Column: Understanding Belco Fuels

November 6, 2023 | 0 Comments

[Column written by Denise DeMoura]

A few people have asked me to help them understand more about Belco. So I’m going to try: starting with fuels and the generators that turn them into electricity.

It’s overwhelming just trying to understand the differences between the types of fuel that Belco could potentially use–and the many different names used for them.

It’s way more complicated than flicking a nice clean switch and instantly getting light. It sickens me that cheaper fuels, which keep our bills lower, seem to be more destructive.

Scientists are frequently publishing new information about fossil fuels, which shows us how little is still known about the big picture.

It’s a dirty, and costly, business all along their tangled pathways. I try to follow from the beginning–to end process of any product. Using true Full Cost Accounting, I put financial costs–after social and environmental costs.

Belco Fuels Bermuda Nov 6 2023

From the mining of raw materials all along the path to waste disposal–which includes emissions—it’s challenging to figure out true costs.

All of them emit pollution as tiny particulate matter [pm] which are much smaller than the width of a human hair and cause health problems.

Their emissions trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere contributing to the “greenhouse effect” which leads to global warming and climate change.

But we’re stuck with Belco using them–for now. Fossil fuels uses good advertising or even “green-washing” to convince us they are safer for people and our planet.

Let’s start with natural gas which Belco wanted to use. Despite it’s lovely sounding name, “natural gas” is a fossil fuel.

After burning, it does emit less carbon dioxide [CO2] than other fossil fuels. But it is over 90% methane which is a greenhouse gas over 80 times more harmful than CO2 in the critical first 20 years.

It leaks into the air at every stage of production, transportation and use. Technology is rapidly developing new ways to effectively measure it and even satellites are being used.

New research is finding that methane is about equally polluting as the worst fuel–coal–when its full life-cycle is examined. Like propane, its particulate matter causes health problems.

Many places, including all of New York state, have banned natural gas, appliances in most new construction. Thankfully its never been approved for use in Bermuda.

So it can’t be used in Belco’s North Power Station [NPS] which they say is “the last traditional [assuming they mean fossil fuel] power plant the company will build…that now provides Bermuda’s base load of energy.” That’s the absolute lowest demand level, which is always exceeded, so it can’t meet even the average daily demand.

The NPS was built before Belco was sold to the Canadian Algonquin Power and Utilities Company in November, 2020.

Rather than turbines: “The station has four 14-megawatt dual-fuel generators designed to pump out 56 megawatts of power.” MAN’s website says, “Reciprocating engines have the highest electrical efficiency…” They are also sometimes referred to as alternators, just to confuse things.

They can burn a wide variety of potentially less environmentally damaging liquid and gas fuels.

But Belco can’t use the natural gas that they’d had the NPS optimised for. So they chose to start by burning 2% sulfur, Heavy Fuel Oil [HFO]. It’s also called Residual Oil because it’s the leftovers after refining lighter fuels, like gasoline and diesel, from crude oil.

It’s also called, Bunker Oil and used by 80% of ships. It burns dirty with many toxins. But the sulfur emissions are particularly toxic and get the most focus. Belco seems to have different sulfur regulations than ships within 12 miles of Bermuda:

“The maximum allowed sulfur content in fuel for combustion purposes on a ship is 0.5%. Ships that are equipped with exhaust gas cleaning systems [EGCS] that wish to operate using fuels of higher levels of sulfur shall seek prior approval from the Environmental Authority…”

I’ve never seen any reference to Belco having any EGCS or “scrubbers” as they are commonly called.

HFO is used because it’s the cheapest kind of fuel and very high energy by volume. But it’s a difficult to use, molasses-like, tarry sludge. It may be mixed with lighter oils. But to keep it from clogging tanks it must always be stored at about 100 F and heated even more to make it flow.

In Bermuda it gets pumped from a tanker ship to storage tanks at the Oil Docks, then through a pipeline along the Railway Trail, across Ferry Reach to Coney Island, then along North Shore on to Belco and more heated storage tanks.

[Diesel flows through the same pipeline. If natural gas was approved it would have required different infrastructure].

When burning HFO, chemical lubricants are also needed because it’s abrasive and corrosive to engine parts. Since it is Residual Oil it contains lots of impurities that need to be filtered out and purified before burning.

Soot problems were studied by the environmental consultancy firm, ‘Ricardo, Energy and Environment’. From their June, 2021 report, quoted in the Royal Gazette: “The most effective way to mitigate this problem [soot emissions] would be to use a lower-polluting fuel such as diesel or natural gas, but this would incur significant additional costs.”

For whatever reasons, Belco has been burning more diesel [also called Light Fuel Oil or LFL] this past summer. It’s unclear how much has been burned in the NPS and how much in the West Power Station “gas turbines”. They don’t actually burn gas, they burn HFO [with few complaints about emissions] or diesel.

Although it’s easier to use, and seems cleaner burning—diesel’s particulate matter is smaller than HFO so invisible. But it’s still unhealthy for people and the environment in some similar, and some different ways.

While trying to simplify things I’ve left out so many complexities. I now have more questions than answers. I couldn’t easily find comparisons of HFO and diesel emissions so I gave up looking.

I’m most surprised that I’ve come to appreciate some benefits of HFO—if it can be burned more cleanly. But I have an idealistic hope that money saved on fuel could be invested in renewables. It’s more likely it’s just being paid out as profits to shareholders. My idea of accounting is way different than a profit driven corporation.

But even given their corporate accounting methods I wonder if burning cheaper HFO is worth the full costs to Belco, as a good corporate citizen of Bermuda and our planet.

I’m certainly more undecided now after researching it. HFO is a high energy waste product of the fossil fuel industry, which is minimally processed, and has to go somewhere. I’ve also found out that Very Low Sulfur Fuels [VLSF] and others, seem to solve some problems but create a host of others.

I’ve been looking instead at more long term solutions. How does Belco get from burning fossil fuels to truly cleaner energy?

They’ve already demolished the over 40 year old much dirtier HFO burning East Power Station. It’s space is empty now. They say it was “ultimately driven by the future requirements of diversifying the Company’s energy generating sources.”

I’m crazy enough to believe that if customers eventually feel more empowered they can help advance that goal. But right now most customers just feel frustrated by Belco’s communication, including not understanding their bills.

Yes, I’ve figured out how to decipher a Belco bill. It’s my new superpower. Better even than balancing an LED light bulb on my nose!

Thanks to Wendy Frith for the illustration.

- Denise DeMoura

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