The Long Power Emergency – June 19, 2013
From today’s brief in the Centre Daily Times – Penn State conducting energy test:
“Penn State employees are being urged to shut off all unneeded lights, coffee pots and other items that plug into an outlet for an hour Thursday afternoon to see how much it lowers the electrical load.
The test from 4 to 5 p.m. Thursday is to see how much the university can reduce its capacity during a power emergency. It’s part of an emergency demand response program in which participants would pledge to reduce their energy use to avoid a blackout.
A test last year reduced the power load by 17,000 kw, or nearly 40 percent of the normal load.
Last year, Penn State spent $15 million on electricity for the University Park campus.
Penn State recommends that employees shut off all office equipment and lights; unplug all electronic devices, such as cellphones and digital cameras; keep outside doors closed in air-conditioned buildings and close all windows.”
I’ve been thinking the last few days about the question of whether Penn State’s public commitment to converting the West Campus Steam Plant from coal to natural gas – and from primarily steam production to a split between steam production and gas distribution to private customers on the Borough’s west side through an expanded-capacity Columbia Gas step-down facility – is motivated by practical calculations about how to meet campus energy needs, or by political calculations about how to meet the university’s financial needs through facilitating donations by oil and gas corporations.
Penn State officials haven’t publicly released internal reports containing energy sourcing and use data for a variety of potential energy systems, nor have they released a copy of the 30-year contract they’ve signed with Columbia Gas to supply gas to the West Campus plant, possibly at a discounted rate in exchange for use of the building as a distribution hub.
And I couldn’t find information online about what organizations are funding the new Institute for Natural Gas Research (INGaR) at Penn State.
But the comments at the May 16 Planning Commission meeting about putting visitors’ parking at the West Campus Steam Plant, along with the attractive architectural facade planned for the north-facing side of the complex, suggest that the building will be more than just administrative offices for supervising power plant operations.
Those facts suggest that a key part of the conversion plan is creating an appealing headquarters for offices where Penn State staff can actively promote natural gas use to visiting planners from other communities and institutions, which supports the notion that oil and gas corporations may be the key source of financial support for INGaR.
We already know that replacing the 70,000 tons of coal used annually in the West Campus Steam Plant each year would not require a 12″/400 psi transmission pipeline; OPP’s Rob Cooper said at the May 16 meeting that the university could fully operate the plant with roughly a 6″ to 8″ line, and a 6″ line already feeds the plant with some capacity to spare through the step-down distribution lines.
Cooper alluded to the “embedded value” of the existing utility infrastructure – all the steam tunnels painstakingly installed across campus over the years. Those tunnels would become stranded assets if the university skipped the natural gas “bridge” and moved directly to comprehensive conservation and carefully targetted renewables.
And it is admittedly hard to let go of a complicated investment gone sour. Even when circumstances change and the investment becomes a losing proposition, there’s an emotional bond. Still, the sensible response to a dead-end strategy is to change course as soon as possible, and start investing in infrastructure that’s easier to operate and maintain under conditions including resource scarcity, environmental instability and shrinking budgets.
For those who believe industry hype, it makes sense to tie the University’s financial future to the gas industry. But it’s a problematic financial strategy if it turns out fossil fuel corporations are the key funders for INGaR, because many natural gas drilling companies are in tough financial straits themselves. Over the past few years, the glutted market drove prices down to the point where it cost more to produce the gas than the sales price, while production decline rates – studied across 65,000 wells – hover between 79 and 95% after just three years.
Even as the sales price has risen over the last year, production has remained fairly flat and corporations have been selling off assets to raise cash, flipping the land to suckers getting into the market at the end of the boom. See, for example, Chesapeake Energy.
With support and direction from Penn State leaders, University staff have proven they can reduce their load for one hour by 40% as a test of preparedness for short-duration power emergencies like blackouts.
With stronger support and more courageous, long-range leadership from the Board of Trustees, Penn State as a whole is clearly capable of reducing energy use consistently, in response to the ongoing power emergency of rising fossil fuel extraction costs, climate change and economic contraction.