Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Electric Stimuli

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

MSNBC has a syndicated article by the New York Times that President-elect Obama is crafting a $400-500 billion deficit spending plan. Of that, $150 billion - perhaps more - focused on creating green jobs over the next decade. BART is mentioned as one of many projects that may receive some federal funding.

The strategic focus appears to be more on reducing US exposure to crude oil than on increasing transportation capacity. We should therefore stress the following:

Electric trains can run on any source of primary energy. Their range is limited only by the size of the electrified rail network.

The California HSR system will rely exclusively on wind, hydro, geothermal and/or solar power. Electricity from biogas would be a fifth option. California is a major agricultural producer. For example, 20% of the nation's milk comes from this one state. Each cow produces ~100 lbs of manure per day. Left untreated, this decomposes, releasing methane - a powerful greenhouse gas - and an excess of nitrates that leach into runoff and can cause problems for fisheries downstream. Harnessing organic waste streams as energy resources is anything but sexy, but doing so solves multiple environmental problems at a stroke. Plus: where there's muck, there's brass.

(full screen version)

Biogas production is already common practice in a number of EU countries, especially in Germany, because the EU has mandated that small-scale producers like energy farmers must be permitted to feed their electricity into the national grids. Once you scale aggregate biogas production up far enough, it can become an integral component of an all-renewable virtual power plant:

Another point we should make is that electrified rail right of ways lend themselves to selling air rights to utility companies. The Japanese railways appear to be doing this already, though at least the line on the side appears to be a telephone wire rather than a power distribution conduit. The one high above the others does look like it might be for power distribution and appears to have been tacked on as an afterthought. I'd be surprised if it's a high voltage trunk line, perhaps an electrical engineer could chime in with a comment to help us interpret what the picture shows (click on image to see all of it):

In Taiwan, too, there are lines above the catenaries that may or may not be power distribution lines:

President-elect Obama wants to implement a modern, robust and intelligent national electricity grid for the US. The backbone could be high voltage DC lines for long-distance transmission between unsynchronized regional AC grids. Sharing pylons and generating cashflow from air rights could help freight railroads offset the high cost of electrification. A change in the property tax code for railroads could also promote combo solutions involving rail electrification and power distribution. Problems related to overhead catenaries on lines used by trains of double-stacked flatbed cars have reportedly been solved in India.

Note that HVDC is also preferred for underground and underwater power distribution lines because of low capacitive losses. This could be relevant for railway tunnels, especially those in wilderness areas. Environmentalists would almost complain loudly about utility pylons not integrated with rail electrification or at least, located immediately adjacent to the rail ROW.

As recently as this September, BNSF was revisiting electrification as a way to save cost because diesel prices had hit $5 a gallon. Prices have since come down sharply, but everyone expects them to go back up once the US - indeed, world - economy recovers from the present recession. California HSR should consider selling air rights as a way to bring renewable power from remote areas like the Mojave to population centers like LA and Orange county, later on to San Diego as well. SANDAG has been trying for years to obtain a permit to construct a new trunk line from Arizona through the Anza-Borrego desert. Combo solutions would therefore be especially interesting for any plans to link Phoenix or Las Vegas to the California HSR grid.

In short, all thing electric related to trains and rail infrastructure projects are likely to find favor in Congress for a while. Just don't touch the wires, please!


Andrew said...

CAHSR will be powered entirely from renewable sources? How will that be arranged, given that the power grid is about 50% coal, 20% nuclear, and %20 percent gas-fired?

BruceMcF said...

Not an electrical engineer (!), but perhaps the three lines, one to each side of the stanchions and one above, are all part of the same AC infrastructure. That could be the "donkey carrying its own lunch", if the line is running through an area without an accessible grid.

A method that cuts directly through the local property tax tangle is to do the electrification with a public authority, financed by government bonds that are then funded by user fees. That substantially cuts the capital cost of the program, and of course as a federal agency would be exempt from state and local property taxes (the power to tax is the power to destroy, and so a public agency operating under the Constitutional authority to promote and regulate interstate commerce is not taxable by other levels of government). And with the railroads receiving a substantial financial benefit from the arrangement, they would have a strong incentive to grant the air, footprint, and access rights required for a public authority.

Under that approach, electrification would be a benefit to freight rail even under low diesel prices, and under a diesel price spike would be a bonanza for the container trade in competition with long-haul trucking.

The lower capital cost would be especially critical with double-stacked container loading gages ... a major cost factor is raising overpasses and increasing tunnel clearances.

@ Andrew: electric HSR is a small enough electricity consumer that its straightforward to ensure that the its consumption comes entirely from renewable power capacity added to the grid.

The mechanism normally involves issuance of certificates to renewable sources as they produce power and purchase of those certificates by those consuming power.

Rafael said...

