Two Tribes, One Product, But… What’s Up?

blog Mashantucket cogeneration

In the photo at left, a jet engine is being used to burn natural gas, and the rotational energy is not being used to transport sales managers to St. Louis. The energy is being used to turn generators which will power the Mashantucket Tribal Nation’s casino operation in Connecticut. The natural gas, purchased from the local utility at bulk rates, is less expensive as a generating source than power transported via the local grid from the Millstone Nuclear Power Station in nearby Waterford. Natural gas, the price of which was expensive while crude oil prices were spiking a year ago, is cheap now, and if it remains cheap, the project is expected to “pay for itself in three years,” says Charlene Jones of  the Mashantucket Tribe.  Northeast Utilities, the parent company that sells both the electrical power and the natural gas, shrugs and says, ” Co-generation’s better for the environment and it’s better for everything else.” Presumably “everything else” refers to Northeast’s bottom line. The aging grid here in Southeastern CT is stretched to support large consumers like the tribal casinos, and selling the gas for co-generation is profitable for Northeast while unburdening its electrical distribution network, which is in need of expensive repairs and upgrades.

The carbon footprint of Millstone Nuclear Power Plant is a theoretical zero, or near-zero. Neutrons don’t pollute, in the classic sense of emitting carbon dioxide. As long as they don’t escape, they do nothing. Someday the spent fuel will become a major economic and political migraine, but for now, Millstone is as green as a witch’s bum.

The burning of natural gas, billed as the “cleanest of fossil fuels,” emits 117,000 lb. of CO2 per billion BTU generated. Oil in its various forms emits 164,000 lb. of CO2. Coal, the pigpen of fossil energy, emits 208,000 lb. per billion. Photovoltaic panels emit nearly zero, except in their manufacture, which amortizes to almost bupkus over their life span. Millstone emits quite a bit of heat, but almost no carbon dioxide, except for the staff, who won’t quit breathing, even just for the one day of the test. So “better for the environment” is a statement that can be argued: better than what?

The Jemez Pueblo Indian tribe of southern New Mexico are in the beginning stages of a 22 million dollar project which will generate 4 megawatts of electricity, most of it for sale to the surrounding communities at favorable rates, netting the tribe much needed cash. The Jemez Pueblo tribe was denied a casino permit by the BIA bureaucrats on the basis that no one will drive to their reservation to gamble. Been to Foxwoods lately? It’s isolated; possibly less so than Jemez.  But that deal is done, and the Jemez Pueblos are making the best of their options by putting panels on every roof in the tribal community, as well as ground-mounted arrays on open land belonging to the tribe. With an expected 25 year profitability goal, the tribe will show positive cash flow from the start due to favorable financing through the government. Carbon footprint? Near zero. And other tribes, notably the Campo Kumeyaay near San Diego, are enjoying their proximity to eager consumers to install wind and solar co-generation facilities that will unburden the local utility while providing a revenue stream for the tribe— one  that won’t be strangled by the next recession and doesn’t involve the questionable economics of gambling, a transfer of funds from one pocket to another that manufactures nothing but the occasional big winner.

So, two tribes, one energy crisis, two solutions, and two very different worldviews. The Jemez Pueblos will see modest income and reap big positive community response from their eco-friendly project. The Mashantucket Pequots, in choosing the “cleanest of fossil fuels,” have done a smart business deal that benefits their bottom line, and the utility’s bottom line, but contributes nothing to the surrounding communities except carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and slot machines. Their roof surfaces, likely much larger than those available to the Jemez Pueblos, remain untroubled by photovoltaic panels. Although Connecticut has generous tax and rebate programs for commercial PV installations, the bang is in huge flames and high-speed turbines. The Mashantucket Pequots are my neighbors. Thanks, guys. I hope you make a smarter choice next time.

The Math of Lower Thermostats

blog star trek snuggies pose

The trio at left are wearing Vulcan Snuggies, intergalactic precursors of the recent lounging garment fad. Apparently on Vulcan they keep their drafty old cavern dwellings cool to save energy. I take a neutral position on Snuggies, except that they do qualify as comfortable indoor apparel to keep a body warm in a cold room. In dormitories they compensate for stingy thermostat settings regulated by central computers.
But at your house, with four walls and your heating system between you and the howling wind, the math of heat loss makes a compelling argument for warm clothes and lower thermostat settings. If your walls are sealed and insulated to an average of R10 including windows and doors, and if your outside wall exposure totals about 3000 square feet including ceiling, the formula in the wiki link yields a heat loss of 18,000 btu per hour at ten degrees outdoor temperature and 70 degrees inside. Decrease that to 60 degrees inside temperature and the heat loss goes to 15,000 btu per hour. And, at 50 degrees inside, it drops to 12,000, a 33% decrease in energy loss. And Snuggies only cost 20 dollars US or so. And they make them for your dog.
You don’t have to work a miracle on your roof with PV panels, or smuggle some neutrons out of the Millstone power plant on your way home, or buy a miracle Shaker heater. You can work the basic math of heat loss with your thermostat settings. But you’re going to need some warm, comfortable clothes to stay happy and well. It doesn’t have to be a Snuggie, it can be a robe, vest, jacket or sweater. Or just a warm companion. That’s the best I know for empowering us little folks against the financial bind of winter in New England.