Blog Archive

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

An Elegant Solution, Ignored

Even though many of the stars and planets are difficult to see from downtown Glasgow through our man-made veil of street lights, enough of them are visible during my nightly dog-walking excursions to create a breathtaking display. However, of late it seems that each visible body in the heavens simply represents one of the problems we face as a society. There are thousands of personal crises, mine, yours, and our neighbor’s, to be represented yet only known by the individuals staggering under the weight of those problems. There are issues related only to our little community of Glasgow. There are statewide and regional problems to be assigned their own stars as well. Finally, there are nationwide and worldwide matters that also must be represented in our night sky. Taken all together, there are then thousands of stars in our night sky of issues.

As an engineer, it is impossible for me to look upon heavens full of problems without proposing a solution that might, at least, extinguish the glow of a large number of those troubles. Twenty years ago we proposed a grand solution to many of Glasgow’s problems when we started construction of the first municipally owned broadband network in the U.S. That solution has worked well for many of our problems in Glasgow, but now we dream of expanding upon what we have learned here to further enhance our network in Glasgow while solving problems for our state and our region.

Here is what we mean. Many of the problems in our present night sky are related to energy. The cost of electric power, natural gas, gasoline, and diesel fuel are spiraling upward and that is impacting everything in our lives. TVA is increasing electric power rates and promising more of the same in the future as they struggle to build new generating plants to meet the growing demand for electric power. The numbers are staggering. They are about 2,000 megawatts short of the capacity they need right now to meet their demand ( a megawatt is equal to 1,000 kilowatts and the average home in Glasgow requires about 10 kilowatts of capacity, so, a megawatt would serve about 100 Glasgow homes). They are looking to nuclear power for the new generation units since the outlook for additional coal-fired generation is murky, at best. They project the cost of building new nuclear units at somewhere between $2,000 and $4,000 per kilowatt. So, by their own figures, the project expenditures of more than $18 billion over the next ten years to add the capacity they need.

At a recent meeting of TVA officials and the distributors of TVA power, these figures were discussed along with some preliminary plans for actually reducing our demand for electric power, I had an opportunity to compare what we know about building advanced broadband networks to the amount of money TVA is looking to spend over the next ten years on concrete, steel, and nuclear reactor vessels. The comparison ignited a blinding flash of inspiration in which I saw a single thread connecting many of our problems. That thread is a fiber optic cable and here is how I think it could solve our problems.

We are doing a test project in Glasgow wherein a portion of our old coaxial cable-based broadband plant is being converted to the latest fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) configuration. In a FTTH network, all the cable television, telephone, internet, and electric metering information coming to and from your home is carried via light waves. This means that the capacity and speed of the data traveling to and from the home is virtually unlimited. We think this is the be-all and end-all network configuration that will serve the homes connected to it for twenty, or more, years without fear of obsolescence. Further, our experience shows that this advanced network can be accomplished for about $2,000 per home connected. Keep that number in your head.

Now let’s return to TVA’s forecast of $2,000 to $4,000 per kilowatt for new nuclear generation capacity. In fact, to be abundantly conservative, let’s assume (and this is a very far reaching assumption for any TVA project) that they can build new capacity for $2,000 per kilowatt. That would mean that they are willing to pay the same thing per kilowatt of new capacity as we know it would cost to establish FTTH broadband to a home. If they are looking at spending $18 billion that same money would get FTTH to nine million homes. Curiously, that is about the total number of customers TVA serves over the seven state region. Stay with me on this.

If TVA had an unlimited capacity data connection to every home, they could use that connection to control thermostats on heating, air conditioning, water heating, freezers, refrigerators, washing machines, clothes dryers, dishwashers, etc. That sort of control would easily allow them to shave one, probably two, likely even three to four kilowatts of demand off of their peak demand. So, spending that money on broadband networks for every home and business in the Tennessee Valley region would likely double or triple the capacity improvement they are looking to get through building new nuclear plants! So, if they built FTTH instead of more reactor vessels, they would be increasing their net capacity by actually reducing demand during peak times. Since this same amount of money would double or triple the net capacity impact that they anticipate by simply building more units, they could actually shut down a filthy coal unit or two instead! There is no more earth friendly way to add capacity to an electric system than by acting to reduce demand. No new fuel is needed for this solution. No new operating costs are added. No future nuclear fuel disposal costs are added. This is the most “green” energy that exists. At the same time, everyone would get an advanced broadband connection with infinite capacity and speed for free! In addition, widespread use of broadband could have meaningful impact on the use of other fuels. More shopping on-line, more telecommuting, more movement of the message instead of the messenger would reduce other forms of energy consumption and all of these reductions would bring immediate benefits to the region.

