A longtime rural resident, I use my 60 plus years of life learning to opinionate here and elsewhere on the “interweb” on everything from politics to environmental issues. A believer in reasonable discourse rather than unhelpful attacks I try to give positive input to the blogesphere, so feel free to comment upon rural issues or anything else posted here. But don’t be surprised if you comments get zapped if you are not polite in your replys.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Is 100% Renewable Power achievable?

A little while ago I was made aware of the report “Ontario’s Green Future” by Ontario Clean Air Alliance Research Inc which makes the dubious claim that “Ontario can obtain virtually 100% of its grid-supplied electricity from renewable sources by 2027.”.

It is unfortunate that this small phrase in the report is the one that has been picked up and promoted, for it is not strictly true. Whilst the report is mostly a critique of OPA and more particularly their plans for the use of Nuclear power over the next few decades it does make some valid points about the use of micro generation to decrease our reliance upon centralized power. To enable them to make the above claim they do not consider CHP (usually gas fired combined heat and power units) to be “grid supplied” power even though these units would be normally grid CONNECTED.

This small but significant detail gives a wrong impression about an otherwise quite useful document. It does go on at great length slamming the OPA and nuclear energy, particularly the costing of said power some of which may have some validity but the real important stuff may have got lost in the rhetoric. I will try and itemize some of the good stuff and explain why it should be given more consideration.

1) “In distributed systems, the emphasis is on meeting electricity needs in the most efficient and lowest cost manner possible. Many smaller generation sources located near centres of electricity demand are used instead of a handful of large power stations. The result is a system that wastes much less energy during generation, transmission and use, and that thereby reduces costs and polluting emissions.”

This is very true, the line losses for transmitting hydro over long distances is considerable and generating our power locally makes sense even if not “green” power. In order to have sufficient flexibility in the system to allow for maintenance, sudden peaks in load and efficient use of the various outputs these units must SHARE both their load and their output and thus must be GRID CONNECTED.

2)” Pay electricity consumers to install small-scale combined heat and power and tri-generation (heating, cooling and electricity) plants in their apartments, condominiums, shopping and recreation centers, hospitals, office buildings and factories. Once again, the more electricity that consumers self-generate, the lower the demand for grid-supplied electricity and the easier it will be to meet 100% of our demand for grid-supplied electricity from renewable sources”

As I said above the CHP concept is a good one and if we can use the same equipment to generate building heating and some or all of the hydro requirements for that building simultaneously then it is a win win situation. BUT please note that very few of these units will be run on “renewable” or “green” sources of energy. The majority would be gas fired, infinitely better than coal and some will say better than nuclear but still not renewable OR green! I am not sure that we have to PAY users (particularly commercial owners) to install these units but certainly there should be incentives such as interest free loans and payment for excess power fed back into the grid.

3)” Aggressively procure renewable electricity supplies from individuals, cooperatives, First Nations communities, local electric utilities, private sector developers and the Province of Quebec.”

We must indeed look at all potential sources of power and importing hydroelectric power from Quebec is far preferable to coal fired power from Ohio. How much of that can be “renewable” power is debatable but potential for hydro electric (and wind) is considerable If we can get the hydro from the source to the major users (or move the major users to the source?) without major line losses due to distance.
The report says “To fully exploit Ontario’s vast renewable potential, we need to build a smart, integrated power grid that can quickly balance multiple power sources with rising
and falling demand.” The grid, particularly the east west grid must indeed be upgraded to accommodate new sources but we have recently seen the amount of resistance generated from transmission line upgrades from Bruce nuclear and the Sunset coast wind farms.

4)” Ontario’s total wind and biomass renewable electricity potential is over 1,800 billion kWh. Therefore, Ontario could meet 100% of its electricity needs from renewable sources by harnessing an additional 5.5% of its wind and biomass renewable electricity potential.”

Ah yes the “wind is the total answer” argument! There are several misconceptions than some folks seem to be unable to see past in regard to wind power not the least of all that the “potential” is not equal to the PRACTICAL potential. The second common mistake made in calculating the potential output of a wind farm is the recognition that a typical wind generator produces somewhere about 30% of its capacity over a given period of time (due to wind variations) but then saying therefore 3 turbines will produce 90% of our requirements. Not if they are all windless at the same time! Even large wind farms many miles apart have the “potential” (there is that word again) to ALL be stationary or producing minimal power if a big high settles over Ontario for a few days. What then?

The report also notes that only about 5% of the “potential” exists in the “south” of Ontario (where the power is needed) the rest being in the “north”. No doubt wind should be a PART of the mix but let us not ignore the potential problems in our rush to go green.

Regarding biomass hydro production one local council is actively pursuing this as a better way to dispose of biosolids and septage but is having little luck with getting ANY other level of government to assist with the upfront costs of installing such a system. A special tip o the hat the Chatsworh Township for continuing to pursue this option. Several large farms in Canada are now running their entire operation on hydro produced from animal “waste”, there is indeed lots of “potential” for farm livestock operations to add to the supply in this manner.

