Posted by Davis Swan, January 21, 2013
It never ceases to amaze me how completely irrational people get when they discuss renewable energy. Last week the Canadian province of Ontario announced that the remaining coal-fired electrical generating stations in the province would be closed. This news has “gone viral” with numerous blogs and news agencies heralding this development as a sign that all jurisdictions in the world can easily rid themselves of the need to burn “dirty” coal. A typically misleading example can be found at http://www.awaken.com/2013/01/wind-blowing-away-coal-in-ontario/.
Don’t get me wrong. I am happy to see the elimination of coal-fired generation plants in Ontario (where I grew up) because in my mind they are not part of a sustainable energy future. Wind farms are, so increasing the amount of electricity generated by wind is a good thing.
But to suggest that the two are related in the case of Ontario is simply factually incorrect. Wind is a minor contributor to the generation mix in Ontario. In fact you can only see the real trend in Wind as compared to Coal by eliminating Nuclear and Hydro from the picture as shown by the graph below (data taken directly from the IESO site);
Furthermore, from the graph above it is clear that the reason that the coal-fired plants can be closed is because total demand has softened and natural gas-fired plants and nuclear capacity have both increased. These shifts are not the result of wind being hugely successful but are directly related to refurbishment of several nuclear plants as well as a sustained period of low prices for natural gas that make those plants more attractive to operate.
Wind is actually causing problems in Ontario. The following passage comes from the the 2009 Ontario Reliability Report;
“A weak economy combined with conservation efforts and mild weather have resulted in unusually low overnight and weekend demand, creating ongoing SBG (Surplus Baseload Generation) conditions. For the
most part, excess generation is handled through exports. This spring, however, Ontario started
to experience SBG on a weekly basis, resulting in nuclear unit reductions on 54 days, nuclear
shutdowns on five days and water spillage at hydro facilities on 33 days. These actions impose additional costs on generators, increase wear and tear on equipment and result in an inefficient approach to managing the power system.”
It should also be noted that exports are often taking place at night when wind farms are generating too much power as compared to demand so that prices for exports are extremely low. What that means is that even the amount of electricity generated from wind farms in total exaggerates the amount of truly useful electricity from that source.
As I have stated repeatedly in every entry in the Black Swan Blog the ideal and necessary future for humanity involves sustainable energy sources. Wind and solar are essential components and need to be developed. But energy storage is an absolutely critical piece of the puzzle if renewables are to become ”reliables”. We need to divert some of the subsidies going into renewables into research and development aimed at developing and commercializing energy storage solutions.
In the meantime an honest and objective discussion of the role of renewables – both the good and the bad – will help secure public understanding and support. “Little white lies” and misinformation will foster mistrust and resistance.