What would our region look like with nine million homes connected to a robust FTTH network? Well, for starters employment would skyrocket. Folks would be needed in all sorts of manufacturing plants to make the cables, electronics, hardware, and software to provide all of the plant necessary to accomplish this undertaking. Scores of folks would go to work building the networks. Hundreds of cities and towns in our region connected with FTTH would also bring all sorts of new businesses. Major internet retailers would want to locate servers in our region to tap the wealth of bandwidth. With those businesses would come software and hardware engineers and the corresponding increased demand for an educated workforce. True, the construction of new nuclear plants would employ a lot of folks as well. But the FTTH solution would spread that employment across hundreds of cities and towns instead of one or two sites. In fact, the FTTH solution would more closely mimic the model of TVA itself as TVA would, once again, be extending the latest technology to every home and business throughout the multi-state region. TVA would be back in the business of democratizing technology – making it cheap and available to all. The heady days of the late 30's and 40's could return to our region.

Of course, this solution to so many of our problems would also create a few political problems. Very rich companies like AT&T and Comcast and other well entrenched monopolies would howl in protest. Those howls would be eerily reminiscent of the chorus of howls that private power companies offered up to Congress as Senator George Norris fought to create TVA in the first place. Private power companies were adamantly opposed to TVA building out electric power networks and replacing the private 12 cent kilowatt-hours with public 3 cent kilowatt-hours. Still, TVA was created and the history of electric power for all came with it.

But that was 1933 and we had leaders like George Norris, Franklin Roosevelt, David Lilienthal, and others who could care less if the rich ceased to get richer. In those days they saw the sky full of different problem-stars. They included an unruly Tennessee River, a depressed region of the United States, land that had been depleted of its agricultural value through greedy deforestation, short life spans due to back-breaking manual labor in the absence of electric power, and the need for a way to produce defense products through use of the natural resources of the region. They saw all of those problems and crafted an unusual solution aimed at making improvements in all of them. George Norris, who brought TVA into existence 75 years ago this April saw the democratization of technology through a government entity like TVA as a natural role of government. He convinced Franklin Roosevelt that one means by which democracy could combat the forces of entrenched and organized greed is through the use of government. “A government,” Norris said, “in the truest sense is only a method to bring to humanity the greatest amount of happiness.” It seems to me that TVA could bring happiness to nine millions homes more effectively with ubiquitous FTTH networks than with a few more nuclear reactors.

But George Norris is gone, and with him most of the leadership that might share this idea for a better method to solve our electric power, employment, development, and broadband network problems, and that is a shame. Shortly after having this vision we shared it with a couple of the members of the present TVA management team and their yawns were deafening. So, we seem to be headed toward a continuation of the present momentum to consume more than we have the capacity to provide and to saddle the people of the region with increasing debt and energy costs when there is such an elegant solution right in front of us. Still, when I look up into the sky tonight, I will still see that thread of possibility connecting the dots of so many of our problems and wonder why we fight so hard to keep the fires of discontent burning. I wonder what George Norris would have thought of this idea.
Sunday, March 9, 2008

Where Energy Cost Increases Come From

If you purchase your electric power from the Glasgow EPB, or any other utility that sells TVA power, your cost of electric power will be going up over ten percent on April 1. This latest increase will mean that the cost of electricity in our region has gone up 33% in the last five years. While the local newspaper already trumpeted this simple information to you as a giant headline, this post will explore the underlying reasons for the escalating cost of electric power in our region. You will note that it has alarming parallels to the same increases we have seen in the cost of gasoline and our intake of calories in our food.

