!

This is an incredible amount of heat to put into the atmosphere! 27,640,000,000,000,000 Btu!

For comparison, let's look at heating homes in winter. In a cold climate like Chicago, a medium-sized house uses up around 50 MBtu in an entire winter for heating (Forty million usually gets used to heat the house [which later gets wasted into the atmosphere through the insulation] with the other ten million lost in the exhaust gases up the chimney.) There are around 40 million homes (families) in climates like that, in the entire United States, so the TOTAL amount of heat that they all contribute to the atmosphere is around 2 * 1015 Btu.

Please note that ALL those millions of residential houses contribute a tiny fraction, around 1/15, of the heat WHICH IS INTENTIONALLY DUMPED into the atmosphere from the Electric Power Generating Plants!

The power plants are putting/dumping around 15 times as much heat into the earth's atmosphere as ALL the houses and apartments in America together!

Let us consider automobiles and trucks. There are over 130 million of them registered in the US and regularly on the roads. There are around 120 million drivers and they drive an average of around 12,000 miles per year (using an average of around 700 gallons of gasoline each). (these are figures available from many government and industry sources). A gallon of gasoline has about 126,000 Btu in it and the best modern cars have around 23% thermal efficiency (or 77% gets wasted, mostly as engine and exhaust heat, air friction, tire friction and other modes of heat). (the AVERAGE thermal efficiency of all vehicles on the road is probably lower than that, maybe around 20%, due to lack of maintenance and the many older vehicles on the roads, but we will be generous here). Multiplying all of this tells us that they collectively send (1.2 * 108 * 700 * 126000 * 0.77) or 8.15 * 1015 Btu into the atmosphere. That is again much more than from all the home heating, but not even close (1/3) to the total amount of heat which is (mostly) INTENTIONALLY dumped into the atmosphere from the electric power generating plants.

Please remember that these comments have been about the HEAT given off by the different types of powerplants. That is certainly an important concern, but these effects actually have a secondary-effect due to the OTHER and more dreadful thing they do. These coal-fired, natural-gas-fired, and petroleum-fired powerplants ALSO convert fossil-fuels into carbon dioxide which is then released into the atmosphere. Those effects are actually even more dreadful, although they do not APPEAR to be anything significant. Please read a related presentation at Global Warming - The Physics of the Process, Coming Disaster

The Earth's atmosphere NOW has so much carbon dioxide in it (primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels) that the "blanketing" effect is already not easily allowing the Earth to radiate heat to deep space. (The heat that is trying to radiate away from the Earth to outer space gets mostly [now around 90%] absorbed by certain gases in the atmosphere, primarily carbon dioxide because there is so much of it. Then that atmosphere warms up as a result of that, and then the newly warmed atmosphere radiates away its own radiation, but only half of that goes upward to try to escape, while the other half gets radiated DOWNWARD toward the surface of the Earth. This is why it is referred to as a blanketing effect, because the Earth is receiving ADDIDITIONAL heating due to a second-hand effect, where no actual extra heat was created.) Therefore, it is getting more and more true that all the extra heat that we produce and dispose of is all in the far infrared, and therefore it essentially is getting to the point where it has nowhere to go! Therefore, MUCH of the reason that THIS presentation has become of importance is due to the OTHER effect of burning fossil fuels, regarding carbon dioxide!

Out of the 3,857,000 MkWh of electricity PRODUCED in 2003, we can say that around 1,959,000 MkWh was from coal, 594,000 from natural gas, 127,000 from petroleum products, and 764,000 from nuclear. If we convert these numbers into Btu, they are:
coal 6.684 * 1015 Btu
natural gas 2.026 * 1015 Btu
petroleum 0.433 * 1015 Btu
nuclear 2.607 * 1015 Btu

