One power grid solves the green energy problem

Solar and wind energy suffer from a storage problem. They produce in abundance, often too much, when the wind blows and the sun shines. Storage of that abundance is one solution but it’s expensive and inefficient. You don’t get as much out as what you put in; like a bank account that gives you negative interest.

image: HowStuffWorks

The sun takes a long time to cross the four and one-half time zones of our big country. The advantage of that is when the sun shines on Canada’s largest solar farms in Ontario at ten o’clock, surplus electricity could be used to make breakfast in B.C. and lunch in Newfoundland.

Great idea, except that we have no way to get the excess power across Canada.  B.C. is connected to western Alberta by a major (345 Kilovolt) line and stops. There is nothing between Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. One connects Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime Provinces; none connects Newfoundland.

While there are few east-to-west Canadian connections, there are 34 lines connecting Canada to the U.S. The problem with north-south connections is that the sun shines on all solar panels in the same time zone at once.

Those gaps in Canada’s transmission lines create a challenge for green energy sources -wind even more than solar. Whereas solar power is fairly predictable, wind can be a problem. Sudden storms can wreak havoc with a power grid, dumping huge amounts of power into the system with nowhere for it to go. Some power utilities, such as in Germany and Texas, pay customers to consume electricity just to rid of it.

Climate change is creating increased demand on air conditioners in some areas of North America, while creating storms and wind in other parts. One big grid would link the wind power to where it’s needed.

The fragmentation of power grids is a problem says science writer Peter Fairley of Victoria:

“This balkanization means each region must manage weather variability on its own (Scientific American, July, 2018).”

Since we are already connected to the U.S., if the States were connected, so would Canada. It would be one big continental grid -something like the internet. The U.S. solution is simpler because they have only three major grids, the Western Interconnection, the Eastern Interconnection and the ERCOT Interconnection in Texas.

A big grid would soak up all the power you can pump into it but it requires weather reports. We need to know where the sun is shining and where the wind is blowing to determine where sources are. We already have that. The U.S. Department of Energy and National Renewable Energy Laboratory maps the potential energy areas of four kilometre squares, updated every five minutes throughout the year. Couple that weather information with a huge single grid and you can send surplus power to where it’s needed.

Fairley continues:

“What we need is a weather-smart grid design, directed by meteorology and built on long-distance transmission lines that can manage the weather’s inconsistencies. Such a system could ship gobs of renewable power across North America to link supply with demand, whatever the weather throws at it.”

Just think, the tidal power generated in the Bay of Fundy could heat a toaster in Moose Jaw faster than the rate at which photos of kittens are shared on Facebook.

 

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Germany pays customers to use electricity

German power companies paid customers to use electricity on one hundred occasions in 2017. Companies paid customers a lot relative to what they normally receive -1,720 times more per kilowatt hour.

   photo: CleanTechnica

The reason why power companies were so eager to pay customers had to do with the wind. Wind turbines were generating too much power on the grid and they had to dump it quickly. Surplus electricity is a dangerous problem that has to be corrected quickly.

While wind turbines can be switched off quickly, fossil fuel and nuclear sources can’t. Power grid managers have to agile to compensate for gusty winds.

The problem with surplus electricity is that voltage quickly rises and that can damage equipment. Power grid engineering is complex but one thing is simple: power in equals power out. Managing the grid requires a balance in the production and consumption of electricity. The sum of all the power used by your TVs and toasters, and all that of your neighbour’s, equals the power produced by generators. If the power produced is more than what’s used, something has to give.  What gives is a precipitous rise in voltage.

Christmas Day, 2017, was pleasantly warm in Germany and the wind was strong. As well, demand was abnormally low being a holiday when factories and offices are shut down. Suddenly, the wind blew and power companies had to shed a lot of power from the grid. So the plea went out from power companies to start wasting electricity. Turn on your electric heaters and all the lights in your house. Open the doors. We’ll pay a lot is you do.

Too much wind power is not unforeseen. Germany spent $250 billion to develop wind turbines and they now produce 20 per cent of the country’s power. The remainder of Germany’s power comes from fossil fuels and nuclear.

