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.


B.C. firm extracts fuel from air

It may sound like alchemy but Carbon Engineering Ltd based in Squamish captures carbon from the atmosphere and turns it back into automotive fuel.

Carbon Engineering,
Squamish, BC. Image: Google maps

It’s not just wishful thinking. Investors with deep pockets are putting money into the project, such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates.

Co-owner of Carbon Engineering David Keith describes the technology as “direct air capture” (DAC). They’ve been running a pilot plant since 2015 and hope to build a commercial-scale operation soon. The plant has been producing a variety of fuels, such as diesel, gasoline, and Jet-A since 2017.

Carbon capture technology is not new but the price barrier has been too high to make it feasible. Previous processes have cost US$600 a tonne. Professor Keith says they have broken the price barrier:

“At Carbon Engineering, we now have the data and engineering to prove that DAC can achieve costs below US$100 (Globe and Mail, June 8, 2018).”

Former processes haven’t worked, as Saskatchewan found out. At higher cost and lower reliability, they extract CO2 and store it into the ground. Former Premier of Brad Wall had high hopes that his province could avoid a federal carbon tax by carbon capture. However, these plants are only operational 45 per cent of the time. The old technology has been tried globally and abandoned; China cancelled theirs.

Professor Keith researched his DAC technology at the University of Calgary. The process is relatively simple in theory. First CO2 is extracted from the air. Then hydrogen is created from water through electrolysis using any energy source, preferably renewable. Solar cells, for example, could create hydrogen by breaking water into its component parts. In the final stage, hydrogen and CO2 are combined to produce hydrocarbon fuels.

The novelty of Professor Keith’s technology is that it solves three problems: rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, drilling for fossil fuels, and the storage of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

Of course, if you are going to extract CO2 from the air only to convert it back into fuels that will put the CO2 back in the air, that hardly seems like a solution. But at least it is not producing any more CO2. And mining the air for fuels is certainly better than fracking shale deposits.

Using renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to produce automotive fuel seems counterintuitive at first. The problem with renewable energy sources that they produce energy when it’s not needed and none when is -it has to be stored somehow.  The surplus electricity could be stored in batteries for use later. Or it could be used in conjunction with other renewable sources such as hydroelectricity.

Storing renewable energy as fuel is a good idea because the engines to burn the hydrocarbons already exist. There is no need to build new vehicles with electric motors.

The fuel produced is expected to cost 25 per cent more than traditional gasoline but it would fetch premium prices.

“It’s not a magic bullet, it’s not too cheap to meter,” says Professor Keith, “but it’s something that really we think could be built out, and could be built out at relatively low technical risk. So we hope it is really a turning point.”


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.


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.