One big grid is the solution to secure electricity

Professor Michael D. Mehta of Thompson Rivers University makes a number of good points in his article regarding a secure electrical system (Armchairmayor.ca, March 6, 2021).

However, he’s thinking in the wrong direction when he suggests that the solution is microgrids.

image: Student Energy

The recent electrical blackouts in Texas have focused the problem of electricity security. In a state that prides itself on independence and abundance of energy, it was the height of irony that they should suffer from an electricity shortage that left people freezing in the dark.

Texas’ problem was that its electrical grid was too small. In an attempt to avoid federal regulation, Texas constructed a grid that is a virtual island.  So when the cold snap hit, when wind turbines froze and natural gas generators quit, they had only themselves to rely on.

But not so for all of Texas. El Paso in eastern Texas did just fine, thank you. That’s because they were not connected to the Texas grid but rather to the much larger Western grid.

You see, there are three major electrical grids in North America: the Eastern Grid, the Western Grid and the Texas (ERCOT) Grid, El Paso picked a winner.

The big problem facing green energy is storage. Wind turbines and solar panels are great when the wind blows and the sun shines. But they usually produce too much power when we don’t need it and too little when we do. Storage seems like the answer.

However, as Professor Mehta mentions, no affordable storage system exists with the capacity needed. A number have been proposed; batteries, small-scale pumped hydro, compressed air, and flywheel technology.

Mehta suggests that the solution is not a bigger grid but smaller microgrids: “A microgrid is a local network of generators, often combined with energy storage.”

“Such systems can increase reliability and drive down carbon emissions when renewable energy is used,” says Mehta. “When combined with smart meters that reconcile inflows and outflows of electricity, microgrids provide real-time energy data. When a microgrid goes down, it only affects the local region and not an entire state or province.”

With one big continental grid, there is no storage problem and no one has to go without electricity.

One big grid solves the storage problem by virtue of its size.

The demands on one big grid are predictable. Cold snaps can be are forecast. In that case, thousands of generators, from big hydro dams to small run-of-river, solar and wind generators can be activated.

On an ordinary day, demands on one big grid are even more predictable. As people rise and shine on the Atlantic coast and turn on toasters, heaters, air conditioners in the summer, the demands on the West coast are minimal.

As the sun rises across the four and one-half time zones of our continent, the demand follows the sun. While the demands are not exactly constant they are predictable.

Of course, Canada doesn’t have a cross-country grid and neither does the U.S. Most of our connections are oriented in the worst way: they are North-South, in the same time zone where demands occur at the same time.

As Professor Mehta says, transmission lines are costly to build and lose power. The power loss can be minimized through use of High Voltage Direct Current transmission lines.

The construction of lines is a political problem, not one of cost. When the Trudeau government decided that the Trans Mountain Pipeline was in the national interest, he bought it and built it.

Fracking is a threat to B.C. dams

There are environmental reasons to stop fracking in B.C. There are political reasons to continue.

In addition to the environmental reasons to stop fracking, there is a risk to B.C. dams. The list continues to grow: the contamination of groundwater, the disturbance of natural environments with roads and drilling rigs, the disposal of toxic water, and now the danger of earthquakes. Especially around dams, reservoirs, and tailings ponds.

earthquake

Freedom of information documents obtained by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reveals the concerns of BC Hydro officials.

BC Hydro became alarmed in 2009 when drilling started on lands near Peace Canyon Dam, downstream from the W.A.C. Bennett Dam; a dam which holds the world’s seventh-largest hydro reservoir by water volume.

Ray Stewart wrote, “BC Hydro believes there are immediate and future potential risks to BC Hydro’s reservoir, dam and power-generation infrastructure as a result of this coal-bed methane project.” He warned that earthquakes caused by fracking “may be greater than the original design criteria for the dam.”

His concerns are well-founded. Fracking is taking place in the Montney Basin which underlies much of the Peace River region, an area rich in shale gas. And fracking is proven to cause earthquakes.

Stewart also warned that fracking could “reactivate” ancient faults in the region, which could potentially set the stage for earthquakes. He also warned of “hydrogeologic impacts” on hydro reservoirs from fracking. He worried that the land might sink or that dried-out coal seams might ignite.

The land could sink and the coal dry out because the cavities that result from the extraction of gas. It occurs after water under pressure fractures the shale and is pumped out. The gas follows the pumped out water. The cavities are one thing, the toxic water is another.

To get rid of the toxic water, it’s pumped back into the earth below the area that’s been fracked. The pressure created triggers earthquakes.

Regulators have been slow to react. BC Hydro would like to stop the drilling within five kilometres of dam sites but regulators have not ruled it out, citing only “understandings” with drillers.

Even BC Hydro’s deputy CEO, Chris O’Riley, seems to be in denial. “Fracking by itself cannot generate large magnitude earthquakes.” That’s not what the U.S. Geological Survey found. While B.C.’s fracking is in its infancy, the USGS has been studying the alarming rise of fracking-induced earthquakes in Texas and Oklahoma for decades.

The USGS says that magnitude 6 fracking-induced earthquakes could occur which can damage even well-built structures. “But we can’t rule out quakes of magnitude 7 and above,” says Mark Petersen, chief of the National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project (Scientific American, July, 2016).

The political reason for fracking is that it’s the only plan we have. Premier Clark campaigned on her plan to liquefy natural gas plan and won — a plan to drill and export LNG and to power it with the Site C dam.

She’s likely to campaign on the same strategy again in the upcoming B.C. election. Even though LNG markets have dried up and the power from Site C won’t be needed for decades, it’s the only game in town.

It will be interesting to see what job-creation strategies other parties have as the campaign heats up.