ZAGATA: Power Grid Mixes Good, Bad And Ugly Electrons



Power Grid Mixes Good,

Bad And Ugly Electrons

A few weeks ago, an article appeared about installing a geo-thermal system to heat and cool the family home.

The subject was very transparent about the fact geo-thermal systems require considerable electricity to run the pumps that circulate the fluid and to provide the energy necessary to make up the differential between the temperature of the water sourced from beneath the ground (normally 55 degrees) and the thermostat setting during cold nights (usually about 68 degrees).

He then explained that he buys his electricity from a co-op that buys it from the New York Power Authority (NYPA) via a purchase contract.  The source of the power in that contract with the NYPA is hydro.  The author went on to say that because of this arrangement, they are not burning any fossil fuel.  Unfortunately, that may not be the case.

How can that possibly be?  They buy their power from a company that sells hydro-power to their supplier.

It’s because the power that is purchased by the co-op from the NYPA must enter the “grid” of transmission lines in order to be delivered to their home.  Once a given electron enters the grid, it is co-mingled with other electrons from other energy sources including coal, gas, oil, solar and wind.

The electrons are all the same “color” – in other words, one electron cannot be distinguished from all those other electrons that make up the grid.  There are not brown electrons sourced from coal, green electrons sources from solar, blue electrons sourced from hydro and pink electrons sourced from gas.

Therefore, it is impossible to claim that the energy you are using to run your geo-thermal pumps, heat your home or charge your electric car was not produced by a fossil fuel.  You can, however, claim that you are using less fossil fuel than you would be using without geo-thermal.

There is another side to renewables that produce electricity to replace fossil fuels.

That new-found electricity will require an adequate supply of transmission lines to handle the increased load.  Remember how hard some of you fought against the Marcy South transmission line expansion?  Get ready for new battles.

Recall how you voiced protests at the hearings for the Constitution Pipeline Project claiming, albeit erroneously, the rights-of-way would be harmful to wildlife?  If we’re going to use electricity to replace fossil fuel derived energy, the grid will need to be expanded.

Could there be even another issue with solar power that will need to be addressed?

During winter in Upstate New York, solar power doesn’t generate enough electricity to keep the pipes from freezing. However, people with solar power are able to produce more electricity than they need and thus go off the grid by selling the excess electricity to the local provider – a utility company like NYSEG.

The utility must buy that excess electricity even though they may not have a market for it.  If that is the case, the purchased electrons merely pass along through the grid until they are used up due to friction – a process called “line drop.”

How will the utilities recover that financial loss?

You guessed it – our rates will go up.  And to make matters even worse, who do you think will pay for the new transmission lines to expand the grid to accommodate the increase in electrical power from renewables and for the cost of maintaining the existing grid as people producing solar power come off the grid?

Natural gas molecules in a pipeline are much like electrons being pushed through a transmission line in that the source of one molecule can’t be distinguished from the source of another molecule.

In other words, gas produced in the Gulf of Mexico mirrors gas produced via fracking in Pennsylvania.  If your gas is being delivered before the pipeline reaches Pennsylvania, there is a good chance, not a 100 percent chance, your gas came from a field south of the area producing fracked gas.

However, if you live in New York and are opposed to fracking, due to the interconnection of various pipelines and the proximity to the gas being produced in Pennsylvania, there is a very good chance you are using fracked gas to heat your home.

Isn’t this energy stuff more complicated than most of us realize?

Mike Zagata, a former DEC commissioner in the Pataki Administration and environmental executive in Fortune 500 companies, lives in West Davenport.


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