Guest Lectures

What does your energy dollar buy?

By Michael Hannigan
August 31, 2003
Daily Camera

The giant Northeast Power Failure of 2003 has, no doubt, brought the subject of energy supply to your mind. So I have a suggestion: Visit your local power plant.

Seriously, call and set up a tour. The plant engineers and operators love to show off their amazing facilities, and smart consumers like you want to know what your money buys. You don't have to be a mechanical engineer, as I happen to be, to find fascination in a visit to a power plant.

One dollar buys you about 15 kWh (kilowatt-hours) of electricity delivered to your home. To produce those 15 kWh, the power plant burns 15 pounds of coal. Your dollar not only buys you 15 pounds of coal, but all the expertise and machinery to convert that pile of black rocks to electricity.

Go to the power plant and see what you're paying for. Our local power plant burns 19 train carloads of coal per day and produces enough electricity for 180,000 homes. The furnace is four stories high, and the inside looks like the surface of the sun. The equipment used to control the air pollution created by burning all that coal occupies more space than the power generation equipment, and has added substantial operating expense to the power plant.

You will be awed by the scale: incredibly fast conveyer belts piled with coal; 16,000 fiberglass mesh bags to separate the ash and keep the plant from pouring black smoke into our sky; small lakes of warm water that were once steam. A power plant equipped with air pollution control equipment uses 10 percent of created electricity inside its own walls. Our power plant in Boulder needs the electricity of 18,000 homes to work. Most power plants in the West consume coal. Coal-fired power plants create 71 percent of the electricity consumed in the West, while natural gas-fired plants create 9 percent, nuclear plants create 10 percent, and hydroelectric plants create 9 percent.

If your local plant isn't coal-fired, you still have fine opportunities for a tour. All of these power plants are amazing, and every power plant has an engineer who can't wait to give you a tour.

Natural gas power plants are typically used to meet peak demand since they can be quickly turned on and off, unlike coal-fired power plants. Our local power plant has two small (the power plant engineer's words, not mine) 38 megawatt generators that supply the extra umphh needed during those really hot days when every one has the air conditioning cranked up. Alone, these two natural gas generators would produce enough electricity to supply 19,000 homes, and they consume enough natural gas to fill more than 50 Goodyear blimps each day. They stretch the word "small."

Whatever the technology of the power plant you visit, you will leave shaking your head, trying to reckon with the magnitude and consequences of the process that allows you to hit that toaster button, boot up your computer, or air-condition your home. As you drive home, think about the scale of what you just saw, and then think about the power requirements for, say, Los Angeles. Before leaving those thoughts, remember that you only saw a piece of the energy pie. We also use petroleum to move ourselves and our stuff, plus we pipe natural gas directly to our homes for heating and cooking.

In the West, we each use 22 barrels of petroleum, 25 barrels of coal, and 10 barrels of natural gas every year. That is a total of 57 barrels of fossil fuel per year per person. I know energy is a topic that bores many citizens, but I hope you're still with me and curious enough to ask, "What are we using all that for and where is it coming from?"

We use almost all the petroleum (85 percent) for transportation. We use half the natural gas in homes and commercial buildings. All the coal and a quarter of the natural gas are used to generate electricity.

Are you still there? You haven't gone into a defensive mode, preparing to justify your right to drive where and when you want or air condition your house?

Energy use is a fundamental piece of everyday life, and most of us do not have a clue as how it works and how intertwined our lives are with it. In the West, where we have and use more energy resources, we have a particular responsibility to think about what we are doing now and what we will do in the future.We are amazingly lucky to be able to expend so much more energy than our muscles can supply. A mere 150 years ago, if human muscle wasn't supplying the energy, then domestic animals, water or wind carried the burden. What would life be like without cars, trucks, cranes, trains, boats, airplanes, and electricity generators running on fossil fuels? Some of us may play with the idea that we'd prefer that "simpler" life, but that is easy to say while sitting in an air- conditioned house looking at the mountains within easy reach of our cars.

Westerners need to come to grips with their habits and assumptions about energy use. As an educator, predictably enough, I recommend learning. If you've made it through this column and if you're considering the idea of a trip to your power plant, then take one more step: contact the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado-Boulder. In the past year, the center has assembled the information and knowledge we Westerners need, and written up the results with humor and almost without scolding.

Visit your power plant. Read the report. If you don't find either activity both fun and educational, then direct your complaints to me. I don't mind complaints; after all, I am a teacher.

Mike Hannigan is a researcher and teacher in the University of Colorado College of Engineering. He serves on the faculty advisory committee of CU's Center pf the American West. The center's report, "What Every Westerner Should Know about Energy," is available at