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Bernie Ziebart

The Engineering Perspective

The blog is a view of life, science, politics and education from an engineering perspective. As engineers, we are taught to view the world objectively. We can hope, believe and calculate a particular outcome, but natural laws are inflexible and pay no heed to who we are or what we believe. We must approach the objective dispassionately, while compensating for our own distorted perceptions. Balance is also a key element; balancing between the ideal and the pragmatic, balancing cost and functionality, balancing analysis with action, etc.

Scheduling routine critical self-analysis is the foundation to objectivity. If we do not fully understand and compensate for our own failures, tendencies, habits and skewed thought processes, we will not see the world as it is. Without a regular critical self-analysis we will see the world as we are and then fall prey to self-delusion.

Failure is a great teacher. When failure is coupled with perseverance, it produces the fruit of patience and humility. An engineer, fresh out of engineering school is typically set up for failure early and often. The failure breaks the new engineer of any ideas of self-importance, arrogance and book smarts. Only then can the new engineer be formed and molded into a productive element in the industry.


New EPA regulations

The EPA has mandated a reduction in power plant emissions.   It sets the average CO2 emissions per megawatt-hour to 1,000 lbs. The average coil-fired power plant produces 1,734 lbs of CO2 emissions per megawatt-hour. This, in effect, is the end of the coal powered plant. Unfortunately, 38% of US generation of electricity comes from coal. 

How is the US going to replace 38% of its electrical generation?  

The remaining electricity in the US is produced by natural gas; 30%, nuclear power; 20% and hydro-electric; 10%.  Nuclear power plants are coming off line with 7 plants closing last year. There has been no ground-breaking on new nuclear plants in the United States since 1974. Up until 2013, there had also been no ground-breaking on new nuclear reactors at existing power plants since 1977. Regulations and fears have effectively killed nuclear generation. 

The only logical alternative to coal is natural gas. But the electricity producers will need to go on a massive building program to double the output of the natural gas plants.  Natural gas still produces CO and CO2, but is cleaner than coal. On average, a natural gas plant will emit 800-850 lbs of CO2 per megawatt-hour. Natural gas has made a resurgence in the age of fracking. There are fears that the EPA may regulate fracking and thereby drive up the cost of natural gas. It is vital that the EPA provide a long term encouragement and endorsement of the fracking industry. As it sits, several states, including Pennsylvania, have bans on fracking and more states threatening to ban the practice. 

Without fracking, natural gas is no longer an option to electrical generation; coal is dead and nuclear also dying. How then do we get electricity?  Solar and wind are boutique types of electricity. On paper, they look fine and really serve no functional purpose.  They will not replace fossil fuel powered plants.

The Oak Creek coal fired power plant is relatively new. Generating station 1 went on-line in 2010 and generating station 2 went on-line in 2011.   The plant produces 1,135 megawatts of power and had a project cost of $2.38 billion.  It was designed with the latest technology in clean power with scrubbers, but it does not meet the latest EPA requirements released on Monday.   This power plant will need to be shut down despite the fact that it hasn’t been paid for, yet.  WE Energy customers will get socked four times in the rate hikes; 1) retire the debt of the existing coal powered plants, 2) decommission the existing coal powered plants, 3) build new natural gas powered plants, 4) pay increased natural gas prices caused by the increase in demand.  (66% of Wisconsin homes are heated by natural gas.   When the major utilities consume massive quantities of natural gas, the cost will skyrocket)

Southeast Wisconsin is a microcosm of the rest of the US. There are 983 coal fired plants in the US that need to be replaced.  Some estimates put the infrastructure price tag for the US at over $3.3 Trillion for baseline compliance. 

We were told in 2008 that “Energy costs must necessarily skyrocket”, and now the skyrocketing is coming into fruition.   EPA Administrator, Gina McCarthy, claims that the new regulations should only cost the average family an extra 7% in electricity. (not sure how this number was derived)    

But the EPA claims that this will save money. For every $1 invested, Americans would reap $7 in health benefits. Claiming that with a cleaner environment, Americans should see a reduction in asthma and other bronchial ailments.   

As a resident of South East Wisconsin, I think that the air quality is fine. I also think that the Oak Creek power plant is a thing of beauty; an engineering marvel. Further, by observing the US electricity production, it is obvious that we need more electricity, not less.  Thus, it is my belief that the new EPA regulations are an attempt to fix something that isn’t broken. And then keep fixing, until it is broken.

How do I know that the EPA will break things? Consider this quote by Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator, “But I will tell you that I didn’t go to Washington to sit around and wait for Congressional action. Never done that before, and don’t plan to in the future.”  Quoted on May 1, 2010, in the keynote address for the Green Education Celebration at University of Massachusetts in Boston

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