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The Water That Fuels California’s Power Grid

How many gallons to run that microwave?

Lauren Sommer / KQED

A natural gas power plant in Long Beach that uses "once-through" cooling.

We hear a lot about how green our energy is in California. Instead of using coal, the state runs on natural gas and increasingly, renewable power.

But there’s a hidden cost to our energy supply: water use. In fact, every time you turn on a light, it’s like turning on your faucet. It’s been calculated that it takes 1.5 gallons of water to run a 100-watt light bulb for 10 hours.

The way water and power work together is a lot like a tea kettle. Steam drives the power industry.

How Power Needs Water

You can see it at the Gateway Generating Station, a natural gas power plant in the northeast Bay Area. The plant looks complicated but making power is pretty simple. Step number one: burn natural gas. That produces a lot of heat.

“You’ve got 1,700-degree exhaust energy, or waste heat,” says Steve Royall of PG&E, who is giving me a tour through the maze of pipes and compartments. The heat hits pipes that are filled with water and the water is boiled off to create steam. That’s step number two: make steam to turn a steam turbine, which is attached to a generator. It’s the water that’s making the power.

Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Illustration by Andy Warner.

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Thinking Long-Term About Power Plants

A new report warns against the folly of over-investing in natural gas

By Thibault Worth

Craig Miller/KQED

As the nation's power plants age, a new report warns against relying too much on natural gas.

The nation’s power plants are aging. An increasing number require replacement parts; others can’t keep up with new environmental regulations.

A report released today [PDF] by the Boston-based think tank Ceres estimates that in the next two decades, up to $100 billion will be invested in the electric utility industry every year – twice the amount invested in recent years.

According to the report, that boom in investment will take place in a shifting regulatory environment. Air pollution and greenhouse gas restrictions will increase, and fossil fuel-burning power plants will have to keep up. Governments are setting requirements for energy from renewable sources. (California, for example, is targeting a 33% renewable energy ratio by 2020.) Smart grids and new consumer technologies are changing how people think about energy production and consumption.

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The Mystery Cities in Prop 10

Every ballot measure has its fine print and every piece of legislation its earmarks and “ornaments.” Prop 10, officially the California Renewable Energy and Clean Alternative Fuel Act is typical of this time-honored tradition, except in one respect. Usually these quirks can be explained by the people promoting them.

On page 16 of the measure, Prop 10 specifically allocates multi-million-dollar grants to each of eight cities in California. Los Angeles, San Diego, Long Beach, Irvine, San Francisco, Oakland, Fresno and Sacramento (listed in that order) would each get $25 million:

“…for the purpose of capital projects and operating expenses promoting and demonstrating the actual use of alternative and renewable energy in park, recreation and cultural venues, including the education of students, residents and the visiting public about these technologies and practices.”

Seems straightforward enough–except nobody seems to know how these eight cities were chosen. It’s not merely a list of the state’s eight largest cities. It’s close, except that San Jose (#3) is conspicuously missing but Irvine (#17) makes the cut.

John Dunlap, former head of the state Air Resources Board and a paid consultant to the Prop 8 campaign, appeared to be stumped when I asked him for the rationale. His best  guess was that they might be locations with significant transportation infrastructure, such as major port facilities. Again, the mystery of Irvine…and Fresno isn’t quite the Rotterdam of the West Coast.

I called the official office of “Yes on 10” and a media representative told me that she thought the cities were chosen for “geographic distribution” but admitted that she hadn’t been asked before. She promised to get back to me with a definitive answer. That was last week. Election Day is tomorrow. If Prop 10 goes down to defeat, it won’t matter. If it passes, it’ll be even more important to have an answer.