Living in the Bad Old Days.

Baby, It’s cold outside, even in Florida

Most of you, like me, remember living through the bad old days – of the 1970s. You know unaffordable heating, waiting in line for gas  (every other day) for gas for the car and a host of other things. Not only was it uncomfortable, to most of us it felt unAmerican. And it was, this country was built on movement, and movement demands affordable energy. We didn’t really get going until the railroads started to build out the network, and then we were pretty much unstoppable.

Until the 70s, that is. A lot of people have tried to lay the blame off on the Arabs. Well, they had something to do with the proximate cause, but the real cause was right here at home. It was (and is) called the US Government.

Steven Hayward wrote about this yesterday. let’s have a look.

Everyone remembers the lines for gasoline. What is less recalled are the shortages and price spikes for natural gas, whose price and supply was also regulated at the federal level. But in Texas, intrastate natural gas outside the federal purview was abundant and cheap, and the lack of pipeline capacity to transport it, along with the price controls, meant Texas enjoyed cheap natural gas while the rest of the country shivered or paid out for expensive home heating oil and oil-fired electricity (oil-fired electricity was nearly 20 percent of the nation’s total electricity in 1973; today the figure is less than 1 percent). Hence there was a popular bumper sticker in Texas back then: “Drive fast, freeze a Yankee.”

Yep, I remember those, and like Steve says, even Jimmy Carter was able to figure out the problem, although, as usual, he had the slows in doing anything about it. But Reagan didn’t, those controls ended his first week in office. It’s one of the reasons for the 80s boom.

But the Northeast still hasn’t figured it out, and so its residents are freezing in the dark again. From Steve.

But from the looks of things the northeast is living back in the bad old days during the current bout of global warming climate change gripping so much of the country. The spot prices for natural gas and electricity are soaring:

Gee—how can natural gas be so expensive when its abundant and cheap (thank you fracking), and moreover available in nearby states like Pennsylvania and Ohio? It’s not necessary any more for eastern natural gas customers to have to deal with those cowboy hat-wearing folk in Oklahoma and Texas.

Ah, maybe headlines like this have something to do with it:

He’s blocked 3 (at least) pipelines, although the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has overturned him on one. He’s also stopped fracking in New York, depriving upstate and western New York of who knows how many jobs, good paying ones too. In fact, so good that western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio are all but booming again. The Wall Street Journal (Paywall, sorry) took this nonsense apart last summer

The U.S. shale boom has lowered energy prices and created hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country. But those living in upstate New York and New England have been left in the cold by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose shale gas blockade could instigate an energy crisis in the Northeast. . .

All of this is ominous since the region desperately needs more natural gas to make up for lost power from the impending shutdown of nuclear and coal plants. New England’s Independent System Operator projects that 14% of the region’s electric generation capacity will be retired within three years and says more pipelines are needed for grid stability.

Energy costs in the Northeast are already the highest in the nation outside of Alaska and Hawaii in part due to the shortage of natural gas. Northeast residents pay 29% more for natural gas and 44% more for electricity than the U.S. average, according to a recent study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Industrial users in the Northeast pay twice as much for natural gas and 62% more for electricity. . .

Inclement weather can cause energy costs to skyrocket. During the 2014 polar vortex, natural gas prices in New York City spiked to $120 per million Btu—about 25 times the Henry Hub spot price at the time. Natural-gas power plants in New York are required to burn oil during supply shortages. Due to pipeline constraints and the Jones Act—which requires that cargo transported between U.S. ports be carried by ships built in the U.S.—Boston imports liquefied natural gas during the winter from Trinidad. This is expensive and emits boatloads of carbon.

Speaking of which, about a quarter of households in New York, 45% in Vermont and 65% in Maine still burn heating oil—which is a third more expensive than natural gas and produces about 30% more carbon emissions per million Btu. Yet many can’t switch due to insufficient natural gas and pipeline infrastructure.

So what is Cuomo doing about this? This:

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, in connection with his State of the State address today, announced a plan to create new energy efficiency targets and appliance standards. He directed the state’s Department of Public Service and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to propose new 2025 energy efficiency targets by Earth Day, April 22, 2018, and also announced the state’s plans to develop new appliance efficiency standards for products not covered by federal standards, coordinating efforts with other states. According to the Governor, the targets will be “achieved through cost effective implementation strategies and innovative approaches from both utilities and the [New York State] Clean Energy Fund.”