@ Andrew -

for reference, once it is fully built out and operating at capacity - this will take a while - the California HSR system will require around 400MW of power. This is comparable to the scale of a single solar thermal plant in the Mojave desert, consuming around 9 square miles and, half that of the geothermal power plant in the Geysers field up in Mendocino county.

It also represents less than 1% of the current total electricity consumption of the state. Pumping water across the state to support SoCal and the Bay Area consumes 2-3 times as much as the HSR trains ever will. All those Internet data centers put together also consume about 1000 MW.

@ BruceMcF -

ah, gotcha - it's the 25kV AC line feeding the individual segments of the overhead catenary, to deal with EMI from those pantographs (spark-gap generators). That makes sense, I guess. The current on the lines are in phase, so there's no net induction between them. Still, if the donkey can carry its own water, how about someone else's?

Rob Dawg said...

“The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s policy goal is to power the train by clean renewable energy, making it the first true zero-emission train in the world.”

That's not the same as guaranteeing that the Authority will exclusively use renewable energy.

BruceMcF said...

And, yes, if STRACNET is electrified, two or three east-west HVDC corridors and three or four north-south HVDC corridors would require just a fraction of the STRACNET corridors.

The HVDC could either jump an obstacle or be buried to get through a tunnel, so it does not have the same capital costs at bottlenecks as the main electric infrastructure, which has a higher height envelope for the same loading gage.

Anonymous said...

I actually don't care if CAHSR uses solely renewable sources or not - but the wonderful thing about electricity is that it can be generated in so many ways, from burning petrochemicals to aiming mirrors at a boiler to heck, having grade school children run on a giant hamster wheel. It's a flexible power source that can relatively quickly and easily be changed to the most advantageous generation method possible at any time, unlike internal combustion engines.


Anonymous said...

I vote for the hamster wheel!

Rob Dawg said...

I'm not so sure about the practicality of sharing the r-o-w with a TIE line. The wire infrastructure shares very little in common.

Does someone have a breakout from the business plan for the cost of electrification?

Alon Levy said...

I'm not sure biogas is a good source of energy. It's used in Singapore, but Singapore has higher per capita carbon emissions than most developed countries, even though it's a city-state where few people own cars.

Rafael said...

@ Elaine -

hamster wheel FTW!

@ Rob Dawg -

the point is to share the real estate and EIR/EIS process. If (some of the) catenary masts can be made taller to mechanically support an HVDC or other trunk power line, that would be even better.

Rafael said...

@ Alon Levy -

not sure I follow your argument here. The biogas gets produced in any case, the only question is if you put in place a process to harness it and, to convert CH4 emissions into the less problematic CO2 while you're at it.

Rafael said...

@ Rob Dawg -

I haven't seen it for HSR, but Caltrain has broken it out in its Caltrain 2025 PPT slides:

$471 million for SF 4th & King to SJ Diridon (52 miles) = $9 million/mile. This is for speeds up to 90 mph, with an option to upgrade to 125mph.

On the HSR tracks, trains will travel at uo to 125-150mph except in the approach to SF. Ergo, HSR catenaries in this corridor may cost a little more but the delta should not be all that large.

James said...

Re: Renewable energy usage.

It is common for energy to be purchased by utilities from distant sources and delivered by the grid. It does not matter which electron came from which source, it is all combined on the grid. (Quantum mechanically is is impossible to tell any two electrons apart, but that is a different topic). The user buys an accurate amount of energy from a provider just as you pay a monthly bill for an accurate amount of energy used, only your transaction is with your utility and your utility buys energy form the providers. So yes, the CHSR, or any large user, can run as much renewable energy as they can contract for on the market, right now. As described in the video, spikes in usage are balanced by different sources. Nuclear power may be always on, or a wind storm may happen at 2:00 AM, but the hydro turbine flow rate can be changed and the water saved for a later demand.

James said...

Energy from Biogas is a win-win. You get energy, and you process the waste before it enters the environment so there is less impact on the streams and rivers.

Anonymous said...

I would not want to see power lines as part of the project. They engender opposition on their own that could cloud the issue of environmental approval of the rail project and they are just plain ugly. Please compare the OCS on the NEC to a modern electrified railway.

Yes, they are important, but they don't need to be attached (literally) to our HSR.

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 9:30pm -

well, HVDC lines could be buried in the sections where high catenary masts or pylons would be perceived as unacceptable eyesores, e.g. in built-up areas. Out in the countryside, you could switch back to the cheaper above-ground option.

Anonymous said...

Power lines fitted over the electrical lines are only used to power back the train electrical powerl lines.

They aren't there to transport energy across a state/region/country.

Basically they prevent the use of power stations that already need to be fitted every 30 miles or so. Using parallel lines like that may allow to build power sub stations only every 50 miles. On a 500 miles project, it's quite a saving.

My 2c from a french point of view :)