There are many ways to get to Phoenix from the UK, but one way is to fly from London to Los Angeles and then drive. It’s quite a long trip from Los Angeles (370 miles, about 6 hours), but flying would take the best part of a day anyway by the time you check in, fly, pick up a car, etc. So why not take in the scenery?
Okay, so the traffic is bad! But once you get past the Los Angeles suburbs, which is a good 60 miles of very busy traffic, things calm down a bit and the desert scenery really takes off. As you get near to Palm Springs, you drive through an enormous wind farm. Called the San Gorgonio Pass wind farm, it has nearly 3,000 wind turbines that seem to go on forever and is a very impressive sight. It is the oldest wind farm in the United States dating back to the 1980s. Many of the older turbines are at their end of life and are due to be replaced with more modern and much larger turbines. Hence a passionate local debate is going on.
Nearing Phoenix, there are signs to the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. This is a PWR and is the largest power plant in the US by net generation. It provides 35 percent of the electric power generated in Arizona and serves about four million people! Since it is located in the desert, it is the only large nuclear power plant in the world that is not located near a large body of water. Apparently, it evaporates water from treated sewage (that comes from nearby cities and towns) to provide cooling water.
A little further on is a huge solar plant. And by huge, I mean huge. The Mesquite Solar Project has over 2 million PV panels covering 8 km2 (which is larger than the Sellafield site). Further expansions are planned to double its size. Well it is a very sunny area!
A little further South is another massive solar power plant called Solana Generating Station. It is almost the same size as Mesquite, but uses a different technology. This uses parabolic mirrors to concentrate the sun’s energy onto pipes that carry molten salt. This has an advantage over PV in that the energy can be stored and released over time. What brought it to my attention was was an article in the Phoenix Times that mentioned the operator’s were being prosecuted for breaking environmental standards. And I thought solar energy was super clean. It turns out that the pipes that carry the molten salts fail occasionally and spray out their contents; the molten salt is a chemical sludge containing some rather toxic and nasty chemicals and these are being released into the atmosphere. No-one has been hurt but it’s an interesting failure mechanism.
Nearby is the Gila River Power Station which is a natural gas power plant. There's nothing particularly interesting about it except it is burning fossil fuels unlike the other plants en route.
The final power plant was a tiny, in comparison, biomass plant. You could smell it miles before you saw it as it uses cow slurry for fuel! There are a lot of highly intensive cattle farms in the area - sort of like battery chicken farming but for cows. The cows are held in pens where they can’t move much. This one held around half a million cows and it certainly made me feel uncomfortable now knowing where the cheap beef comes from. They are fed, grown and then slaughtered and the manure they produce in the meantime is turned into electricity. Efficient I suppose.
So, on a relatively short drive through the desert, there is a very diverse supply of energy generating plants. The list below puts them in order of power generation:
Palo Verde (Nuclear) = 4,000 MW
Navajo (Coal) = 2,250 MW (this is up near the Grand Canyon in Arizona)
Gila River (Gas) = 2,200 MW
Hoover Dam (Hydro) = 2,000 MW (this is up near the Grand Canyon in Arizona)
San Gorgonio (Wind) = 615 MW
Mesquite (Solar) = 400 MW
So, having arrived in Phoenix yesterday, it is now Monday morning and the conference is due to start soon. If all goes to plan I will write a blog each day. I will be focusing on talks and stands for the Idea Catalog; so mainly robotics but also characterisation, decontamination and waste treatment technologies. It should be a very good event.