Thursday, December 15, 2005

Taum Sauk: One Day Later

Taum Sauk: One Day Later

I don't really have any news of my own about the Taum Sauk pumped storage plant dam failure. But I am impressed the Wikipedia article is up, as well as an updated article about the plant itself.

In the immediate term, I hope all the members of the Toops family recover successfully. And I hope the flooding did not hurt anyone else.

Long-term, I think we need to think long and hard about the safety and utility of pumped storage hydropower plants. Perhaps a couple hundred exist around the world. I've always thought they were a little hokey.

Duke Energy's web site even acknowledges "The pumped-storage process actually consumes more electricity than it generates. What makes it useful is the fact that pumped storage can be used to capture unused electricity during times of low use."

Wait, what did that say? The pumped-storage process actually consumes more electricity than it generates. And this is efficient?

It is, apparently, because electricity demand peaks so much in the summertime, because of air conditioning. The Taum Sauk plant was built by Union Electric in 1963 to provide us in St. Louis with a reliable source of electricity during our hot, humid summers.

But this means somebody has to pay for it. The plant is located in a relatively remote area of Reynolds County, but among some of the more geologically interesting parts of the state, on Proffitt Mountain which is adjacent to Taum Sauk Mountain, Missouri's highest point. This is in the St. Francois Mountains region of the Ozarks.

Ameren absolutely must pay for the clean-up and environmental restoration of Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park and other impacted areas.

They will, no doubt, try to blame their contractor Geo-Synthetics which re-lined the upper reservoir in 2004. GSI has removed their page about the project, but it can still be found in the Google cache.

This part of the state is a popular destination for weekend trips by St. Louisans. I can recall spending numerous spring breaks as a child in the late 1980s and 1990s at the Shut-Ins and Elephant Rocks State Park, a former quarry with fascinatingly huge chunks of granite strewn all over. It's probably been ten years since I've been out there, though.

We also went a few times to the decidedly anti-climactic "peak" of Taum Sauk Mountain State Park, and the similarly odd Fort Davidson State Historic Site in nearby Pilot Knob. Fort Davidson is basically a hole in the ground where the fort blew up during the Civil War.

We're really, really fortunate this didn't happen during the summertime. Highway N is the only way to get to Johnson Shut-Ins, and there's only one road into the park from there; that road meets Highway N at the bridge over the Black River, so it probably flooded really quickly.

If the park had been filled to capacity, as it often is during the summertime, there's no telling how many people might have drowned. There is high ground nearby within the park, but it's a pretty steep hike to get up there, not something you can do really quickly. I don't know what kind of evacuation plan exists for the park, if any. I do recall being turned away one summer because the parking lots were full.

I recall the stretch of Highway N leading from Highway 21 southwest to the Shut-Ins as incredibly desolate, with broken-down cars and other random dump sites strewn all around. It also seemed really, really long as a result. I can't imagine it is much prettier now, nor that it will improve after this catastrophe.

Also, Ameren needs to ensure at least two of its staff are on-site at all times at Taum Sauk. According to the IEEE page about the plant (which will probably also disappear soon),

"Full automation of the generating units and their auxiliary systems from the control room of the Osage Hydroelectric Plant, which is 100 miles away, has been achieved by push button start and stop control utilizing the utility’s microwave system. Loading and unloading of the units is accomplished by remote control from the Load Dispatchers office in St. Louis."

That's just ridiculous. You can't expect to control a major power-generating facility completely by remote control! If this was in a more populated area, it would be a seriously vulnerable target for terrorist attack. And even if this dam failure was not caused by seismic activity, this certainly is a region quite vulnerable to future earthquakes.

A very tiny quake (1.9 magnitude on the Richter scale), happened about 11:40 PM on the night before this incident, but it was centered south of Sikeston, nearly 100 miles away from Taum Sauk Mountain. So it probably didn't contribute to this incident.

Nevertheless, this devastating flood needs to be investigated thoroughly, and future incident like this need to be prevented as much as possible.


Anonymous said...

Last time I checked you were a mere school teacher... not an engineer, so how about you don't tell Amren how to operate their plant(Remotely controlling a pump valve is easy and feasible). What would having a staff off 100 engineers at this plant have accomplished? Nothing. The accident still would have occured (it was the SENSORS that failed first tricking the system into thinking it was not yet full, engineers would have just been reading bad sensor data) and instrad of complaining about that you'd be complaining about the needless added cost(to your electric bill) of having a full staff on site at the plant.

beadinggalinMS said...

I lived in Missouri all my life till we moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast a few years ago. Johnson's Shut Inn and Elephant Rocks was my favorite place to go to. I do not hear much news about Missouri so it sadden me to read about this incident.

Michael M. said...

"Wait, what did that say? The pumped-storage process actually consumes more electricity than it generates. And this is efficient?"

All forms of energy storage result in energy loss. Think of a battery. Charging a battery uses more energy than the battery supplies. A battery is useful for reasons other than efficiency.

Joe said...

Ok, ok, you're right - I ain't no engineer. So, I was reacting with less-than-informed opinions on this one.

Nevertheless, I don't think we should give AmerenUE a free pass - something obviously went wrong there, and outside experts need to investigate the situation.