Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Georgia Power

The Central American nation of Costa Rica was in the news recently because it did something probably no other nation has done before. 

The country had managed to generate all the electricity it needed for the first 75 days of this year without using a drop of petroleum. It other words, it went almost three months relying only on renewable energy sources for its power. That is impressive for any country, and a big step toward Costa Rica’s goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2021, a target that is remarkable in itself.

It’s another reason the small Central-American country enjoys an especially good reputation as an eco-friendly país. I would love to visit there someday.

I was curious to know more about how exactly Costa Rica did it, and what it would take other for countries to follow suit. Happily, Vox Media ran an article that probed the background to Costa Rica’s success, but also explained why it won’t be easy for most of the world’s other nations to replicate it. And that is a shame.

In its green-energy campaign, Costa Rica is starting from an admittedly advantageous baseline of relatively low electricity consumption and not one, but two, sources of plentiful renewable energy: water and the Earth itself.

According to Vox, almost 80% of Costa Rica’s power comes from four hydroelectric dams. That’s a huge chunk of green energy right there. Also, usually heavy rainfall allowed the country to forgo oil for as long as it did by keeping the floodgates cranked wide open.

Another 12% of the country’s electricity comes from geothermal sources. Sitting on the Pacific Ring of Fire does have its perks. 

A pie chart presented in the Vox article (from the local utility Grupo ICE, dated 2009, presumably a normal year) also shows that only 7% of the country’s power comes from “thermal” sources, which I can only conclude means “burning oil or coal”. Using fossil fuel for only 7% of your electricity needs is enviable in anyone’s book. I wish all countries could manage that. 

As the Vox article goes on to point out, most can’t. And I would say this is especially true for the US, sadly the world’s 800-pound gorilla when it comes to wasting energy.

Wondering exactly how feasible it would be for the US to follow Costa Rica’s example, I dug into the Internet for information on how America produces its electricity. I found a surprising good site, maintained by the US Energy Information Agency (EIA), complete with an interactive infographic map displaying every spot (it would seem) in the US where electricity is produced. It’s actually pretty cool.

As a thought experiment, I decided to focus on my home state of Georgia to see how it stacks up against Costa Rica. I'm not saying Georgia is representative of the US as a whole. In fact, it might be a rather poor role model.

It’s not always possible to make exact comparisons, however. For instance, I couldn’t come up with data on how much electricity Georgians actually consume. Let’s say, though, for the sake of argument that it’s the same as for America as a whole, namely 1511 watts per person. That’s seven times the consumption of an average Costa Rican (210 watts). (Finns consume even more, 1795 watts. This is, after all, a cold country with a lot of saunas to heat.)

Obviously, Costa Rican society happily gets by with much less electricity than Americans are used to. I doubt anyone in the States would put up with that kind of austerity.

It would be hard for most to even imagine it, but you can try it at home. Begin your week using electricity as you normally do – up until half past midnight on Monday night, then nothing more for the following six days. Air conditioning only one day a week. It’s the kind of hardship that would, for Americans accustomed to the good life, certainly spark a revolution.

While Americans probably could never reach Costa Rican levels of low energy use, there is surely waste that could be eliminated (right off the bat, Las Vegas comes to mind). Still, I’m not holding my breath for the average Georgian to cut back on any use of electricity.

Using the EIA map, it is much easier see how Georgia produces its electricity, and from what sources. I realize, of course, that just because power is generated in Georgia, doesn’t mean it stays in Georgia. The ownership of power plants and distribution their output is no doubt a complicated issue in the real world, an issue way above my pay grade. For simplicity sake, I just imagined that Georgia had nationalized all power generation within its borders and kept all the electricity for its own use.

The Energy Information Agency's impressive infographic map of the Lower 48.
Easy to see where the solar power is.

First of all, Georgia has two nuclear power plants, accounting for about 13% of the state’s generating capacity. That’s about average for the US. Costa Rica, apparently, has no atomic energy.

Both Georgia and Costa Rica depend on fossil fuels for some of their power, but to radically different degrees. Georgia burns hydrocarbons (about half coal, half natural gas) for 75% of its electricity, about the same proportion as Costa Rica happily derives from water. Likewise, the share of generating capacity in Georgia from hydroelectric dams is exactly the same as Costa Rica’s capacity from petroleum – seven percent.