TVA explains that these increases flow from our steadily increasing appetite for more electric power, and a steadily decreasing flow of water into their reservoirs that they can convert to electric power. From the most simplistic point of view, this reasoning is correct. However, a bit of digging unearths some shocking artifacts that go a long way toward explaining where we got this tremendous appetite for electric power and why TVA is unable to produce enough to satisfy our lust for electrons. Just like our present tendency to overeat and become obese, we are doing the same thing relative to energy consumption, but we are being driven to eat poorly by a food industry that is convincing us to do so by lacing nearly everything we eat with high fructose corn syrup, and we are becoming energy hogs at the hands of a wholesale energy supplier that employs a rate structure that also drives us to pig out.

These large cost increases for electricity are being implemented because, if we continue to grow our demand for electric power at our present rate, TVA will need to build several new generating units, including nuclear power plants, over the next few years. They need this new generation because, during about four or five hours a day in the winter and summer, TVA sells us more electricity than they have the capacity to produce. That’s right, they cannot make all of the power we are using! So, they are going out on the open market and paying whatever they must to purchase power for our demands during those peak times. Recent drought has just made this problem much worse. Electricity made by spinning turbines at dams as the water drains from a lake into a river is the least expensive and least environmentally damaging power we can make. When the lakes do not have enough water in them to do this, TVA must replace that power with extremely expensive power from a neighbor, if that neighbor has extra power to sell.

You or I would look at this capacity shortage and make some quick and simple decisions. One thing is certain, we would not be trying to convince anyone to use more power! However, TVA still chooses to live in some alternate reality which ignores this shortage of capacity and still pays industries to add more electric demand (through a program they call Enhanced Growth Credit Program), and their odd responses to a shortage of generating capacity certainly don’t stop there.

Anyone who has to pay their electricity bill at home has a good idea how much electricity it takes to heat and cool a big box retail store. These mega stores also have mega appetites for energy. So, if you were short on energy, almost anyone (at least anyone with a firm grasp on reality who was in the energy business) would look at these sorts of buildings and decide to discourage them by charging more for the massive amounts of energy these buildings require. But, as a TVA distributor, we are forced to charge these gigantic customers less per kWh than what we charge a regular small corner deli or gasoline station! Heck, they even pay less per kWh than you and I pay at our homes. That means we (when I say “we” that means you and me) are subsidizing these massive retail businesses who, in turn, extract massive amounts of money from our community, by charging them less per kWh for electricity than what we charge a small local entrepreneur who struggles to compete with one of these behemoths. We do that even though the small business presents much less of a burden on the electric system than the big business. Shaking your head yet? Well, read on, you haven’t even started getting to the really crazy stuff.

At meeting after meeting, where TVA calls together the power distributors to give us the bad news about another rate increase, they methodically display slides which depict the staggering growth of electrical demand and the growing shortage of their capacity to produce that amount of power. They clearly need more money to purchase more power to tide them over until they can build, get this, possibly $18 billion worth of new nuclear and other generation units over the next ten years. There is always great wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth, combined with promises to develop new methods, rates, and technologies to help lower the growth of energy usage in our region, but at the same time, look at what is going on in north Mississippi for an example that makes you wonder if they will ever be serious about working to reduce the growth of energy demand.

Just over a year ago Toyota announced that they would build a huge new production facility just outside Tupelo, an area also served by TVA. True to form for all such announcements over the last twenty years, the state of Mississippi, at the urging of throngs of “economic development” professionals, offered “incentives” for Toyota to locate the plant there which will cost the people of Mississippi roughly $200,000 per job created. But wait, there is more. Since TVA is already unable to generate enough electricity to serve its existing customers, they will need to build an additional amount of generation (something north of 25 megawatts of capacity will be needed according to published reports, but this number is likely to be several times this size when the total impact of this facility is finally known)to serve this facility. The cost of adding another 25 megawatts of nuclear generation capacity will be about $75 million. So, if we add that “incentive” to the $200,000 already granted by the people of Mississippi, we are up to about $240,000 per job created! The really bad thing about the additional $40,000 per job is that the people of Mississippi are not exclusively funding that incentive. WE are their partners in that one. The additional cost of this new generation will become part of what each of us in the TVA region will pay in additional future increases to our cost of electricity. While I am certain that those two thousand new Toyota employees in Mississippi will appreciate our kindness, I am not certain that any of us really want to make that donation! Personally, if I were a potential employee in Tupelo I would rather have the $240,000 than the job. At any rate, I do not like being forced to make donations to Toyota, a company that is already doing fine without me, and this is just one of many such projects we are attempting to land even though we don't have the capacity to serve them.

