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.

 

Advertisements

The rise and fall of globalization

As the sun sets on globalization, what will a new day bring? The new era will face challenges of rampant parochialism, environmental destruction, inequality and greed.

image: Timetoast.com

The dawn of globalization was unremarkable. Yanis Varoufakis, professor economics and former finance minister of Greece gives the date:

“On Aug. 15, 1971, then-president Richard Nixon announced the ejection of Europe and Japan from the dollar zone. Unnoticed by almost everyone, globalization was born on that summer day (Globe and Mail).”

Before Globalization, it was the dawning of a New Deal (1944). A clever plan, it gave America’s former enemies the resources to rebuild through arrangements such as the Marshall Plan. As an industrial power, the U.S. had shiny new things to sell; now Germany and Japan had money to buy them.

The New Deal ushered in a Golden Age of prosperity. Well-paying jobs, unionization, opportunity grew.  The middle class expanded and inequality shrank.

As a baby boomer, I remember that era. After I graduated from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Electronics, I had a choice of well-paying secure, jobs. After I quit one job and traveled around the world, I easily found another.

The era of globalization in the 1970s promised to reduce global poverty. Before it began to rot at its core, it blushed with ambition.

“Mr. Nixon’s decision was founded on the refreshing lack of deficit phobia particular to American decision-makers,” says Varoufakis. “Unwilling to rein in deficits by imposing austerity . . . Washington stepped on the gas to boost them.”

World-wide prosperity also produced global industrialization. Americans went into debt to buy exports from Germany, Japan and later, China. The American administration didn’t seem to notice, or didn’t care, that cheap global labour was at the heart of industrial decay at home. Why should they care when money was pouring into the U.S. as well as cheap goods?

The flow of global money into the U.S. seems counterintuitive. If Americans were buying global goods, it would seem that the money should be flowing the other way. The magic of Wall Street made it happen.

The deregulation of banks was a catalyst for the financial wizardry of Wall Street. Global investors were attracted by higher interest rates generated by mystical, incomprehensible, investment devices such as derivatives. A lot of the investments went into loans to home-owners who had no way of repaying them.

Then, in 2008, the rabbit no longer emerged from the magician’s hat and the whole financial edifice fell apart.

All that remains of the sad tatters of globalization is massive inequality and loss of jobs in the Western world. Most money sits idle in the hands of the rich while the poor struggle without. Varoufakis characterizes it:

“Its crisis is due to too much money in the wrong hands. Humanity’s accumulated savings per capita are at the highest level in history.”

As globalization sinks below the horizon, two options emerge. One is the walled-state proposed by President Trump and the Brexiters in the U.K. The other is a Universal New Deal that redistributes global wealth, creates new jobs, and lifts the burden of consumer debt.

If such a new deal seems unlikely, it’s worth remembering that the first New Deal and globalization were as well. And if we need an issue to rally around and mobilize action, as World War II once was, we need look no further than the biggest threat to humanity: climate change.

Syria’s climate refugees

“The start of the revolution was water and land,” says Mustafa Abdul Hamid, a 30-year-old farmer from Aleppo, Syria.

603fertilecrescent_large

The Arab Spring — that promise of political reform, the failed revolution, ISIS, civilian bombing, the misery of refugees, all started forty years ago with an ambitious plan to make Syria self-sufficient in food. Until they ran out of water, Syria had been relatively stable despite the oppressive Assad family regime.

The source of Syrian grief is climate change. In the 1970s, drilling wells for irrigation water seemed like a good idea. Back then, the military regime of the current president’s father launched a program to increase crop yield. As politicians are inclined to do, he paid no attention to aquifers or climate change.

“Farmers made up for water shortages by drilling wells to tap the country’s underground water reserves. When water tables retreated, people dug deeper,” explains reports John Wendle in Scientific American (March, 2016).

Wendle went to Syria to talk to farmers and to listen to refugees. “Climatologists say Syria is a grim preview of what could be in store for the larger Middle East, the Mediterranean and other parts of the world. The drought, they maintain, was exacerbated by climate change. The Fertile Crescent—the birthplace of agriculture some 12,000 years ago—is drying out. Syria’s drought has destroyed crops, killed livestock and displaced as many as 1.5 million Syrian farmers,” reports Wendle.

Life was good before the drought, Hamid recalls. He and his family farmed three hectares of topsoil so rich it was the color of henna. They grew wheat, fava beans, tomatoes and potatoes. Hamid used to harvest three-quarters of a metric ton of wheat per hectare in the years before the drought. Then the rains failed, and his yields plunged to barely half that amount. “All I needed was water,” he says. “And I didn’t have water. So things got very bad. The government wouldn’t allow us to drill for water. You’d go to prison.”

By 2005, the problem of water shortage was so obvious that it couldn’t be ignored and Assad’s son, the new president, made it illegal to dig new wells without purchasing a license.

Syrians who had bags of cash to bribe official drilled ever deeper into the receding water table; until the money and/or the water ran out.

The drought, aggravated by climate change touched off social turmoil that burst into civil war. The source of climate change as the underpinning of Syria’s woes is confirmed not only by a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences but by the farmers themselves that Wendle spoke to in refugee camps. “That’s exactly what happened,” they told him.