Germany has obviously solved one part of the greenhouse gas problem by investing heavily in renewable sources but the other side remains unresolved –how to store surplus energy. Battery technology doesn’t have the capacity to store huge amounts of power. If it did, surplus wind power could have been stored.

Batteries will work on a smaller, household scale. Elon Musk sells his Tesla Powerwall battery for $7,000 and it holds enough power to run your house for about 3 days. Imagine being paid to store electricity and then to use it to supply your energy needs for days? In Germany, you’d be doing yourself and the power company a favour.

If you live in B.C., not so much. British Columbia has the enviable position of generating power by hydroelectricity; 95 per cent of it with the remainder by natural gas plants.

B.C. can’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially by switching to wind and solar. Small scale installations in houses can reduce the cost of electricity for homeowners. Because dams hold stored power, storage of surplus electricity is not a problem.

Germany has reduced the burning of fossil fuels with wind and solar. Now, if they could only find some way to store the surplus electricity.

Clash of law, politics, treaty rights, and technology at Site C dam

Protests continue at the Site C dam location on the Peace River despite a court that allows building.  The Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled in September that attempts by the Prophet River and West Moberly First Nations to quash an environmental certificate issued by the government were invalid.

site c

“I am satisfied that the petitioners [first nations] were provided a meaningful opportunity to participate in the environmental assessment process,” Justice Robert Sewell wrote.

That didn’t stop Arthur Hadland from blocking construction. The long-time politician and area farmer was charged with mischief after being arrested earlier this month. “I don’t want to be a hero,” Hadland told CBC News. “Someone has to speak for the river.” He’s a Peace River Regional District director and ran as an independent in the last provincial election. Pat Pimm, who won the riding for the B.C. Liberals, is in favour of the dam.

Helen Knott of the Prophet River First Nation is occupying an historic trading post site in protest of the construction. Knott and her group are committed to defending treaty rights, even if it means being arrested.

“It’s not necessarily anybody goes into it with that idea, like, yeah, we’re going to be arrested, right? It’s that, yeah, we’re committed to saving this tract of land and to, you know, actively use our treaty rights here,” she told CBC News.

Knott’s view epitomizes a clash of cultures in B.C. This province is unique in Canada in that only two historical treaties were signed with indigenous people. As a result the question of land ownership remained unsettled for much of B.C. until the Tsilhqot’in decision of the Supreme Court of Canada. It ruled that, yes, B.C. natives had aboriginal title to a 1,750 square kilometres region.

The implications of the Supreme Court ruling are unclear. Globe and Mail reporter Jeffrey Simpson says: “The court’s ruling was complicated, which might explain the variety of interpretations. It did say that the Tsilhqot’in First Nation had aboriginal title over a portion of the land it had claimed, but by no means all of it.”

B.C.’s aboriginal leaders have a different interpretation. The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs and representatives of the First Nations Summit and the B.C. Assembly of First Nations argue that the ruling gives title to aboriginals over all of British Columbia, not just pieces where the courts decide title exists.

In a press release last June, First Nations affirmed that in one of four principles: “1) Acknowledgement that all our relationships are based on recognition and implementation of the existence of indigenous peoples inherent title and rights, and pre-confederation, historic and modern treaties, throughout British Columbia.”

In their view, in light of the ruling, nothing has changed from before European settlers came here.

From a technical viewpoint, there’s disagreement about the need for this dam. I argued a year ago that, while dams are an excellent complement to solar and wind, Site C will produce power that we don’t need now; especially not now that the scaled-down LNG plants won’t need the electricity. While the technology is sound, the location at site C isn’t at this time.

 

 

Resistance to wind energy is futile

 

It’s hard to believe that some Canadians are opposed to wind energy. Contrary to the results of a Health Canada study, they think turbines contribute to health problems.

WindTurbine

The $2.1-million study followed 1,238 people in Ontario and Prince Edward Island in response to anti-wind farm groups who said that the turbines were making them sick, creating stress and disrupting lives.

Turbines do not have any measurable effect on illness, chronic disease, stress or quality of sleep. However, some people are annoyed by the aircraft warning lights or the way they cause shadows to flicker.