Do you see the parallels now? Decades of relatively cheap oil resulted in our attraction to gas-guzzling trucks and SUV’s and an addiction to food which has traveled more extensively than most of those who consume it. Now we are becoming very sorry for our addiction. Similarly, cheap electric power coupled with confused leaders, who think the only way to measure success is by counting the number of ceremonial shovels they have used in breaking ground for another new building to house an industry they just attracted by giving away the farm, combined to create our record breaking demand for electric power. Now that mistake is haunting us as well.

It is true that your cost of electric power is going up again on April 1 and much of the reason for the continued increase in the cost of electricity is because of our increased demand for power. But most of that increased demand is not a result of your personal wasteful ways. True, you have likely added a refrigerator or a DVD player over the years, but you are allowing those appliances to run during that peak afternoon time in the summer and early morning time during the winter because you have not been told not to do so. Rather, our rates have been telling you to use all you want, whenever you want to use it, and that line of reasoning has been faulted since its inception. Our real problems with lack of generating capacity come from the ridiculous kinds of messages we have been sending big-box retail store developers and the ingenious moves like the one we are making just outside Tupelo, Mississippi where we are going to sell power we do not have, at a rate below what it costs us to deliver that power, to a company that requires neither to be successful. You can buy all of the compact florescent light bulbs you want but those are drips in the ocean compared to the waste which flows from our leadership’s predilection to constant growth.

Meanwhile, your donations to the antiquated principle of all growth is good will go up sharply in April. That is a date certain. The date when TVA will finally start offering real alternatives and incentives to encourage us to reduce our energy usage during peak times is still to be determined.
Monday, March 3, 2008

Great Performances on EPB Cable

Pretty much right smack in the middle of the Glasgow home page is a red link that says “What’s On EPB’s Cable.” We are proud of this little resource that several members of the EPB team take time to populate with information about upcoming cable programming that you might be interested in. My personal job is to post information on upcoming events on our many PBS affiliated channels, and, as I continue to grow older, I keep discovering more and more great programming on PBS in general and KET’s many channels in particular. If you have still not graduated to the joys of PBS programming, you really owe it to yourself to check it out. On our system you can see KET programming on channels 11, 23, 24, 191, 192, 193, 194, 195, 196, and 511.

So, we have a ton of KET channels which carry a lot of their own programming about our state, but they also carry a lot of outstanding PBS programs. The What’s On EPB’s Cable link usually is populated with several suggested programs each week, but one of my absolute favorites is Great Performances. Well, I’m also crazy about Motorweek, Soundstage, and Barbeque University as well, but this post is going to concentrate on Great Performances, and, in particular, the program featuring James Taylor’s performance at Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, Massachusetts near his home.

My generation has contributed many things to our world that we are not particularly proud of. Unsafe gas-guzzling SUV’s, plastic shrink wrap packaging, big-box retail stores, cheap cell-phones, and corporate control of our national politics are all things we are ashamed of. But, we also brought you Bob Dylan, The Band, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, and, perhaps our crowning achievement, James Taylor. It is the latter accomplishment that you can observe and, surely come to agree with me upon, if you follow my advice and tune your television or converter to channel 11 - KET at 9 p.m. on Sunday, March 9.

If you do, you will see one of the very best programs ever to appear on Great Performances, and that is saying a lot. James is doing some of his very best music accompanied only by a piano and his own guitar, which he can use to make sounds that are so pure and heart-warming that you might swear they must have come from a sunrise instead of an instrument made by man. The show is called One Man Band and he performs in a restored theater that is very reminiscent of our own Plaza Theatre. He also does a beautiful narrative about his travels about the planet and how, after all of his experiences and opportunities to live abroad, he decided to live in rural Pittsfield Massachusetts. It is a story that should resonate with all of us. Glasgow and Pittsfield look very similar to me and it makes you feel good to hear James talking about the beauty of living in a small community and see his commitment to helping that community by taping this fantastic program in his hometown theatre. Don’t miss this program!