Doing the Math

By Beacon Staff

I went to a meeting of local global warming activists recently. Featured was a Web movie, “Do the Math,” starring carbon crusader Bill McKibben. Next was a fellow from Oregon recruiting folks for a Helena “direct action” (get arrested) aimed at getting the Land Board to reject the Otter Creek coal mine.

There was also discussion of eastern Montana coal matters by a local honcho of the Montana Environmental Information Center. Wrapping things up was an announcement of carpools to a rally in Spokane protesting coal exports Sept. 25.

McKibben’s movie was fascinating in an ideo-political sense. I hoped to watch it again on the Web, but it’s been temporarily withdrawn in favor of a TV premiere on Al Jazeera America, the cable channel formerly known as Al Gore’s Current TV. Al Jazeera is owned and funded by the government of Qatar, an OPEC nation. Coincidence? Perhaps, but if McKibben and allies win politically, OPEC wins, too.

Equally fascinating was a declaration that the Pacific Northwest needs to be “coal-free.” Yes, thanks to politics and litigation, the last two coal power plants in Washington and Oregon will close, one in 2020, the last in 2025.

But the Northwest won’t be “coal free” then, thanks to Colstrip Steam Electric Station, the second-biggest coal power plant west of the Mississippi River. Colstrip’s four units burn about 10.1 million tons of coal a year, mined next door by Western Energy.

Where does Colstrip’s juice go? Let’s “Do the Math.”

While a major stator failure now has Unit Four out of service, probably until year’s end, normally Colstrip’s boilers have a “nameplate capacity” of 2.094 billion watts of power, enough for 1.75 million “typical homes.”

Obviously, a lot goes to Montana, as PPL Montana and Northwestern share about 35 percent of the Colstrip partnership. But Puget Sound Energy (Seattle) owns a full third of the Colstrip complex, 677 megawatts, warming lattes for 500,000 households, about 18 to 20 percent of PSE’s base load. Portland General Electric controls 296 megawatts, Pacificorp controls 148 megawatts, and Avista 222 megawatts. In other words, from a Montana hole in the ground and Montana smokestacks, 64 percent of Colstrip’s output goes 1,000 miles upwind of sight and mind to customers in Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

Colstrip’s more important number is total gigawatt hours, in this case 17,000 GWH in a “typical year.” Divided by 8,760 yearly hours, Colstrip’s “typical” output is 1.94 billion watts per average hour, an impressive availability rate of around 92 percent.
In comparison, our Hungry Horse Dam has a nameplate capacity of 428 megawatts after a 1990’s upgrade, and produces a bit under 900 GWH a year, running an average load of about 102 million watts per hour. What’s that mean? Colstrip is “base” power, running all the time. Hungry Horse has a much smaller “base” role, physics focusing it more on flood control and surge supply.

I was also fascinated by a series of pictures, juxtaposing lovely green plains river bottom against tightly packed oil pumpjacks that threaten sage grouse. What might replace Colstrip’s power?

Again, do the math: Colstrip covers about three ugly square miles – 1,920 acres against two billion watts – about a million watts per acre at historic production levels.

Greens say wind or solar can replace fossil fuels. For wind, the Kevin (Montana) wind farm claims 189 nameplate MW from 126 towers on 21,000 acres for 58,000 homes, 9,000 watts per acre. But 2003 Energy Information Agency data on 137 U.S. wind projects showed a “capacity factor” of 27 percent of nameplate.

Let’s pretend high-tech wind like Kevin can produce 33 percent of nameplate. Then making PSE’s 500,000 o-so-Green homes in Seattle “coal free” would plaster 226,000 acres with towers at the bare minimum (nowhere near Seattle, of course). Replacing Colstrip would take no less than 677,000 acres, 1,057 square miles, studded with 2,064 200-foot-tall, blades-made-in-China, bird-swattin’ whirligigs with a flashing aviation light on every one. Would wind or solar honestly be any less harmful to sage grouse or the larger environment than oil-patch infrastructure – or Colstrip?

Not if you actually do the math.

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