Yep, that’ll fix it. Make appliances even more expensive and less reliable.

Steve writes, “Turns out the New England electricity grid manager (the ISO) warned of this very problem a couple months ago:”

[P]ower system operations could become challenging if demand is higher than projected, if the region loses a large generator, electricity imports are affected, or when natural gas pipeline constraints limit the fuel available to natural-gas-fired power plants. . .

While New England has adequate capacity resources to meet projected demand, a continuing concern involves the availability of fuel for those power plants to generate electricity when needed. The region’s natural gas delivery infrastructure has expanded only incrementally[thank you Gov. Cuomo], while reliance on natural gas as the predominant fuel for both power generation and heating continues to grow. During extremely cold weather, natural gas pipeline constraints limit the availability of fuel for natural-gas-fired power plants. Further, the retirement of a 1,500 MW coal- and oil-fired power plant in May has removed a facility with stored fuel that helped meet demand when natural gas plants were unavailable. . .

To address potential shortages of fuel to generate electricity, ISO New England will administer the Winter Reliability Program again to help protect overall grid reliability. The program provides incentives for generators to stock up on oil or contract for liquefied natural gas before winter begins . . .

But, what about all that solar power we keep hearing about?

While PV helps reduce energy consumption during sunny winter days, demand peaks in winter after the sun has set.

Typical. I’d feel sorry for them, but I just can’t manage it. After all, they elected these statist cretins, and the chickens are coming home to roost, good and hard. I’d invest in tar and pitchforks futures though unless they all do freeze in the dark. But they’ll probably re-elect them again. It’s what they do, and why they have become increasingly irrelevant to the modern world.


NSA center meltdown

datae7bb042b489f453fbae484a360d60a66-e1381253354182Did you see this the other day? Wise electricians and electrical designer start taking measures for power quality in an installation the size of a storefront, especially if it has a fair amount of data processing and fluorescent lighting. Ballasts, power supplies, and motors do funny things to electricity. It’s a field we call ‘Power Quality‘. It’s one of the fastest growing areas in my business. And it’s a very difficult field as well. On the scale of this installation it must be a nightmare. So while I’m not particularly sympathetic to the mission of the installation (to put it quite mildly). I’m very sympathetic to the guys trying to make this work, dependably.

From the Daily Caller

Persistent electrical surges at a National Security Agency hub has delayed the center’s opening for over a year.

The center, located in Bluffdale, Utah, has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of machinery since the problems began, The Wall Street Journal reports. The center has experienced 10 meltdowns in the past 13 months. The subsequent fiery explosions have melted metal and caused circuits to fail. According to reports, each time there’s a circuit explosion, it costs over $100,000 to fix.

The Utah facility is a huge project, spanning more than one million square feet of country and costing $1.4 billion in construction alone. The Cray supercomputers, costing $500,000 a piece, will also eventually reside there. While the causes for the surges are still unknown, the project officials are divided as to whether proposed solutions will work. Plans to turn on some of its computers this week have been delayed.

Read more:

What are you worth?

English: Power Factor Correction Unit, 75 kvar...

English: Power Factor Correction Unit, 75 kvar Deutsch: Eine Blindleistungskompensationsanlage für 75 kvar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, not literally. What I really mean is what is your time worth to an employer. And why? As usual, I’m going to use electrical work as an example because I can do it without a bunch of research. if you remember the other day, I noted that a journeyman electrician might make anywhere from $20-$50 and hour depending. Read that article here. A journeyman is a journeyman, or is he (or she, to be fair). No he’s not. There are many variables.

Also remember that absolutely everything we do is covered by various codes, usually in the US the National Electric Code but many jurisdictions don’t always adopt the newest one or make additions, so not only do you have to know what you’re doing but where you’re doing it.

