From Pine View Farm

Electricity Makes My Brain Hurt 0

The problem with this consulting thing is that, from time to time, one is actually expected to, well, consult.

And when it’s a technical topic, you can’t fake it, at least, not for long.

(Management consulting is so much easier. You don’t need new ideas–just a three-piece suit, new bottles for old wine, and a snappy line of with-it buzzwords. Hell, you’re outta there when, five years later, the client realizes that his company is still a sucky place to work and his employees all hate him, hate the company, and hate their jobs because he’s a jerk, his executive stall are all jerks, and all the training in the world can’t paper over someone’s essential jerkiness.)

My newest development project is one of the most challenging I’ve had in a long time. I’m working with a local electric utility (no, not that one, the other one) to help develop instruction for a community college curriculum in power plant management and operations. The company wants qualified applicants and they are willing to give a grant to the college to help get them.

One fascinating thing I have learned is this: Electricity can’t be stored (well, it can in a sense–that’s what batteries are all about–but it cannot be stored in terms of the umpty-ump megawatts it takes to power the grid over multiple states). As a result, utilities run a daily race to match generating capacity to demand.

In most cases, the baseload is covered by nukes and coal plants–they are complicated and time-consuming to get working and can’t be just turned off and on. Utilities forecast power demands on an hourly basis. As the need increases and decreases during the day, they continually try to match generating capacity to demand, ramping up and turning off supplementary generating facilities, primarily gas turbines (which can be started almost immediately) to match supply with demand.

In the old days (like, 20 years ago), not having adequate power to meet demand was not necessarily a big deal, as long as the deficit was not enough to cause a brownout. A utility could fudge on the margins. Your electric clock, which depends on the 60 cycles a second to keep time, might run a little slower and your electric space heater might not heat as much and your electric oven might not heat up so quickly. Your plasma cutter and welder there in the factory might not work so quickly. But life wouldn’t stop.

These days, even marginal differentials are a really big deal, because all those computers–not just your and my personal computers that enable us to screw about on the Internet, but all those computers that run businesses and enable you to buy things on line and enable the government to spy on you and run the robots in factories and schedule just-in-time deliveries for manufacturing and generally enable business to do business–and all those other things that are computer-based, just we don’t realize it, like cell phone connectivity–just won’t work without the correct level of power.

Next time I write my check to my local utility, I’ll still complain. But I’ll complain a little less loudly, because the only blackout we’ve had here in the last five years was when some doofus ran into a light pole at the foot of the street.


Comments are closed.