One of the most vociferous anti wind protesters, Esther Wrightman of Adelaide Metcalfe, Ontario, was so disturbed at the construction of wind towers that she moved to New Brunswick. In her blog Mothers Against Wind Turbines Inc. she says: “I don’t think we had much of a choice here. When you have people in your family with (pre-existing) health problems –you can’t risk it to stay –you have to leave.”

Annoyance is subjective. Those who benefit are less annoyed. “Annoyance was significantly lower among the 110 participants who received personal benefit, which could include rent, payments or other indirect benefits of having wind turbines in the area e.g., community improvements,” said Health Canada

Annoyance can be implanted. Susan Holtz, a Nova Scotia consultant on energy and environmental policy explained how in Alternatives Journal. It’s called the “nocebo effect,” similar to the placebo effect except that negative expectations induce negative effects. In a study conducted at the University of Auckland, one-half of subjects were shown news clips about health problems related to inaudible low frequency wind turbine sound. Then they were exposed to nonexistent (sham) low frequency sound and then subjects reported symptoms as they saw reported. The other half who had not seen the news clips reported no such symptoms when exposed to fake, or even real, inaudible low frequency sounds.

Even politics affect people’s perceptions of wind energy. The darling of the right-wing set, Ezra Levant has taken up Esther Wrightman’s cause when she was forced to take down some content on her blog. The wind turbine company, NextEra, threatened legal action and claimed Wrightman had made false and misleading statements against the company and had unfairly attacked their trademark.

Levant came to her rescue. “And the only reason you have not heard of this lawsuit — the Canadian Civil Liberties Association is not defending her free speech, the CBC has not put this on their nightly news — is because the corporate bully here is not an oil company like Exxon. It’s a wind turbine company called NextEra. See, that kind of bullying is OK,” he said in the Toronto Sun. Levant opposes wind turbines for no other reason than they are supported by the Ontario Liberal government headed by Kathleen Wynne.

Wind turbines are an inexorable force as part of quitting the fossil fuel habit. Wind power is increasing by 15 per cent a year globally and in Denmark it produces 40 per cent of their total. To paraphrase Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Who’ll stop the wind?”

 

Renewable energy welcomes the Alberta NDP

Big Oil might be quivering in their boots at the prospect of having to pay fair royalty rates to the province but the renewable energy sector is looking forward to the NDP in Alberta.

oraange

Fossil fuels have had a grip on the province that stifles energy innovation. Renewal energy companies are feeling more optimistic with the NDP. Despite much talk by the previous government, not much happened.

“For six or seven years, the previous government had white papers and round tables,” said Kent Brown, president of Calgary-based BluEarth Renewables Inc. “We were caught in the uncertainty and lack of decision making. The new government has a great opportunity to make some decisions now.”

One of the things holding back the development of renewable energy has been slavish devotion to the marketplace. Yes, free markets are great at determining the price of shoes but energy is a different matter.

Under Alberta’s deregulated electricity market, utilities have no incentive to develop renewable energy says Jared Donald, president of Conergy in Calgary. In Alberta’s energy market, customers get to choose which electricity utilities they want to buy from. With twice as many marketers as there are utilities, there’s no lack of choice. Albertan’s generally select the cheapest utility.

That’s fine for buying shoes as long as the shoes are not choking the atmosphere and threatening the planet. Fossil fuels are not like other consumer items. Alberta currently uses coal for 43 per cent of its electricity and natural gas for 40 per cent.

Jared Donald told the business section of the Globe and Mail that one crucial change the new government could make would be a shift away from the fully deregulated electricity market. Power producers charge fluctuating prices depending on supply and demand at any particular moment. This leaves utilities stuck on fossil fuels.

Deregulated fossil fuel energy means there is little incentive to build anything but the cheapest source, usually new natural gas-fired power plants. Solar, wind and hydro plants have greater up-front costs, and are thus harder to finance under the current regime, even though they require no fuel once they are complete.

“If you are uncertain about what the energy market is going to be, you don’t spend the big capital dollars up front,” Jared Donald. That provides an “incentive to make short-sighted decisions.” It will take government intervention to change the pricing and financing of electricity generation to encourage renewables, he added.