If your image of Georgia is the flat piney woods or farmland that covers most of the state (and you’re not wrong), you might be surprised there is any real potential for hydroelectricity there.

But Georgia does have mountains and rolling plateaus, with numerous rivers making their way to either the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico, all with some potential for turning falling water into electricity. Many of these have long been dammed to form 30 or so lakes (reservoirs, really; there are no natural lakes of any size in Georgia), prized not only for power generation, but also bass fishing, water skiing, that kind of thing. 

My birthplace in Georgia sits at the tail end of a mountain range, the Blue Ridge, a long water divide that curves down from North Carolina. 

North of that unbroken ridgeline, water soon slips over the state line, flowing northward, eventually into the Tennessee River. Some of that water is impounded by a dam I’ve driven over hundreds of times on US 76, the main highway threading through Georgia’s northern-most counties. 

The road used to run across the top of the dam, allowing a nice view of Blue Ridge Lake, stretching back toward the mountains. The modern road, however, now passes below the dam, giving a view of the dam itself, not nearly so scenic but with a certain antique character. It was built in the 1930s by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the massive federal government program for bringing electricity to the impoverished Appalachian region as part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. It worked.

While TVA, the largest public utility in the US, operates 29 hydroelectric dams in half-a-dozen states, its presence in Georgia is relatively small. Blue Ridge Dam, together Georgia's other TVA dam (I’m not counting a third one that sits across the border in North Carolina), contributes only two percent of the state’s hydroelectricity.

On the south side of the Blue Ridge divide, it’s a different story. Here the mountains are drained mostly by the Savannah and Chattahoochee, both longish rivers that travel the length of the state, marching to the sea (so to speak) and both important to Georgia’s energy needs.

The Chattahoochee (the “Hooch”) is interrupted by at least nine dams along its route to Florida. The much shorter Savannah and its tributaries encounter another ten dams, most straddling the border with South Carolina, some almost piggy backing behind each other to form an almost continuous impoundment of water. The Savannah makes up more than a third (34%) of Georgia’s hydro capacity, even after you subtract South Carolina’s share.

The Hooch’s share, even if you include the dams on its “little sister”, the Flint, is only about a quarter (24%), and the rivers that arise in the Piedmont to eventually form the languid Altamaha generate even less – only ten percent.

The rest, almost a full third (31%), comes from just two dams on an entirely different river system, the Coosa. One of those, I know well.

Georgia's many petroleum-powered generating plants. 

When I was in the seventh grade, our teacher put a paper on our classroom wall explaining about the massive dam that was being built on the edge of Gilmer County, my home county. I recall that, according to the paper, the dam would be completed in 1975. At the time, to my young mind that seemed far in the future. It was six years. In fact, the dam was finished in 1977 after 15 years of construction.

The site was perfect. Just to the west of my county, the Appalachians proper come to an abrupt end. Along a high escarpment running north-south, a region of 2000- to 4000-foot peaks gives way to a broad, flat valley less than 1000 feet above sea level. Reaching this unexpectedly flat valley is a fast-moving stream, the Coosawattee River, escaping the mountains through a 400-foot gorge.

Or, at least it used to. Plugging the mouth of that gorge with an immense amount of rock and dirt is Carters Dam, the highest (445 feet) earthen dam east of the Mississippi. (Fontana, a concrete TVA dam in North Carolina, is higher.) Eleven miles (18 kilometers) of the Coosawattee were flooded to create a 3880-acre lake, the deepest in Georgia and the source of a significant slice of renewable energy.

I grew up a mile and a half from the Coosawattee. Nothing but woods and a single road separated my house from a bend in the upper part of river, not far downstream from civilization.

“Far from civilization” nicely sums up my memories of the Coosawattee, at least the parts we visited further downstream. I grew up in an outdoorish family. We were always going somewhere in the mountains camping, fishing, hunting. As a kid, I followed my father for miles through hollows and along ridgetops, up one icy creek after another. But, somehow, of all those places far from any road, no place felt as isolated to me, as cut off from civilization, primitive even, as “the River”.