First there is new construction or closely related major rewiring projects, we call these construction electricians

There are journeymen out there that do nothing but wire new houses, that’s the simplest part of the business. In truth, it is all about speed, an average house take 2-3 days to rough in and another to finish, after the sheetrock is in. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve respect, If you sent me your house plans, I could send you absolutely every part needed to wire it properly, but I’ll bet you wouldn’t get it right, even if you read the book, and I’ll further bet you’d give up in a week and call for help.   But this is the simplest end of the business.

There are also journeymen around who do commercial and industrial construction, this is quite a bit more complex, instead of the normal 120/240 volts you have at home, these are usually three-phase systems, installed in what looks to the eye like water pipe, and he has to know how to bend this to fit. It’s not easy and for the record, I’m not particularly good at it myself. But still, it’s pretty cut and tried, you essentially build what the plans say, although you have to pay attention, the engineer or architect is not going to pay you to fix code violations just because they screwed up the drawings, you’re the expert. Doing this pays better though, and is harder to get into as well.

Then there is the service side of the business

Again there are guys who have some troubleshooting skills and aptitude but for one reason or another stick with residential and light commercial work. Nothing wrong with that and in truth that what a lot of small town electricians are. Some are specialists in farm wiring as well, which is a bit weird sometimes and cuts across all lines on occasions even including skills normally reserved to utility lineman. This is where I started, and its pretty satisfying work.

Then you get into the guys that live and breathe high power stuff, they know three-phase wiring like a chef knows an omelette, they can calculate motor load in their sleep and remember to factor in the power factor correction, if required. They’re invariably fair to good troubleshooters, and know all sorts of arcane things. These are the highest of the normal electricians.

There are a few, and they are really rare, that are familiar with the really arcane stuff you find in industry, how to use a computer to control a machine tool, or an entire production line. They speak their own language, even by electrician standards, you’ll hear phrases like shunt switching, 0-20ma sensor, strain gauges, and on and on. This is what I do, you want to drive up with your grain truck at harvest and dump into the pit and have 14% moisture content in the bin automatically, I can do it (and have). What’s it take? Drawing me a picture on the back of a pretty good size check.

I’m not the best in the field, at a guess I’m probably 80th percentile, but I don’t do it enough to stay really good. When I was working center pivot irrigation, I was working with Valmont Manufacturing doing beta testing on some remote control devices, I worked for the dealer that developed and was a recognized expert on putting the computerized panel a quarter-mile from the machine. It ended up a very tight specification, some wire had a tenth of an amp at a third of a volt and if it screwed up the pivot didn’t know where it was aimed, and incidentally if you water the road, it can be a 3-5000 dollar fine, kind of needs to be right.

But you know what, I can teach that kind of stuff, and do, but not everybody can learn it, and troubleshooting takes a whole different mindset, you have to know how things are supposed to work, and why it’s not. Yes, we all get confused on occasion too. Sometimes, you just walk out to the truck and have a cup of coffee and think about what could cause this nonsense, and it can get pretty weird.

And so that’s the main reasons why there is such a disparity in pay in what is described as a journeyman electrician. It’s really a whole bunch of different jobs, sometimes all in one day.

Then there is one other factor, the Market.

I’ve been in markets where you couldn’t find a guy that had a clue how to wire your garage but, you had your choice to wire your steel mill, or vice versa. It matters on the paycheck. If you’ve worked residential for the last ten years you couldn’t keep up for years, and now you can’t find an outlet to fix. Demand matters, a lot.

Then there are the little things, do you know how to run computer networks? Voice networks? Coaxial cable, and what kind of crimps must you use to avoid screwing up a digital signal? Except that, more and more, they’re required.

The more you know the better your chances of making a really good living every year but, you’re going to spend a lot of time studying for the rest of your life.

This business has changed more in the last 20 years than in the 60 before it.

Electrical Grid Reliability

2009_US_electricity_generation_by_wierdness. C...

Image via Wikipedia

Many things go into making your electrical supply reliable.These include good design practices, which vary by the part of the country, dedicated line personnel who patrol lines formally or informally frequently, vegetation control, proper maintenance practices, and many, many more.