“What’s happening globally—and particularly in the Middle East—is that groundwater is going down at an alarming rate,” Colin Kelley of the University of California, told Wendle. “It’s almost as if we’re driving as fast as we can toward a cliff.”

Welcome to the new weather normal

Canadians in Central and Atlantic Canada can be forgiven for feelings of bitter irony at the vicious cold. Eastern Canada is not feeling the warmth of global warming, despite the fact that last year was the warmest on record according to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Nor are they consoled by the record-high temperatures in the west. To their chagrin, spring-like conditions are sprouting early blossoms in the lower mainland and creating record highs all over B.C.

The weather looks like a repeat of last year and it could well be the new normal. The jet stream, which divides warm and cold air, is stalled again. The pattern that brought the “polar vortex” to north-eastern North America in the winter of 2013/14 is bringing the “Siberian Express” this year. jetstream

Call it what you will, it’s deadly. Wind chills of -35 in Toronto claimed the life of a three-year-old Elijah Marsh after he wandering out of an apartment building in the middle of the night. At least 23 people died in the U.S. in the second week of February alone.

That demarcation line is a river of wind that flies across North America from west to east at speeds of approximately 100 kph and altitudes of 10 kilometres.

I think of the jet stream as a flag in the wind. Viewed from the top, the flag has curvy oscillations. When the wind is strong, the flag blows almost straight back. In a mild wind, the flag gently waves back and forth.

When the jet stream is strong, it blows straight across the continent, whipping back and forth. Those oscillations bring variations in weather. When the jet stream blows slowly, the waves are larger and slower. So slowly, in fact, that the pattern gets stuck in its current configuration for months.

The jet stream is blowing slower than usual because Arctic Canada is warming more quickly than the rest of the continent. Temperature difference is what drives the wind. In the past, when the temperature difference was great, the jet stream was less likely to get stuck in any pattern as it raced along a path parallel with the U.S. – Canada border.

Of course, things are not quite as simple as I outlined. The El Nino pushes the jet stream south and La Nina, north. Nor is North America the only continent affected.

Climate change can have catastrophic effects on geopolitics as in 2010 when the jet stream got stuck over Russia and a massive high caused a drought. Jeff Masters says: “The drought and heat wave was Russia’s deadliest and most expensive natural disaster,” in Scientific American.

The drought drove up grain prices and fomented unrest in the Arab world as Russia cut off exports, precipitating the “Arab Spring” that toppled governments.

Closer to home, floods and drought are affecting the U.S. as the jet stream slows. “Some of the most iconic and destructive weather events in U.S. history – the ‘supertornado’ outbreak of 1974, the Dust Bowl heat and drought of 1936, and the great Mississippi River flood of 1927 – were all matched in 2011 and 2012 alone,” warns Masters.

The socialist and the economist on capitalism

Two writers from diverse backgrounds have examined capitalism and found it wanting. Seminal books by Naomi Klein and Thomas Piketty warn that the rosy glow is off capitalism.

It was a different picture two decades ago after the fall of communism. Francis Fukuyama triumphantly announced the winner in his book The End of History. The game was over and capitalism had won.

naomiklein

Not so fast says Klein. In her groundbreaking book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, capitalism looks more like a chump than a champ.

“Capitalism is destabilizing the planet’s life support system,” Klein told TV interviewer Bill Moyers. “This system of short term growth and endless profit is responsible for everything that is lousy about our society.”

While fear and greed are undeniable human traits, they are no way to live. Yet fear and greed are exactly what capitalism thrives on. “It’s not the best way to maximize the best possible outcome.”

Combine individualism with capitalism and you have an especially toxic mix. “Green messiahs” like Richard Branson promised to invest $3-billion in renewable energy over ten years in 2006. So far, only one-tenth of that promise has come to fruition.

We are told that if we each do something to save the world, we can make a difference. Yet, do you remember what you individually did to reduce acid rain? Nothing. It was international agreements reduced acid rain. If it were left to individuals to reduce the sulphur in gas, we’d be swimming in dead acid lakes. None of that feel-good, you can save the world crap worked. Changing light bulbs and greenwashing dirty oil won’t work either.

Thomas Piketty is not exactly the darling of the TV talk-circuit but his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century is equally momentous. Professor Andrew Jackson, senior policy advisor for the Broadbent Institute, compares his work with those of Adam Smith and Karl Marx.

piketty

The French economist is no Marxist but he does warn of the inherent dangers of capitalism. While capitalism does achieve higher productivity, it does so at the cost of lower wages.  When consumers earn so little that they can no longer buy stuff, the economy collapses. Cyclical instability part of system.

What goes around comes around. We are returning to the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century when the top one per cent owned half the wealth. That’s when the unproductive idle rich lived off inheritances passed through generations.

Now corporations sit on piles of cash while the working poor drown in debt.

Pay attention to “capital to income ratio”, says Piketty. That’s total wealth divided by annual income as measured by Gross Domestic Product. In other words, it’s an indicator of how productive global wealth is. In the Gilded age the ratio was high because a few had so much wealth that they didn’t what to do with it.

Such inequality of wealth is not only unfair, it’s inefficient and unsustainable.

Massive change is inevitable. We can be the masters of change through transformations brought about by citizens who understand collective power. Or we can be victims of climate change as we choke in our own squalor.