Steam Powered Electric Generating Plants – Possible or Not?

Steam Powered Electric Generating Plants – Possible or Not?

In thinking about the various islands of the Pacific and the direction each will take in the 21st century, I have been curious about a possible project that may appear to be somewhat radical at first glance – but one that I think is worth exploring for those islands that generate their electricity by government owned, oil fired, generators. In the Northern Marianas the government owned power plants consume 10 million 200 thousand gallons of oil a year.

At 83 cents per gallon that's $8.5 million a year for power and the cost is ever increasing. I’m not going to suggest solar panels or wind powered generators which we have all heard discussed at one time or another. I’m suggesting power plants that will generate 10, 20, 50 megawatts of power or more depending upon demand requirements. I would like to suggest that the CNMI, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau and the Marshalls, Guam and perhaps those south of the Equator consider joining together to collectively finance a “pre-feasibility study” to determine the plausibility for the eventual conversion, over the long term, of government owned, oil fired, generators to that of coal burning, steam turbines.

I don’t believe oil prices will ever decline, if anything, we can expect to see continuous increases in all oil using activities and electric rates in particular. This has been true since the oil crises of 1973. Since that date all of the Pacific islands have experienced spiraling inflation. None will never be able to purchase their own middle east oil well. But together they may be able to jointly purchase, thru some form of association of member states – a consortium owned coal mine in Australia, Indonesia, the United States or elsewhere. This consortium might also purchase or lease the vessels to deliver this mined fuel over a “round-robin” sea route to each member state where the material would be used in coal fired, steam generators.

The pre-feasibility study I suggest differs from a full-fledged feasibility analysis which would address, in extreme detail, the cost- benefit of the endeavor for each participating nation or entity. The pre-feasibility study would simply evaluate the plausibility of the concept. Should the results look promising then the second phase could be undertaken to prepare the full fledged detailed financial and economic analyses to determine the cost and benefit to each participating state that presently operates their own power generating facilities as opposed to those areas where private enterprise provides the source of power. I don’t want to interfere with private enterprise since I am a proponent of this economic alternative to government operated plants.

Upon completion of the first phase of the pre- feasibility study, if it is determined that it would be worthwhile to undertake the second, detailed phase, any consultant employed to perform the work should be advised to cease occurring expenses at any point where the results of their work indicate that that the endeavor would not be financially viable. I am only suggesting a study to determine if it would be economically viable over the long term. With oil you get two things: fumes up the stack and power. With coal you get three things: fumes up the stack, power and cinders which are a useful aggregate for construction blocks and other uses. Coal mines can be purchased which have recoverable reserves that would last the region for many decades, perhaps even one half century or longer. For example, the state of West Virginia with its thousands of privately owned coal mines has enough recoverable reserves of coal to meet the world demand for coal for the next 400 years. Up until the the late 1950’s almost all electric power in the world was produced by coal fired, steam driven, generators. When Middle East oil fields were developed and oil prices were $2.50 a barrel everyone switched to this cheaper fuel and away from the use of coal. Now oil prices are around $17 a barrel and it might be worthwhile to again consider returning to the use of coal with due consideration given the environment since the cinders from spent coal will leach an acid into the soil and this most certainly must be mitigated. Also, the discharge from the stacks into the atmosphere will have to be controlled by new, existing technology called “scrubbers.” This equipment cleans the effluent as it is released into the environment.

The generating plants would, of course, have to be situated to take advantage of the prevailing winds. Following the completion of the pre-feasibility study any recommended second phase leading to the detailed cost – benefit study would have to be comprehensive in scope and thus it would be expensive and would have to be conducted by professional consultants experienced in this type of power generation. The cost of the mine, the vessels, delivery to port and the various ultimate destinations, port and construction of the discharge terminals, storage areas, power plants and their operation would all have to be analyzed for each potential member in the consortium. Indeed, the cost of the regional organization and its administrative expenses would have to be determined.

Should the second phase determine that such a project is feasible over the long term, the consortium would only jointly own the coal mine and possibly the vessels, if such ships were not leased by the group. Each individual member would be responsible for financing their own shore side facilities and scheduling the timing of the conversation from oil to steam. That this endeavor would be both complicated and controversial, particularly on the part of existing oil producers and brokers – is a certainty. It all boils down to economics.