One of the big ones is to have adequate generation capacity available at all times. There are many strategies available to help with this, the one most familiar to Nebraska farmers is the control of irrigation wells. The way this works is that the more stringent control the customer is willing to work around the less he pays for electricity. It sound clunky but, especially with reasonably modern equipment it works very well, saving expensive peak generating capacity for thing like air conditioning.

This is the operational side of why I find the current enthusiasm for ‘green’ energy so misplaced: Green energy whether solar, wind, or most any other, is what is often referred to as peaking power, it is not totally reliable, useful sure, but when you depend too much on it, it will be cloudy or the wind will stop.

In Nebraska, specifically, but really in the nation as a whole, there are only two main sources of base capacity: Coal and Nuclear (and some, but not all, Hydro).

Fort Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station

Base power is the kind of power that you can schedule maintenance months ahead, if your really doing it right, the plant will never have an unexpected shutdown. For instance, this is Omaha Public Power District‘s Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station last summer. Notice how the sandbags and inflatable dykes are keeping the Missouri River out. It ran continuously all last summer like this. That’s what base power is all about.
And that’s also why the EPA’ campaign against fossil fuel use in electric generation is so damaging. Fossil fuel (especially coal) is almost exclusively used in base generation. There are many reasons, cost of operation is one, these huge plants produce the cheapest electricity, reliability is another. The main disadvantage is that they are slow to come on-line, it takes time and the proper methodology to make that steam (this applies to nuclear, too).
Most pollution has been effectively controlled for years now but EPA is proposing to start all over with regulations and time frames that are (almost ) impossible to meet.
In regard to this on 1 December :

The Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, Inc. (MISO) Vice President of Transmission Asset Management yesterday warned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that the proposed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) air emission rules pose threats
to power reliability.

In comments submitted for FERC’s technical conference this week on reliability risks related to compliance with new EPA air emissions regulations, the Vice President stated that proposed regulations will require simultaneous generator outages that may jeopardize electric reliability in the Midwest.

The concerns focus on the 2014/2015 compliance deadline for the EPA’s proposed mercury rule, which provides limited time for the installation of new emission control equipment or capacity replacement. To comply, generation owners must remove units from service simultaneously, which will provide inadequate generation resources to sustain reliable electricity supply. “As a result, 62,000 MW of coal units could potentially be unavailable for reliability purposes – all at the same time.”

I found this at Energy Law Times, and you should read the whole article, too.

What they are saying (I am, too) is that the current EPA leadership is endangering the incredible supply dependability our electric utilities have maintained for a hundred years in pursuit of their impractical, unobtainable, and ridiculously expensive ‘green dream’.

Incidentally, 62MW of power would power something in the nature of 6200 homes. The overcapacity will most likely occur on a hot summer afternoon, and the automated load shedding will make the Northeast blackouts look minor.

In case you haven’t figured it out, It will also cost (at least) tens of thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in lost revenue for business, and possibly lead to more manufacturing moving overseas.

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How NOT to Deal with a Contractor

Wiring a residential loadcenter

I think most of you know that I’m the operations officer for an electrical contractor. One of the things I do is our estimating, and it can get rather complex. I’ve been doing one kind of electrical work or another all my life and still enjoy it, most days. This week has been incredibly stupid and insane however.

We primarily do commercial and agricultural work, for several reasons one of which is that it is more profitable but, given the economy we are doing some residential. I personally haven’t wired a house in about 20 years, so it’s been a learning experience. We do some residential maintenance and service calls, so we do have a basic idea of the code changes and such.

Anyway, when one of the general contractors we work with asked if we wanted to bid on this house that happens to be about 50 miles from our office, we said sure. He handed us about four sheets of notebook paper with a sketch that looks like it was done by an electrician. It’s missing doors, windows, stairs, furnace, and a few other minor details. Well, I finally put it together and get a bid out.

Yay, we win. We get the deposit check in and are told he’ll have the proposal signed when we get there, that’s not exactly kosher but, OK, we can live with that.

So, I get the purchase orders out and about $2000 worth of basic wiring stuff in. You know, boxes, wire, the loadcenter and breakers. We buy the electrical permit, and off we go. We consult with the Power Company and the client and change the overhead to underground, in this case, that’s a wash for me. (Yes, that’s unusual.) He wants a larger panel, well that’s OK, not much different and so forth. This is the kind of nonsense that makes electricians reluctant to do residential but whatever.

