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Man bites Fox October 17, 2011

Posted by Maury Markowitz in balonium, power grid.

The 4th Estate was all excited today by this report, which claims that Ontario power prices are going to go up $4,000 because of wind and solar. Wow, scary stuff! I wonder why no one picked up on this before the election!?

Oh wait, they did. In fact, one of the paper’s two authors wrote an opinion piece about it in the National Post two weeks ago, three days before the election. Odd, then, that the papers are dragging this up now, especially when you consider everyone’s talking about it like it’s news. And people complain the media forgets stories too quickly?

Sadly the actual paper they wrote is hidden behind a $25 paywall, so I’m sure no one reporting on it today has actually read it. But that’s OK, because whenever a paper is preceded by it’s press release, you know it’s gotta be good. So looking over the co-author’s piece in the Post, I quickly came across this tired old bromide:

For example, the ministry did not adequately account for the fact that wind and solar require backup fossil-fuel generation to ensure no blackouts or brownouts occur.


Problem, what problem?

The problem, if you want to even call it that, with renewable energy’s production curve is that its predictable only in the broad strokes. For instance, I’m pretty sure I won’t be getting a whole lot of power from my panels tonight. Beyond that is anyone’s guess, and that’s the problem.

If one lives outside Ontario this really might be a problem. For instance, the article talks about brownouts in Texas when the wind didn’t blow. Of course, if one spends even 15 seconds in Google looking for this story, you’ll find that it was actually caused by coal plants, which I don’t think is the point Fox and Gallant were hoping to make.

So why would the authors pick an example from Texas? Problems with the grid in Texas are likely to have very little to do with us. Right? Right! So let’s look at solutions to this problem for Ontario.

The answer is not blowing in the wind

So what we’re looking for in a backup is a source of power that can take up the slack on those occasions where the sun isn’t shining, is highly reliable, can be safely and economically stored for when we need it, and is available on demand.

Coal plants? Pshaw! They take days to heat up! Even the gas peakers aren’t exactly greyhounds.

What you want is something that’s way easier, Like turning a valve and there it is. Like the water in my sink… or like the approximately 5 GW of undeveloped waterpower in Ontario.

5 GW, what’s that? It’s the entire output of Pickering before they decommissioned two of the units.

That’s right, there’s an entire nuclear plant (not reactor, eight reactors) worth of power sitting out there doing nothing. And more infuriating, quite of bit of this untapped power, like 1 GW of it, can be had simply by upgrading the equipment at existing plants. When you start adding in existing dams and spillways with no generators attached, up it goes, no new construction.

So wait, you say, if there’s all this hydro out there, why aren’t we developing that?

Well, we were. Go ahead and read Ontario Hydro’s 1990 paper on the topic, “Providing the Balance of Power“. They were all set to develop another 3.6 GW of the tastiest bits of that 5 GW pie. And then Darlington happened, the economy tanked and demand cratered. And that was that.

Splish, splash

So wait, if there’s all this waterpower out there, why aren’t we just building that? Why even bother with solar or wind at all?

Well try to imagine this pastey Ontario button-down guy is actually a Califorina long-hair with a gorgeous tan, and, well, it’s all about synergy.

The complaint about solar and wind is that it’s not reliable. True, such as it is. After all, we get 15 hours of sunlight in the summer and it peaks right when the air conditioners are going, but, sadly, we get only 9 hours of sunlight in the winter. And yet power use is about the same at the two extremes.

And that’s where water comes in. We have too much water in winter and spring, and not enough in the summer. Nice, right? And in those cases where we have so much power we don’t know what to do with it, we pump water back into storage.

When you do this, you end up with much more continual power delivery that either system could produce on it’s own. Not at any one instant, but over the period of a year, for instance. Those dams simply can’t run 24/7/365, they’ll run out of water. But if I can turn them off, or even pump it back, when I have another source cranking, then I can guarantee a rate of delivery that’s much higher than if you build just one or the other.

Everyone wants to do this, yet Ontario is in a wonderful position to actually do it.

But back to the paper…

I can’t help but think this paper is a setup. After all, one of the authors admits “I have no direct expertise in the electrical sector” (see this) and doesn’t have a single other scholarly publication to his name (at least according to Google). Perusing his list of posts on the Post, you can find all sorts of half-truths and questionable claims among the majority of guesses presented as fact, like “This is likely mostly employment costs”.

But hey, it is a blog… you know better to trust those, right?


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