5) “ 64 potential offshore wind power sites in the Great Lakes have been identified, these sites could support 34,500 MW of wind power capacity”
The same arguments apply to this “potential” however in my view although more expensive to build both the towers and the infrastructure, this would have a great deal less impact upon the population of rural residents who must suffer this intrusion upon their scenic countryside, not to mention the increasing evidence that living close to one of these installations may have upon the health of some individuals. Certainly Great Britain has the majority of their wind generation “off shore”, the shallow waters off to our west would be well suited for this, it would however change those Sunset Views so strongly promoted!

6) “[we] estimated a potential for clean local power of 11,400 megawatts [MW], of which 3,000 MW would be produced without added fossil fuel by recycling wasted energy from industrial activities such as steel mills, chemical plants, refineries, carbon black production, gas compressor stations and steam pressure drop.”

Indeed the “potential” for generating power from “waste” industrial heat or other energy sources may well be higher than that and whilst it does not necessarily reduce our use of fossil fuels it may well make better use of those we are using. In so far as industrial use of energy perhaps we should move large energy using industries OUT of the highly populated, but low energy source areas of southern Ontario, to places further north where hydro electric energy could supply these large amounts of power thus leaving more available for those remaining. True this may require some residents to also move north out of the big cities but is that necessarily a bad thing, there is more to Ontario than the Golden Triangle after all. Who knows away from Toronto or Hamilton they may even be able to afford to build an energy efficient residence!

7) Apart from mentioning that the OPA has a goal of 50 billion kWh from hydro electric the report does not even touch upon this far superior form of renewable energy, the potential for micogeneration from hydro electric is substantial. Before this can take place however there needs to be a change in policy from the MOE and other government departments with jurisdiction over our rivers and streams. As things sit now it is impossible for an individual to get a permit to dam a stream in order to install a small generator, in fact the ministry is actively pursuing the REMOVAL of existing private dams with that potential. Whilst we must recognize that there may be some impact upon fish habitat by such projects, it must also be recognized that ANY project will impact the natural surroundings in some manner and a REASONABLE balance must be found. Our local streams and waterfalls could provide a good source of microgeneration 24 hrs a day 7 days a week.

8) This report does not say much about energy use reduction through personal, community or corporate energy efficiency, or changes in the way we do things, other that the reference to GDP as mentioned above. I think almost all of us are in agreement that we as a society are wasteful of hydro and need to reduce that waste. Each of us can do a little individually but as I have said before it is the corporate sector that can really make a huge difference. Buying an energy efficient fridge would, whilst a great move, be a expensive but miniscule contribution compared with say turning off one row of lights in your local grocery or department store. (note that the building and labour codes probably dictate minimum levels of lighting for such operations, perhaps we need to revisit such regulations with conservation in mind.) Take a look at all the outdoor commercial signs, many of them on all night, next time you drive into town, as for the mega stores and enormous indoor shopping malls heating and lighting loads, well……………..!

Finally just a few words about this from the report:-
“As a result of Ontario’s historic failure to promote energy efficiency, our electricity productivity (Gross Domestic Product or GDP per kWh) is much lower than those of North America’s leading knowledge-based economies.”

What the H… does our monetary GDP have to do with the efficiency of the electrical supply? This is a total red herring in my view, our climate, the fact that we manufacture stuff rather than “trade” knowledge, the type of products made etc have an enormous impact upon this. If you want to compare hydro “efficency”, use per population in similar areas of climate and production than you may have a case. I DO believe we are indeed wasteful in our use of electricity but kWh against GDP is not the way to measure it!

In short we have the “potential” to do many things but we must be careful to separate what is potentially achievable from what is practically achievable, over stating the possible or misleading statements about the “potential” does not help the cause.


Les and Jane said...

Our family is also one of the minority and rural Canadians, by choice as well. But the answer is in good wind generator plans.
But, we have taken a different path than you outline.
If you are writing for rural residents then this is your only real choice anymore... living off the grid and producing your own power.
Should we wait for government or industry to solve our problems, when was the last time a government official knocked on your door and asked you, "How's it going, what can I do for you today?"
Not lately, gas prices are 44% tax, and electricity costs are mostly service charges, ...
It's time that residents did something for themselves. Just over 15 years ago our family moved off the grid and we use only renewable power, wind generators and solar. We developed our own wind generator plans as well.
Do it yourself, and you will be glad you did,
Want more information about wind generator plans and how you can do it yourself go to
to find out more.

All the best,
Les and Jane
15 years living off the grid

Rural said...

Thanks for that, I salute your commitment and as a licenced electrician have looked at that option many times. Were I a little younger there is little doubt that I would be activly persuing that route. At this point I am not sure that I am ready for either the sizable initial outlay for equipment and batterys or the stricter regiem of power conservation nessary but I sure do support those that are!
Rural folks are generaly fairly self sufficent but the looming economy may well make us have to be more so.