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Our Energy, Our Power

A long, long time ago, I blogged about a really cool event the sustainability office sponsored on campus where they a lot of the people who deal with Caltech waste / energy / water speak and answer questions. I still didn’t know too much about Pasadena’s energy, though, and Caltech does use a bunch of it.

So, I organized an event through ESW last Friday which featured two local speakers, Robert Haw and David Czamanske. Robert Haw is an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an executive council member of the JPL Green Club. He initiated the JPL Climate Change Symposium, an annual outreach activity to educate the public about climate change. David Czamanske is an active member of the Pasadena Group of the Sierra Club. He writes widely about local environmental issues.

The event preceded the International Day of Action on September 24th sponsored by the environmental organization 350.org. This organization (https://www.350.org/) wants the ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere to be reduced under 350 ppm from our current 391 ppm ASAP. The 350 ppm is based on an analysis by James Hansen at Columbia University in 2007. In Pasadena, this motivated some locals (including Robert and David) to protest the coal plant we currently get our energy from, and to make Pasadena "Coal-Free by ’23." As a non-local Pasadenian, I didn’t really know much about this and we decided to make it an ESW event right before the International Day of Action.

Caltech gets a substancial fraction of its power from the solar panels all over campus and from our own facilities (from https://www.facilitiesmanagement.caltech.edu/energy_management/energy_facts):

"Electricity: Most (80%) of the campus electricity is produced by Facility’s 10 Megawatt gas turbine and 2.5 Megawatt Steam Turbine. The remaining electricity requirements are purchased from Pasadena Water and Power and supplied to three campus substations. Distribution of electricity from the substations to buildings is managed by Caltech. A few buildings on the perimeter of campus are served directly by Pasadena Water and Power."

And, while 20 percent may not sound like a lot, Caltech uses enough power that 20 percent of our electricity is quite a chunk! So, where is Pasadena’s energy coming from?

Robert began by giving a lot of background to the issue – the USA, excluding exports, has an average power per person of 250 kwh/d/p compared to 125 for Britain and 40 for China. The world has 2,000 Gw of generating stations, and California has about 100 Gw of generating stations. In Pasadena, the peak electric load (usually in the summer when all the ACs are on) is 300 MW but the steady state consumption is around 200 MW. Clearly, Pasadena doesn’t use a enormous fraction of the world’s energy – but we use much more than even the average American and Californian. The electricity consumption in California in kWh/d/p is 22 but in Pasadena it is 25.6; because Pasadena gets so much energy from the coal plant, the average Californian has a carbon footprint in kgCO2/d/p of 8.7 while this number is 18.4 in Pasadena.

To give everyone an idea of the amount of CO2 being released by the coal plant, Robert pointed out that at STP, 1 kg CO2 fills 500 party ballons. (So, think of each person in Pasadena filling 18.4*500 ballons CO2 every day). He explained why we clearly needed to move past fossil fuels: the pollution, and the fact that we are running out. (The ratio of energy needed to produce energy to energy obtained used to be 100:1, is now 10:1, and is unprofitable at an estimated 5:1).

The coal plant is the Intermountain Power Plant in western Utah. It proves electricity for 6 SoCal cities by whom it was financed with 40 year bonds – LA, Glendale, Burbank, Pas, Anaheim, and Riverside. It has a capacity of 1900 MW and 1500 of those are reserved for SoCal. It comes to us via a 490 mile DC transmission line (these have relatively low energy losses). Pasadena in 2008 got 110MW from it, for about 6 cents per kwh. Pasadena has several energy plans consumers can buy from – some use more clean and the standard less clean energy. They deliberated on changing the standard plan where the PWP cost projections for 2020 per kwh were 9 cents for the status quo, 9.5 cents for a "preffered option" with slighlyt less coal power, 10.5 cents for a NG replaces coal option, and 11.3 cents for a very green (no coal, less NG) option. They choose the preffered option because the electricity remains cheap, they have the 40 year bond contract with the coal plant, and it satisfies the California renewables laws.

Robert made a proposal to work with LA and the other CA cities involved with the coal plant to revamp it to something like natural gas. Coal releases 1.6 times as much CO2 as natural gas for the same energy; it isn’t a long term solution, but Robert pointed out that it is a time-saver and, while far from ideal, a politically viable solution while we switch to clean energy (like the solar power so many of our labs are working on:)). While fracking for natural gas is destructive, mountain-top removal is too. There just isn’t a magic solution that is cheap and clean. Robert also proposes that we decrease demand by 1 percent a year and add 2 more percent renewables to the power plans.

David talked largely about another project which encompasses a more national scale – the Tar Sands. There is a project called the Keystone XC Pipeline (https://www.tarsandsaction.org/). Basically, it is a plan to have a huge pipeline travel from Canada to Texas oil refineries and ports, carrying diluted bitument (crude oil) produced in the Alberta tar sands. It would be going through a lot of pretty environmentally important areas in the US, and the tar sand extraction itself has been very environmentally harmful through forest destruction and toxic water leaks / storage, and even water use and tar sand processing. David is very involved with the Sierra Club and was just in Washington to address the pipeline issue (and other Sierra Club concerns) to senators.

Robert and David ended by looking at the economic argument: the coal plant produces cheap energy. It supplies Utah with 500 jobs and a place to use its local coal resources. The long term cost isn’t worth it, though. Renewable energy sources create jobs too. They hope residents of Pasadena decide to pay a little more for much greener energy.

The next day, they had the Moving Planet rally in front of the Pasadena City Hall to show support for Robert’s plan, raise awareness, and support the plastic bag ban that has been in work in Pasadena for more than three years (LA city just passed it, and it’s about time here!).

Another ESW member and I went to hear the speeches. Felicia Williams, the chair of the Pasadena Environmental Advisory Committee, Carol Liu, a State Senator for the 21st district, and Mayor Bogaard all spoke.

Ms. Williams spoke about the various ways people in Pasadena can contribute their opinion to the city government, and encouarged people to come to a few upcoming meetings with their statements. She also listened to Robert’s demands and said she would put those in the public comments part of the next meeting.

The mayor, Mr. Bogaard, spoke more about Pasadena as a city in the whole of CA. Pasadena has an EAC and many environmental initiatives, in large part because of citizens "like us."

Finally, Senator Liu spoke about the goals of the state, and where the state was going; she talked about environmental initiatives in her district, and about the economics of power. She talked about the restoration of the LA River, and a tour of the Coca-cola plant she just had where she was very impressed by all their environmental initiatives (apparently, they hardly waste anything — but wait, what about the bottles that get shipped out? do they make sure those get recycled? or support a tax on them?).

I was impressed that Ms. Williams, Ms. Liu, and Mr. Bogaard came out and they all seemed pretty legitimately interested in the environment … though I could hear politics in their speeches! It was the first rally I’ve been to, and it was interesting to see. I definitely also learned more about Caltech / Pasadena’s power along the way (even though I’m really a big supporter of just plain old using less!).

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