Bigger Is Greener

The fuel-cell-powered One WTC as of 4/30/12 when it topped the Empire State Building (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Here’s a promising trend – all the cool big guys are going green.    Google and Adobe are now powering their offices with Blo0m Boxes, a solid oxide fuel cell powered by natural gas that has 40% the CO2 emissions of a coal plant (773 lb/MW-hr vs ~1900), and vastly less sulfur and nitrogen oxide pollution.

The replacement for the World Trade Center, One World Trade Center (thankfully no longer called the Freedom Tower), is also putting in gas fuel cells – a 4.8 MW system from United Technology Power.  It’s built from 12  Purecell 400s  that can each output 400 kW at 42% thermal efficiency.  That’s not that good compared to combined-cycle turbines, which can get up to 61%, but the fuel cells are small, quiet, and low-maintenance.  They can also dump their waste heat into hot water for the building or into chillers for air conditioning, and so can get up to 80% total efficiency.  The building will be nearly self-powered, just like the Avengers Tower in the recent movie, although few would mistake its developer, Larry Silverstein, for Tony Stark.  The building is also much more attractive than the hideous WTC, although still not a patch on the elegant Burj Khalifa.

Even the ancient Empire State Building is getting upgraded.  The NY Times reports (“Green Power for the Empire State Building“) that they now get all their power from a wind supplier, NRG Systems.  They’re buying 55 million kWH a year, which works out to an average of 3.6 MW.   This is part of a general makeover which has replaced the windows, redone a lot of the floors, and kicked out a lot of small tenants that were paying ridiculously low rates.

All these developers know the score – they need to lock in their energy prices with their own supplies.   It may be more expensive up front, but it’s worth it to hedge against the future volatility of conventional sources.  Every disaster like Fukushima or the Kingston Coal Ash Spill makes the risks in nuclear and coal harder to quantify and so more expensive to insure against.  Sure, the energy companies will  sucker some congressmen into making the US take all the liability for their crummy old tech, but it will only take a couple more catastrophes before that gravy train ends.

Big guys can afford to build their own power generators because they can afford to have people to manage these kind of systems, and they have access to suitable financing.  Small businesses and residences are at the mercy of the now-privatized utilities.    They usually don’t have the energy (so to speak) to manage their own power.

There are schemes for generating your own power, mainly via solar panels, but the privateers are now pushing back on this too.   California just raised the caps on how many people can do this, and the investor-owned utilities screamed.   They claim that forcing the utilities to buy home-generated power at retail rates boosts the rates for everyone, since the home generators aren’t paying for the transmission infrastructure.  “You’re raising rates on the poor!” they say, hoping to get a good class war  going in the right-wing media.   This is discussed in this NY Times piece “Solar Payments Set Off a Fairness Debate”, where the Times gives the corporate shills a national platform for their PR, as is their wont.   The utilities didn’t mind if a few hackers put up solar panels, but once a lot of people try to emulate Google and Larry Silverstein, they’ll have to be stopped.

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