We can confirm the accuracy of all of this. There is an alternate way to calculate these things, by considering the actual amounts of fuels consumed, such as the 1,071,753,000 short tons of coal of which nearly all was burned up in electric generating plants. The World Almanac also tells us that in 2003, that coal CONSUMPTION was equal to 22.31 * 1015 Btu. When burned at 29.95% net thermal efficiency (to produce the known amount of electricity indicated above), that means that 15.63 * 1015 Btu of the total heat losses above came from the coal that was burned, which numbers closely agrees since coal-burning in power plants creates around 50% of our electricity and this amount of loss is 15.63 / 27.64 or 56% of the total calculated above. This represents an additional confirmation of the validity of these figures and this analysis. Note also that we have confirmed that the net thermal efficiency of the coal burning electric power generating plants is just under 30%. Actually, there are many additional losses in getting that electricity to distant homes, and the net electricity actually received at our electrical outlets is only around 13% of the original energy in the fuel! Sad, huh? (much of that additional 17% of energy loss is due to the long high-tension electrical lines that carry the electricity the many miles from where a power plant is to where you are. Since those wires carry very high electrical currents, and they have unavoidable electrical resistance, there is an unavoidable power loss of I2R. Essentially, all those long power lines act much like the wires in your toaster do, to get hot and radiate away heat. Conventional design of such high-tension lines is such that they INTEND that only 90% of the electricity put in one end of a 60-mile long high-tension line actually comes out the other end, and all the rest goes into heating the atmosphere around the wires! An additional major reason for the very low usage efficiency is that power plants must necessarily be creating MORE power than is actually ever used, because of the possibility of sudden demand for electricity.

People have ripped into me for many years regarding this statement, that 60% of the electricity put INTO the power-grid at the power plants, is LOST, and that only 40% of the electricity makes it through the power-grid. So it is refreshing to see that IBM has started running TV commercials in Jan 2009 that start off announcing that "more than half" of electricity is lost in the power-grid! Maybe people will be willing to believe IBM about such statements!

We had already calculated above that nuclear power plants had an average net thermal efficiency of 32.7% in 2003, in the same general ballpark. The lower thermal efficiency of the jet turbine engine-alternator installations partly cause their actual production cost of the electricity to be around three times as high as with nuclear or coal, which is the primary reason that power plants do not use natural gas or petroleum any more than necessary! It is ONLY the rapid start-up capability of the jet-turbine engine, and their relative cheapness regarding installation costs, where additional electricity can be produced within a few minutes for load surges, that even make such machines desirable at all.

We are all certainly amazingly reliant on electricity, and we are rather spoiled by its convenience and reliability! We forget that just fifty years ago, a normal house only used a small amount of electricity for a few light bulbs, maybe one television set, a radio, and maybe a blower for a furnace. Things have changed rapidly! This presentation is to remind us that there are "costs" to everything, and electricity is NOT the "perfect" answer that it might first seem!

But the technologies have already long existed that could greatly improve the thermal efficiency of (thermal) power generating plants. And the better the efficiency, the less heating of the atmosphere will result. And the less fossil-fuels would need to be burned that become converted into carbon dioxide. It would be a win in several different directions to make such improvements!

Note that if even a 7% improvement (reduction) in the heat given off by electric power plants were accomplished, it would be a greater improvement regarding the actual heat contributions toward environmental problems that if ALL the homes, apartments and businesses in the United States all turned off their winter heating furnaces! (Global warming has an additional far greater contributing effect of pollution and carbon dioxide being sent up into the atmosphere, which acts as a thermal blanket in keeping the Earth's surface warmer than we are used to, a situation not discussed here but in a different associated web-page linked below).

Around 1980, I contacted a number of fellow Physicists regarding the sadly low (32% or so, noted above) net thermal efficiency of nuclear (and other) power plants. I tried then to get them to understand the value in NOT simply immediately dumping all that heat after the steam had driven the steam turbines! I pointed out examples in Germany and elsewhere, where power plants were designed to transfer that unneeded heat into "hot water heating" for thousands of homes in the local community, rather than simply wasting it! I suggested to them that we already had (and still have) many technologies for SECONDARY "low-pressure steam turbines" where much more use could be made of the steam's heat before rejecting it. Such additional turbines would have to be large and expensive, but they would generate additional electricity from existing power plants. This would increase their output capacity as well as reducing the heating of the atmosphere. At the time, no one really cared about "extra capacity" and "global warming" was barely considered by anyone. In any case, I received "severe criticism" from my fellow Physicists for even implying that existing power plants might be improvable!

Well, it is still true, and now far more important! Twenty-five years ago, I described EXISTING mundane technologies that could gain many, many, many more megawatts of power from (coal/nuclear) power plants, with many GOOD consequences! I hope the owners of such plants eventually figure it out!

