Sunday, May 10, 2015

Inside a German Power Plant

One of the last things we did before leaving Rostock was to take an impromptu tour of Hannes' dad's power plant. When I say "impromptu" I mean, "it had been mentioned numerous times but we decided to hurry over there spontaneously one evening while at his parents' apartment getting drunk because the weather finally cleared up enough for the view from the top to be worth seeing".

I don't know anything about power plants but I do like learning about how stuff works, and since coal-based energy production is kind of the only critical component of modern society that's also about to destroy us all (antibiotic-resistant strains of super bacteria probably won't get ALL of us before we're reclaimed by the sea, right?), it seems like an important thing to know more about.

Now, at the time, I was pleasantly surprised by the apparent efficiency of not only the plant's energy exploitation capabilities, but also of the way the various toxic heavy metals left over as biproducts of its extraction are filtered out and subsequently disposed of. It was a genuinely interesting and informative tour.

Now, at the time, I was also kind of drunk. Plus, I mean, a lot has happened since then. Like a week later we went to Berlin and from there we moved to Tokyo, where I had found and booked us a hostel and then a nearby shared apartment and also had a job interview, and that was just within the first four days. Forgot the details of that interesting power plant shit, yo.

I ended up asking Hannes to e-mail his dad to ask about a couple of basic things so I could write about the plant, because nearly all of the information you can Google (in English) about this sort of thing is American. The response got was a 16-page .PDF from one of his dad's coworkers, in English, all about the plant's history, stats, and functions. So now I feel kind of guilty for turning a couple of questions about arsenic and lead into a big thing, but, well, enquiring minds want to know.

So here's your basic security office and cooling tower. The plant's towers are visible from a considerable distance; this coastal area is very flat.

The steam that comes out of these towers (this is the scale model that shows how it's filtered and cooled) is surprisingly clean. I mean, the plant still releases tons of CO2, but at least it has a handle on toxic biproducts and waste.

The control room, obviously. It's badass and 90's action movie-looking, though.

Deep shaft is deep

Interesting emergency phone is interesting

Because this plant - which provides more than half the energy for the sparsely-populated federal state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania - simultaneously extracts energy for both electricity and heat as a CHP or "combined heat and power" or "cogeneration" plant, it operates at approximately 60% efficiency. Calculations have apparently shown and it's claimed that CHPDH (the new letters stand for "district heating") is the cheapest and most efficient means of carbon emissions reduction at present. 

So, 60% of the ~6.7 kilowatt-hours of available energy per kilo of the coal itself is pulled out and used. Wiki's example of what this ends up meaning is that, if you're talking about an average plant that operates at 40% efficiency, it takes about 717 pounds (or 325 kilos) of coal to power a 100-watt lightbulb for a year. 
First of all: how shitty is that? I mean, everyone knows fossil fuels are bad, that we use them way too much, and that they make a few lucky people so disgustingly wealthy that we won't be able to transition away from them within the foreseeable future, but thinking about all this stuff really drove that example home.
I recycle compulsively, walk places a lot, and never want to own a car again if I can help it, but how many tons of coal have gotten combusted and released untold thousands of pounds/kilos of carbon dioxide into the air from my lifetime of frequent computer use alone, so far? It's hard to try to picture an entire hillside of dirty coal getting burned while I've uploaded and edited photos, typed this stuff, downloaded music, and if we go really far back, browsed Sailormoon Geocities sites.
Anyway, the formula to calculate the energy value of coal is pretty complicated and full of fancy chemistry abbreviations, but I figure 20% higher efficiency means about 20% less coal burned to achieve the same output, right? Really, if someone reads this and knows how it works, let me know. But if that's right, 20% higher efficiency means over 143 pounds or around 65 kilos less to power that one lightbulb for one year. 
The Rostock plant's efficiency is impressive because of the long-term resource savings on a large scale. Plus it went online in late 1994, it's not even like it's new or anything.

To further put that in perspective, the global average efficiency level is only 31% (source). I was thinking that China and India probably drag it down pretty hard, but in 2007, the average efficiency of American plants was only 32% in 2007 (source). Not trying to decontextualise it or anthing, though; this is just one example of a particularly efficient plant, and I'm sure (or at least I hope) similar ones exist in the U.S. This article claims that the average efficiency of all German coal-fired plants was only 38% as of 2013. Booo.

(from the English version of the plant's informational .PDF)

The view from the roof was pretty nice; it's too bad we only had a Google Nexus tablet 
with us to take pictures.

Aside from energy efficiency and production, there's the important matter of biproduct use and pollutant release.
I'm not sure how accurate this summation is, nor do I know how many U.S. coal-fired plants are controlled (fitted with expensive technology that keeps their air pollutant output much cleaner, like the Rostock plant) vs. uncontrolled because I just can't find the information, but some of the only similar, specific data I could find to compare with The European Pollutant Release and Transfer's information on the Rostock plant was from the Institute for Energy Research, which is Koch-funded. I was thinking it was useful until I got to a sentence that said something along the lines of, "the perception that air quality is getting worse is wrong, as shown by the EPA's data; coal power is cleaner than ever before".


At any rate, the numbers are pretty appalling. Even when you convert American short tons to metric tonnes - which aren't that different - the average uncontrolled coal-fired plant numbers for sulfur and nitrogen oxides, mercury, arsenic, nickel, and other heavy metals are many times, even ten times higher than those of the Rostock plant. And that's just most of the other shit, not CO2. 
According to that source I'm not sure about, the average uncontrolled plant releases between 3.1 and 3.2 million tonnes of CO2 each year; the Rostock plant, 2.86. On the one hand, it's much cleaner and more efficient. On the other, it's still a coal-fired power plant. But at least those somewhat reduced emissions were also exploited 20% more efficiently, on average, and none of the waste products were (reported to have been) dumped into the water or soil.

The Rostock plant, like many others, also sells useable biproducts of burning the coal - such as gypsum for use in construction and road materials - and ships the remaining toxic leftovers mentioned and linked to above overseas, mostly to places like China. So that the Chinese can dump them into their water and soil instead, I guess. 
It also maintains 90 small preserved areas in and around Rostock and is somehow responsible (the English manual really needs to be edited) for protecting a large area of natural saltmarsh as well.

All said and done, it seems like the coal-fired power plants in the developed world should all be at least as efficient as this today, and I think it's a travesty that they're not, considering the fact that we'd still be dumping almost the same unsustainable amount of CO2 into the air as we are today even if they were.