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Thursday, April 13, 2017 12:31 am

Powerful forces

CWLP will soon need a clean power plan of its own

PHOTO BY ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

 

That man Trump, who relishes catastrophe, has done his part to unleash it on the planet by trashing the Obama Clean Power Plan to decarbonize the electricity generation industry. This is a matter of moment for Springfield, of course, since the capital city runs its office shredders and beer fridges on juice supplied from its very own coal-fired power plants. The Clean Power Plan likely would have compelled the city to spend millions to reduce CO2 output. Thanks to Trump, the utility faces a sunnier future, even if the planet doesn’t, and, really, which is more important?

At some point, happily, those coal plants will wear out, and no one expects that new ones will be built. To his credit, Mayor Jim Langfelder wants the utility to gradually switch to a “strategic balance” of coal and renewable energies as the basis of the city’s energy system. Toward that end, he last year proposed spending a million bucks to build a small photovoltaic array or solar farm to give CWLP engineers a chance to get used to the technology. A million bucks out of an electric fund budget of more than $313 million didn’t seem like much, but it was cut from CWLP’s final budget by aldermen who avoid even wise spending if it risks raising rates that the aldermen will be blamed for. Thus were halted Springfield’s first steps toward its inevitable renewable future. The irony is that the solar farm was plowed under to save money for the retrofits that might have to be made under the Clean Power Plan, retrofits that now will be postponed.

I doubt that CWLP squawked much. CWLP are coal guys. It’s what they’re good at, and it’s only natural that every time a department official talks about renewables, he sounds like a recovering middle-age heart attack victim talking about his new diet. A one-megawatt solar farm would cover about five acres, and CWLP chief utilities engineer Doug Brown told the SJ-R that replacing the power generated by CWLP’s two oldest and dirtiest units with solar would require an array that would that would span “miles and miles.” That is only a slight exaggeration. In 2009, Florida Light & Power Co. built a solar farm of 180 acres; it produces about 25 megawatts. Replacing the two smallest of the three older Dallman units would require six such facilities. More likely, any future strictures on CO2 emissions will be met by converting those older units to use natural gas, which emits about half as much CO2 as coal.

Unarticulated in most remarks about CWLP’s future is the assumption that power in the future will be delivered from a large centralized utility, only using sun or wind instead of coal. In parts of the country like California and Florida, that is happening already. Utilities are installing medium-size solar arrays, so-called “big solar” plants. The aforementioned FL&P is building eight 74.5-megawatt facilities by early 2018. Any one of them could replace Dallman 1 or 2.

But of course you don’t have to panel over Clear Lake Township to solarize Springfield. There are miles and miles of space for solar collectors within the city in the form of rooftops, parking lots and vacant and underused lots. You might recall that last year the Springfield engineering firm of Crawford, Murphy & Tilly installed a photovoltaic array at its headquarters out on West Washington, mainly by shingling carports with more than 3,700 solar panels. The estimated 400 kilowatts of power they will generate will supply 90 percent of the company’s annual needs and cut its electric bill from $75,000 to $5,000.

Now, 400 kilowatts is nothing – Rod Blagojevic used more than that every morning drying his hair. But set up a couple of hundred such systems to power clinics and stores and factories and you really begin to eat into demand for CWLP’s product. Distributed power generation is only one of the powerful market forces working on CWLP. Remember that in 2015 recession forced it to stabilize its finances by restructuring its rates to, in effect, incent big customers to use more electricity, which means more pollution. Dallman 4’s economics were based on the potential sales of excess power; if built, that proposed 1,100-megawatt capacity natural gas plant near Pawnee would sell to that same market at lower prices in a market in which coal is no longer cheaper than gas. As for demand, projections assumed steady population growth, but growth is stagnating, as is per capita electricity use. But though sales drop, the payments on the plant don’t.

The average life expectancy of coal plants is 40 years, which means Dallman 4 should last another 32 years, which is just about how long it will take to pay it off. The planet as we know it might not last many more than that, what with Springfield pumping more than two million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for every one of those years. All the more important to begin to phase out its smaller cousins, and damn the feds. Only then will the interests of the people’s power company be aligned with those of the city’s residents or the larger environment.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.

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