The current approach, and even the improvement I described to my fellow Physicists around 1980, are all one-pass approaches, where steam is heated, and used to drive turbines, and then discarded as waste.

At the time, I also mentioned that the still-hot steam might also simply be re-cycled and re-circulated. THEN far less fossil fuel would be necessary to re-heat water/steam that was already very hot, rather than discarding it and starting with absolutely cold water to heat up! It really is stupid! ALL houses with central heating systems apply the intelligent approach, where room air is re-cycled and re-circulated through cold-air ducts back to the furnace to be re-heated. In that way, the house air only has to be heated from say 65° to 100°F, rather than always bringing in outside air at 0° to have to heat to that desired 100°. ANYONE can see that THREE TIMES the actually heating, and therefore three times the heating fuel would be needed for such a one-pass home-heating approach. That actually was popular 80 years ago, but virtually no one still uses it today because of this great difference in how much fuel is needed. (It was actually discarded then because it also really fouled up the IRH [indoor relative humidity] in the house, which caused discomfort for the residents during the winter.) So why do all modern electric power plants still use an approach that we all know is completely stupid?

BOTH of these methods of improvement would be expensive to install, true. The low-pressure-steam turbines are a well established technology, ALREADY AVAILABLE, but because they operate at lower pressure, they are larger and rather expensive. But why doesn't anyone see that the massive amount of extra electricity which would then be produced by each power plant, from heat that would otherwise be thrown away, would make them lots of money?

As to re-circulating the water/steam, there are aspects to that technology that would need to be refined, for that specific usage, but it should not take long or cost much to do such R&D.

It is rather frustrating to have tried to get people's attention more than 25 years ago about the simplicity of GREATLY increasing the overall performance of our dismally inefficient electric power generating plants, but even now, no one seems to listen and no one seems to care! Even now, 2007, things are not yet that different. People (in power) now seem to be listening (mostly because they are starting to realize that they look bad to the public), but they sure don't seem that interested in actually doing much! EXCEPT for some token efforts that they promote as media events! Their profits and their corporations' reputations and images seem to be all that matter to them! By the time they actually start to DO anything, it seems almost certain that the actual remaining supplies of oil, natural gas and petroleum will essentially be gone anyway, so their (future) efforts and expense will be for naught! Interesting!

(The 'Current Energy Resources' link below gives official government and industry numbers for supplies of all of our fuels, and it is so terrifying that it is nearly unbelievable. How could our leaders never have told us about how bleak our future is certain to be?)

OK. There IS another very good and fairly economical method that electric power plants could enhance their operations. They learned in the 1970s that they could not environmentally dump those massive amounts of heat into lakes and rivers. Power plant operation (the combination of the chimney from the combustion and the cooling towers) sends so much heat into LOCAL atmospheres that it is now well documented that local WEATHER is often altered!

So, it seems far more logical to use the system that I had invented in 1978 for the air conditioning system for the NorthWarm 100% solar heated house. In the case of the house, the house air is blown through a number of 4" diameter PVC buried tubes, essentially providing an artificial cave. We all know that caves stay near the annual average temperature, because the soil and rock is able to conduct and convect heat outward though the millions of tons of nearby rock and soil. That system is long proven effective.

So shouldn't an electric power plant dig up a field of maybe 20 acres and bury five-foot-diameter standard concrete culverts? They could make twenty or thirty underground passageways, all watertight, and filled with the hot water that is leaving the power plant. The culverts would continue around and back to the power plant, where they would then have water all ready to be re-heated and ready to make more steam! By standard application of the Kelvin Integral, they could easily and quickly determine how much the ground would warm up due to this effect, and they could design the system of culverts so that the ground heating was within reasonable limits. For example, to then allow a farmer to USE that 20 acres of WARMED LAND to grow crops, possibly 12 months each year!

The point is that there would not be any heated river or lake water to cause environmental problems. There would not be any massively heated weather patterns to cause different environmental problems. And their water would NOT be lost at all, with virtually all of it being recirculated and reused. By careful design planning, they could ensure that the water returned without any steam but at a temperature that was most economically efficient regarding being re-heated to produce steam and electricity again.

Doesn't that seem extremely simple and obvious? And it turns out it is even LESS expensive than the cooling towers that they now build! And they need extremely little maintenance, so the operating cost figures to go down as well.

This presentation was first placed on the Internet in August 2005.

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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago