Tag Archives: renewables

Wind power isn’t perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternatives

Sorry, posting this a bit late. Have been swamped lately with work….

apple_energy_storageAn intriguing story emerged last week about an Apple patent that has absolutely nothing to do with wireless gadgets, digital music, touch screens or the Internet “cloud”.

The title of the patent, filed in June 2011, is “On-demand Generation of Electricity from Stored Wind Energy.”

Wind energy? Apple? Don’t be so surprised. Like Google, another technology giant increasingly obsessed with clean energy, Apple operates huge data centres that consume tremendous amounts of electricity, much of it based on coal.

Like most consumer-facing companies, it wants to be perceived as a responsible corporate citizen, meaning it’s eager to tap into low- or zero-emission energy alternatives.

In its patent, Apple describes a way to capture thermal energy resulting from the spinning of wind turbines and then use it to heat up a special fluid with a low boiling point. The heat “stored” in that fluid could then be extracted on demand to generate electricity, similar to how a solar-thermal power plant might operate.

The fact that Apple is looking for a way to “dispatch” wind energy highlights what is arguably wind’s Achilles heel: intermittency. It often blows when it’s required least, and often doesn’t when we have our highest energy demands.

This has left wind energy open to attack by those, for whatever reason, who don’t think wind turbines have a place in our electricity mix. Associated with those attacks is much misunderstanding about how wind energy interacts with our existing electricity system.

For example, the Star received a complaint about last Saturday’s Clean Break column, in which I highlighted the hypocrisy of Health Canada for comprehensively studying the health effects of wind farms but not the oil sands.

In addition to accusing me of being an investor in the wind industry and thus having a conflict of interest – which I’m not, and don’t, unless you include the emotional investment I have in dealing with climate change – the writer of the complaint made the following comment about wind turbines:

“Every one of them is equipped with a gas generator to produce power when the wind fails. Nobody I know in the wind industry has ever stated otherwise.”

This statement is consistent with others which claim that for every megawatt of wind capacity installed another megawatt of natural gas generation is needed as backup.

Because of this alleged dependence on back-up generation from natural gas, another individual asserted in an e-mail that “there is a net-zero environmental benefit” from adding wind energy to our grid.

With regard to the first comment, one can say with absolute confidence that wind turbines are not equipped with backup generators that run on natural gas. This isn’t to say that other energy sources, including natural gas, aren’t relied on as a backup for when the wind doesn’t blow.

“When we’re dealing with the variability of wind, we look at a lot of tools,” said Bruce Campbell, vice-president of resource integration at Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator, which manages supply and demand on our grid. “You have to look at this from a system basis. You can’t look at it as one individual technology.”

Often we’ll use electricity generated from natural gas plants to step in when the wind steps out, but it’s not coming from a single point. The grid is like a big tub of water, with a bunch of taps at the top (supply) and a bunch of drains at the bottom (demand).

The goal is to keep the water at the level we demand, meaning there will constantly be a different mix of drains and taps that are opening and closing.

Campbell said Ontario hasn’t yet had to increase its requirement for back-up reserves because of the introduction of wind power. The question to ask is: If the wind generation we have no longer existed, what would be there in its place? The answer is more power plants burning coal and natural gas.

If we were to stick with our coal phase-out strategy without wind, we would need to burn more natural gas. The reality is that when the wind blows it gives us the opportunity to burn less natural gas when it’s being used to displace coal. This is partially why greenhouse-gas emissions associated with electricity generation in Ontario have fallen by two-thirds since 2003.

The dismissers don’t believe it. They contend that fossil fuel plants run less efficiently when backing up wind because of the increased need to start up and cycle. In fact, they claim the inefficiencies are so great that they offset the benefits of wind power.

The efficiency argument contains a tiny kernel of truth, but the impact is negligible according to a detailed study published by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. It appeared last March in the journal Environmental and Science Technology.

Using the state of Illinois as a case study, researchers found that the inefficient use of coal and natural gas plants and its impact on carbon dioxide emissions is hardly noticed until wind exceeds a 20 per cent share of electricity supply. At 40 per cent of supply, inefficiencies are more visible, but CO2 reductions of 33 per cent are still achieved.

To put this in context, wind was roughly 3 per cent of Ontario’s mix last year and the goal is to achieve 10 per cent penetration through a combination of wind and solar by 2015. We have a long way to go to get to 20 per cent, let alone 40 per cent.

It’s important to point out that the authors of this study didn’t account for the retiring of old, inefficient coal power plants as more wind is introduced to the grid, or the addition of more flexible and efficient natural gas turbines that companies such as General Electric have started selling as a complement to wind.

They also didn’t account for some of the other tools at the disposal of system operators, such as demand-response, dramatically improved wind forecasting, and energy storage, all of which will play a growing roles over the years in Ontario and other jurisdictions.

Who knows, maybe Apple will even make something of its wind-turbine storage patent. Could there be an iWind in our future?

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

My quick review of Ontario’s much anticipated FIT Review

Snipped this map from the Ontario Power Authority’s two-year FIT program review. Here are some key takeaways from the review:

  • Solar prices are coming down, and in some cases way down. Small rooftop and ground-mount installs (under 10 kw) will see the FIT rates fall roughly 31 per cent . Large ground-mount systems of 500 kilowatts or higher will see rates fall by 21 per cent.
  • Wind of all sizes will see rates drop by about 15 per cent.
  • Other renewables, such as hydro, biomass and biogas, will remain the same.
  • Going forward, FIT prices will be set when contract is offered, not at time of application.
  • It’s being recommended that the government review supply and demand at end of 2013 and consider rising its green energy targets.
  • Up to 50 megawatts of contract capacity is being reserved for hydroelectric.
  • FIT rate reviews and adjustments will now take place annually.
  • Regulatory approvals are being streamlined in some areas.
  • Projects with a minimum of 15 per cent equity participation from aboriginal groups or communities will get extra points that give them priority in the queue. More points go to projects that have municipal or aboriginal council support.
  • 10 per cent of remaining FIT contract capacity will get set aside for projects that have a minimum of 50 per cent community or aboriginal ownership.
  • It looks like programs that offer supportive funding for community and aboriginal projects, such as the Community Power Fund, will get a boost based on recommendations from fund manager and program administrator.

A lot of coverage of this is making it seem like the government is reacting to rural protest against wind and solar farms, and unfounded public concerns about higher energy costs due to green energy. This is partly true, such as with the move to give communities more say, to encourage greater community participation, and to set aside capacity for projects with community ownership. These are all good moves. But the reduction in solar and wind prices, that was all to be expected. This is how FIT programs work — prices are supposed to come down over time. Even for solar, many in the industry seemed prepared to accept a reduction of around 25 per cent to reflect lower technology costs. The 15 per cent reduction for wind is also fair, in my view. My own opinion, however, is that large-scale solar should have seen greater reductions, and small rooftop rates should have seen lower reductions. MicroFIT solar installations, taken together, are still so small that they barely register in the overall price mix. Large solar projects benefit from economies of scale, do have a much greater impact on electricity prices, and should have taken a slightly larger rate haircut.  There’s also the fact that small rooftop projects aren’t controversial and make it possible for more citizens to participate in Ontario’s energy future.

What I didn’t see in this review was a much-needed call to accelerate transmission build-out and upgrade distribution systems with an eye to modernizing our electricity system — i.e. building a smart grid that makes the system more efficient and can accommodate more renewables. This entire area, in my view, has been neglected. There was also no talk of creating FITs for geothermal heating/cooling and solar thermal, and no talk of moving larger projects — particularly large wind projects, of say 20 megawatts or more — to the RFP model we used to use. Also, no talk of trying to work energy storage into the mix. At the moment, the FIT program discourages experimentation with solar because wind and solar producers aren’t penalized for producing energy during off-peak times when we don’t need it. The failure to come up with a FIT rate that differentiates between peak and off-peak times won’t lead to the kind of innovation we need.

One small note: It was good to see that domestic content rules are being created for concentrated solar thermal technology. The absence of these rules has made it difficult for Toronto-based Morgan Solar to participate in the FIT program.

Renewables and the challenges of snow, cold

In discussions about renewables such as wind and solar we often forget to talk about the challenges of using these technologies in certain climates. The same goes for electric car batteries and biodiesel. Folks in California probably don’t give this much thought, but being Canadian — and having shovelled my driveway four times this month — it’s a reality that can’ t be avoided.

Take earlier this month. I was supposed to visit OptiSolar’s solar farm in Sarnia but the forecast called for snow — lots of it. We cancelled the visit, thank god. Later on the news that night I watched as police on snowmobiles rescued people whose cars were stranded in snow-filled ditches at the edge of the highway — the main highway into Sarnia that I was supposed to take. Needless to say, OptiSolar’s panels got blanketed by snow, again, and again, and again this month.

The New York Times has an interesting story about winter and its impact on renewables. It talks about snow on solar panels, ice on wind turbines, and how the cold can turn biodiesel into thick goo. But winter, it should be pointed out, does have some advantages: the wind blows better in the winter and solar panels are more efficient in the cold (though the days are shorter).

The story also talks about the new work opportunities that winter presents. Removing snow from neighbourhood solar panels or solar farms could be the new “green-collar job” for local kids!

Nuclear cost increases warrant sober second thoughts

I acknowledge that nuclear power has to play a role in our battle against climate change, with the caveat that we exhaust all other reasonable, low-emission alternatives and maximize efficiency and conservation. The industry will have its hands full just trying to replace the megawatts lost as older plants are decommissioned or refurbished. This leaves open the question, in the current market environment, of how much *new* nuclear is likely to be built over the coming decade. My Clean Break column today looks at how the rising cost of building nuclear plants could affect its competitiveness with other alternatives, even excluding some of the environmental question marks like waste management uncertainty and plant safety. Continue reading Nuclear cost increases warrant sober second thoughts

New energy minister “jazzed” about new job

I have a story in today’s Toronto Star about George Smitherman, new energy and infrastructure minister for Ontario. Last week, Smitherman directed the Ontario Power Authority to review and “fine tune” its 20-year power plan so that it might accelerate conservation goals and increase renewable-energy targets. Continue reading New energy minister “jazzed” about new job