The wind energy industry, too, is keen on expanding in Alberta, but it also has issues with the market pricing of electricity said Tim Weis from the Edmonton-based Canadian Wind Energy Association.

One solution would be for the province to set a “clean electricity standard,” that would force power retailers to sign contracts with some renewable suppliers.

As the province with the youngest population in Canada, Albertans are ready for innovation. Cogeneration plants now produce 31% of needs. While they still use fossil fuels they also use biomass, such as livestock manure, to simultaneously generate both electricity and steam for industrial process. Cogeneration substantially reduces net greenhouse gas emissions.

In BC Hydro’s case, ideology means higher electricity costs 

When I opened my BC Hydro bill and read the leaflet inside, I thought some transformation must have taken place.  The leaflet said that Accenture was now a B.C. business.  The last I heard, Accenture was based in Bermuda.

hydro

Accenture has been blacklisted by California’s state treasurer for questionable business practices such as relocating to offshore tax havens.  The Ontario Auditor General slammed Accenture in 2001 for a deal to take over a government program that resulted in massive cost over-runs.  Apparently image problem is nothing that can’t be fixed by opening a B.C. office of Accenture.

The flyer said that “Accenture Business Services of BC is committed to building a world-class operation in British Columbia that will contribute to the province’s economic growth and provide employees with expanded career opportunities.”

Accenture, through BC Hydro, is trying to counter the growing opposition to the privatization of the publicly-owned utility.  People are angry that Premier Campbell has handed one-third of BC Hydro operations over to Accenture.  It’s a sweet deal — a ten year contract worth $1.45 billion.

Accenture will save BC Hydro money, Stephen Bruyneel told me. He’s the manger of Corporate Communication for BC Hydro.  He said that Accenture is contractually obliged to save $250 million over ten years.

“Exactly how would Accenture save that money?” I asked.  Well, it turns that we will never know.  Private businesses are not obliged to divulge such things.  But in general, “savings will result from economies of scale,” says Bruyneel, “by having a larger customer base.”

Accenture Business Services of British Columbia has big plans and BC Hydro is just the start. The plan is to bring other North American power companies into the B.C. office.  BC Hydro will share in those profits, Bruyneel said.

“How much profit will Accenture get from the BC Hydro contract?” Sorry, that’s a secret.

Jerri New has a problem with all this secrecy.  She’s the head of the Office & Professional Employees International Union.  Her members were not given much choice — move to Accenture or retire.

“If this is such a good deal,” Jerri New told me, “why is the government afraid to show us the details?”  The whole transfer of a public crown corporation has also been done in secret.  “It’s normal business practice when one company takes over another that hearings are held.  The shareholders of BC Hydro — the people of B.C. — were not consulted,” she said.

Jerri New also disputes BC Hydro’s claim that they could now “focus on its core business of generating, transmitting and distributing electricity.”  Some of that core work is now done by Accenture, such as monitoring water levels in dams.  “The whole computer system is integrated with BC Hydro,” said New, “it’s a matter of public safety.”

The former BC Hydro workers feel betrayed.  They are still providing Information Technology, computer networking, customer service, and building supplies but their employer is now Accenture.

She suspects that profits for Accenture will come by increasing BC Hydro rates.  Accenture is not in business as a public service – – last year they had net revenues of $11.6 billion world-wide.  Also, Accenture will save money from fewer staff.  Of the 1,600 staff that worked for BC Hydro, only about 1,450 moved to Accenture.  That alone results in over one-third of the claimed savings.

BC Hydro employees (some from Kamloops) moved to Accenture call centers in Vernon, Nanaimo, Prince George, and Vancouver.  Most call centers are not unionized, so you can be sure that when the current collective agreement expires, they will be asked to take a pay cut.  And if they don’t, call center operations can be moved to where workers will accept lower wages.

The real question is why Premier Campbell would dismantle a profitable company that provided high customer service and the lowest electricity rates in North America?

The answer is ideology.  In the premier’s mind, crown corporations and public utilities are sources of untapped profits.  Regardless of how efficient they are or how well they are operated, they are public services that must be dismantled for the corporate good.

If money and jobs flow out of the province, and if we pay higher electricity rates, Campbell considers it  a small price to pay for sake his ideology.