The river was reportedly the last place in the county where it had been possible to find what my father called “Indian deer”, the remnants of the original white-tailed deer population that lived in Georgia when it was still Indian land, before European settlers took their devastating toll on both the deer and the Cherokee.

That the gorge of the Coosawattee could have been the last sanctuary for aboriginal deer is easy to believe. It was a neglected part of the county, and the river down there wasn’t easy to get to.

The places we went to on the river could be reached only over some of the most horrendous jeep tracks imaginable, tough even for my father’s old WWII surplus Army jeep, a classic indestructible off-road machine. It always felt like an adventure descending deeply rutted roads through dark, sunless woods to reach the river, then bushwhacking through jungle-like canebrakes to find spots to fish. 

We felt utterly alone down on the river, and I don’t recall that we ever saw another living soul there. Certainly, no sexual predators. Our imagination wasn’t that vivid.

The damming of the Coosawattee was the inspiration for the book “Deliverance” by Georgia poet James Dickey. I didn’t realized this until decades after the John Boorman movie adaption ("Syvä joki" in Finland) of the book came out in 1972, putting the wild nature of North Georgia on the map.

Hydroelectric dams in the Peach State,
many shared with neighbors.

Supposedly, Dickey got the idea when, like the four city-slickers in his story, he and a real-life friend decided to canoe the free-flowing Coosawattee before it was forever submerged under a mass of docile lake water. A companion, arriving to meet Dickey at the take-out, encountered a couple of suspicious locals with shotguns. I swear it wasn’t us. Although I seem to recall once going duck hunting on the river, we were never otherwise armed with anything but fishing poles.

In the book/movie, this encounter spirals into a gripping tale of a fight of survival against the river and the locals, including murder and a rape scene that, for better or worse, has entered the annuals of movie history. (I recently saw a South Park episode in which the scene was reproduced with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas as the inbred hicks violating Indiana Jones. Some kind of commentary on the disappointing latter installments of that franchise. Or something.)

In real life, the locals help carry Dickey’s canoe back to the road. No violent confrontation, though I can see how a heightened sense of vulnerability in a place as cut off from anywhere as the Coosawattee could inspire thoughts of a much darker, and dramatic, scenario.

I can’t say how accurately Dickey portrays the real-life river itself, as, to be honest, I’ve never read the book. The movie was filmed on another Georgia river, the cinematically spectacular Chattooga River, with white-water rapids (up to Class VI) that could foil the likes of a Burt Reynolds.

The Coosawattee wasn’t quite like that, at least not the parts I remember. We fished in broad shoals of fast moving water, sometimes wading almost up to our waists. The river wasn’t as dramatic as some creeks we used to fish but it was bigger in terms of volume. A nice stream, but not as scary as the Chattooga.

There was, however, a falls on the river, maybe 10 feet high, which I have a vague memory of visiting on one of our trips. Or maybe I’m thinking of another falls on another river. Anyway, somehow connected to those falls is a dim memory from my childhood of a murder. I seem to recall my parents talking about someone being killed at the falls and dumped in the river, weighed down by rocks. Perhaps that incident somehow found its way into Dickey’s story.

In any case, not long before the floodgates of Carter Dam were closed and the lake slowly begun to fill, we made our own last visit to “the River”. We used to have a photograph from that trip, a picture of the hillsides along the river that had been cleared of all vegetation up to the future shoreline of the reservoir, a reservoir that ended up bringing a boost of renewable electricity to Georgia.

Carters Dam, with the immense pool of lake water behind it, has a generating capacity of some 570 megawatts, a full 15% of Georgia’s renewable energy (but only 2% of the total), just from a single dam. Still, that’s only about half of the output of the mammoth Hoover Dam, which tamed the mighty Colorado. The Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State, outdoes them both, with a capacity more than 10 times that of Carters. Then again, the Columbian is much, much bigger river than the Coosawattee.

For Georgia to match the 80% share of electricity Costa Rica produces from water, would take an additional 35 Carters Dams. I’m not aware of any plans to add to the state's hydroelectric capacity by even one. There aren’t that many free-flowing rivers left in Georgia to tap into anyway. The Chattooga is still mostly free. Another one that comes to mind would be the Conasauga, maybe the wildest river in Georgia and just north of Gilmer County. 