When you are doing electrical work, you can, legally, put only so many wires (conductors, to us) in each box. It depends on the size of the box and the size of the conductors, and it’s to prevent overheating and fires.

In case you’re curious, the 2011 National Electric Code Handbook is 1444 pages long, and Nebraska has some changes also. It’s pretty much all enforceable by law.

When you are designing a system (especially to price) you use the smallest conductor that will do the job safely. You basically do whatever the book says you can do to reduce the cost, both material and labor, that’s how you stay competitive, (it’s also why electricians have so many tools). So, I design this house in #14 gauge wire where applicable. That makes a 15 Amp circuit, some circuits are required to be 20 Amp, kitchen and bathrooms, mostly. This is just so you can see how the system works. It’s a reasonably minor chore but, must be done correctly.

In residential work, I always expect a flurry of change orders fairly early on, and try to leave some flexibility in the design. It is often hard for a prospective homeowner to see how a house will work when it is just plans on paper.

That happened here, all right. By the end of the first day of rough in we had accumulated 20+ change orders, mostly additions, and most relatively minor. But some of them weren’t, a simple staircase turned into a 2 story foyer with three additional circuits.

And the really big one: The customer decided that #14 wire isn’t safe, he wants all #12. If you don’t know, there is no difference in safety, only capacity, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal usually, especially ahead of time.

The kicker here is that this house has more switching than I’ve ever seen. Single Pole, 3-way and even 4-way switches are reproducing all over this plan like they are rabbits. The thing is; a single pole switch takes 2 wires; a 3-way, 3 and a 4 way, 4; and I like to have a neutral in the box, because a lot of dimmers and fan controls and such need one. I try to foresee what you are going to need for about ten years, it works more often than not.

With #14 wire I’m bumping on the limits for conductor fill, with #12 I’m exceeding them. So I pull my people off to redesign and figure out what this is going to cost. It was worse than I thought. The wire I need to do this nonsense is called 12-4 NMB and it’s not very common. One of my suppliers found me a 1000 foot reel of it in Minnesota. It’s not cheap either, my cost is a bit north of $1000, plus freight of course.

I do my redesign and with all the change orders added up it comes out to about $3500 additional, and that’s the best I can do. About $3000 of it is due to the downright silly request for all #12 but, it’s his house, not mine.

So, I go down with my lead guys last night to present this. The client instantly gets angry, refuses to pay the bill and even to sign the original proposal. I’m into this project for about $2000 in material already, so I don’t really want to blow it up either. Well, that’s not exactly true. I do, and so does the general contractor, he’s nickel and diming (actually $50 and $100 bill) him too. But we are supposedly professional enough to get the job done and only then go on down the road.

The clients last statement was that we should do the original plan and if he signs the proposal, that’s what we’ll do.

I am pretty sure that he is thinking that as soon as we have the rough in inspection done, he’ll fire us and change it without regard to the code. He’s entitled to his fantasies.

Under Nebraska law, we are required to pass the rough in inspection, then the insulation and finish materials go on and we put outlets and switches and such in and only then do we have the final inspection. Until then, we are responsible for the wiring being code compliant and we take that responsibility seriously, as do the electrical inspectors (and even the Fire Marshal). Willful violations are criminal misdemeanors. Not to mention a huge liability if the house would burn.

If he doesn’t sign the proposal we will take our supplies that aren’t nailed down and leave, abandoning the stuff that we’ve installed and wait for him to sue us. It’s a lousy way to run a railroad but, it’s the railroad we’ve got to run.

For the rest of you, if you are working with a contractor of any type, tell him what you want (Architects plans are great, by the way, but not necessary), if he’s any good he’ll try to accommodate you, as well as complying with all the various codes.

Even here, if he’d bothered  to listen, we might have been able to figure something out. His problem, as near as the general and I can figure out, is that he’s got the construction money in the bank, and doesn’t want to spend it, so he’s going to try to screw us all. Well, we didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday, either.

And that’s why my posting has been pretty sparse this week, I’ve been screwing around with this mess till 10 or 11 every night.

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