Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Guest Editorial: Flood-proofing; coal’s future

Written by  Rachel J. Burckardt, P.E.
To the Editor:

I wanted to provide a few comments on your December 2012 edition, from my perspective as a civil engineer with over three decades of experience designing infrastructure for railroads/transit, power, and coastal protection.

Flood-proofing vital infrastructure

Reading about the five feet of water in Amtrak’s Substation 41 in Kearny, N.J. [on the Northeast Corridor] brought to mind the site design I’ve been working on for a new power plant only a few miles away. The owner’s representatives and contractor kept insisting we made the site “too high.” We were in a known flood zone, so my site design raised the site between four and five feet, well over even the 500-year flood level. I know from experience designing new facilities at Amtrak’s New Haven, Conn., rail yard that insurance underwriters want facilities well above the flood zone.

After Hurricane Sandy, the questions [about the power plant’s design] changed to “Are we high enough?” And we were a comfortable four feet above the water mark of Sandy.

Clearly, this principal needs to be applied to other fixed critical infrastructure, particularly associated with power, signals, and communications. You can’t move fixed structures like River Draw, but Substation 41 could either be relocated or flood-proofed. The principals of flood-proofing have been around in civil engineering for decades. I trust all the rail and transit systems will analyze all their critical facilities and determine where flood-proofing or relocation is needed.

The future of coal

Putting on my power infrastructure hat for a minute, I have a different perspective on the future of coal than [Contributing Editor] Frank Wilner (“Watching Washington,” p. 12). While he points out a number of environmental, regulatory, and other government actions that deter the future use of coal (and thus diminish future coal-hauling revenues for railroads), from my working with those inside the power industry, I have to say Mr. Wilner is in denial of the inevitable.

Let’s forget the government and environmental regulatory issues for now. The fact is, based purely on private sector, profit-driven economics, natural gas is king and “King Coal” has been deposed. Even before the super cheap gas made possible by fracking, power plant developers were choosing gas. Getting a power plant from concept to revenue generation is a good 10- to 15-year process in the private sector, so developers are looking long term and not at “flash-in-the-pan” trends. And all we see is gas.

Besides the economics of the fuel—itself a major consideration in the financial feasibility of a proposed power plant—there is the technology. Most coal plants are technological dinosaurs compared to a new gas facility. The new-tech gas plants are vastly-more-efficient generators, [and] the first to be called on line by power grid dispatchers.

What I hear from the power professionals is that, at least in the Northeast, coal has maybe five years of life left.

The railroads cannot simply blame Washington and environmental regulations. They have to face the facts of planning other revenue growth to replace the inevitable decline of coal revenues.

Rachel J. Burckardt, P.E.

Burckardt is a Senior Supervising Civil Engineer at Parsons Brinckerhoff. Her recent assignments have included Design Manager and Senior Railroad Engineer for Wickford Jct. Station, R.I.; Chief Civil Engineer for preliminary design and permitting for the Newark Energy Center, Newark, N.J.; Project Engineer for the Brunswick, Me., layover facility for the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority; Senior Drainage Engineer for the expansion of Amtrak’s New Haven Rail Yard, New Haven, Conn.; and Project Manager for design of shore protection and infrastructure improvements at four beaches in Winthrop and Revere, Mass.