Fortunately (from my point of view), the upper reaches of that river are safely encased in the Cohutta Wilderness Area, and are therefore untouchable as a new source of renewable energy. Maybe the lower reaches could still be exploited.

A dearth of solar power in the sunny South? What gives?

In truth, water seems to be the only major clean-energy option that Georgia is exploiting. It does burn some wood for fuel, though that’s mostly related to the state’s extensive timber and paper industry and amounts to only 2% of electricity production.

While Costa Rica might be in a sweet spot for tapping into geothermal energy, Georgia is not. It’s on the wrong side of the country. The 60 or so existing US geothermal power plants shown on the EIA map are all in the West, mostly in California and Nevada.

There is only one place in Georgia, around Warm Springs, where the Earth’s crust is sufficiently fractured to leak enough inner heat to raise the temperature of groundwater. But only enough to build a spa around it. Nowhere enough to spin a turbine.

Costa Rica only gets two percent of its electricity from wind energy. Apparently, that’s more than Georgia, which doesn’t seem to have erected a single wind turbine. The Peach State isn’t a total outlier in that regard. According to the EIA map, wind farms are rare in Dixie.

I’m not quite sure why that is. Of course, compared to Oklahoma (where the wind comes sweeping down the plain), states like Georgia perhaps aren’t all that windy. Still, you would think that along Georgia’s Atlantic coast there would be a reliable enough sea breeze. When I was recently in Copenhagen, Denmark, I counted no fewer than nine wind turbines off shore. Then again, that is one windy city.

Also, you might think that many of Georgia’s mountains and ridgelines would be high enough to catch a stiff breeze.

Further north in the Appalachians, West Virginia and Pennsylvania both have numerous mountaintop wind farms. One, NedPower Mount Storm, operates 132 turbines, 300-feet tall, along a 12-mile stretch of the Allegheny Front, enough to generate about half of Carters Dam’s output.

The only wind farms in the Deep South, and the closest to Georgia, are at Buffalo Mountain, in Tennessee. The lack of serious wind projects elsewhere in the South might be due to the “not in my backyard” curse, to which wind energy seems especially vulnerable. Or, it might be down to economics. (Finland, by comparison, operates well over 200 turbines.)

Still, what is really surprising to me is how little solar power is created in Georgia. According to the EIA website, there are only eight producers of solar power in the state, and some of these seem to be private installations for direct use by property owners. For example, the IKEA distribution center in Savannah is listed as a generator of 1.2 megawatts of photovoltaic energy, thanks to the 6000 or so solar panels the company has installed on the building’s roof. I'd like to think this reflects a Nordic mindset.

As far as real solar farms goes, there seem to be only a couple. The biggest is a 30-MW collection of solar panels in Social Circle, which alone accounts for about half of Georgia's total solar output.

That’s small compared to the massive 390-MW Ivanpah facility I saw a couple years ago while driving from LA to Las Vegas, though to be fair the footprint of the Social Circle farm is much, much smaller.

Georgia might not have the cloudless days of the Mojave Desert, but it is still a sunny place. After moving to Finland, I would fondly recall how the sun seemed to shine in Georgia every single day, not just once or twice a month, like in Helsinki. 

A bright spot in the Mojave Desert. California's huge Ivanpah solar power site.

I'm only partly kidding. Meanwhile, some folks in Suomi are trying to make the most of the little solar radiation we do get. A newspaper printing facility in Oulu has installed on its roof Finland’s largest array of solar panels, some 1600 of them. It’s a start.

As the EIA map makes graphically clear, Georgia could be doing more in solar than just eight sites. In neighboring North Carolina, there are almost a hundred, though to be fair, all seem to be smaller-scale installations much like Savannah’s IKEA facility. Still, the aggregate capacity comes to almost 400 MW, approaching the output of Carters Dam. 

I have to wonder, then, what is it about North Carolina that encourages folks there to lay down more silicon panels? Or perhaps, rather, what is it about Georgia that encourages them not to? To answer those questions, maybe I'll need to dig deeper into the Internet. 

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