Frankenstein again

Let me be your servant

It gets a little bigger every year. From its humble origin in Australia in 2007, an estimated 1.8 billion people participated in the 2011 event. The before-and-after images of cityscapes and landmarks are striking. Perhaps more noteworthy is the way that more and more major corporations are exploiting the event to garner some green for their brands.

Earth Hour has its detractors, but only one nemesis.

The critics have a number of gripes. The most common is that the event does not make an appreciable impact on global CO2 emissions. That much is true, but it’s missing the point – like saying the Prius is not the sportiest car on the road. Reducing carbon emissions and cutting energy use are not the purpose; awareness, solidarity, and momentum are.

Another objection is that Earth Hour trivializes the efforts that individuals and organizations must make to have a meaningful impact on carbon emissions. Participants may feel they’ve done their bit, and can go back to their profligate ways the other 8759 hours of the year. If so, Earth Hour does more harm than good.

I don’t see much evidence that this is happening. If you dig into the social responsibility section of most corporate websites, you’ll find that their Earth Hour participation is accompanied by extensive internal sustainability initiatives. More and more people are using online resources to check their own carbon footprints, and are joining social networks that inspire members to take their green endeavours further and further. Governments are implementing programs to encourage green behaviours. If a significant segment of society is treating Earth Hour as its sole contribution to saving the planet, I’m not seeing it.

A third complaint is that by shutting off electric lamps and lighting up candles instead, we are actually increasing carbon emissions. Burning enough candles to replace the amount of light from a compact fluorescent bulb emits forty times more carbon dioxide. However, during Earth Hour itself, its obvious that people aren’t replacing the lumens from bulbs with an equivalent number from candles. Were it so,  you wouldn’t see any impact on the amount of light emitted from buildings and landmarks. Instead, during the course of that single hour, people teach themselves that they can get by with far less light. Earth Hour participants are not swapping electric lights for candles on a day-in-day-out lumen-for-lumen basis, and nobody is suggesting they should.

One more concern – and the only that I will not refute – is that Earth Hour sends a message that carbon emissions can only be achieved by sacrifice. Do we have to give up the safety and esthetic benefits of artificial light to make a difference? Taking the idea a step further, do we have to accept a lower standard of living if we are to save the planet?

No. Conservation measures are the most effective way to reduce carbon emissions. They are far cheaper than, say, building renewable energy generation capacity. When you compare the initial investment to the cost savings, the net value of conservation is often positive – certainly a more secure investment than the stock market. What’s more, conservation measures may well increase rather than reduce our physical comfort.

For example, if you curl up on the couch with your favorite book in a poorly insulated house, you’ll feel a draft blowing across your toes or down your back. You’ll also be spending more than you should to heat the place. By replacing old windows and doors, improving insulation, and replacing the clapped-out furnace with a high-efficiency model, you find that your sofa reading experience is more comfortable and your investments soon pay for themselves in reduced utility bills. All without you making the sacrifice of turning down the thermostat or lighting any candles.

That said,  some idiotically wasteful behaviours have to go. Like the guy across the street that lets his souped-up spoiler-sporting Mitsubishi idle with a window-rattling bass rumble for maddening lengths of time. If he must stop this antisocial habit, he may consider it a sacrifice. I definitely won’t.

So Earth Hour has its opponents. However, it only has one implacable enemy: Nuclear power.

Let’s take a look at the distinguishing characteristics of nuclear power. The electricity from a nuclear plant is referred to as “base load”, meaning that the amount of energy remains constant and is not adjusted to reflect fluctuating demand. By contrast, dispatchable generating facilities such as gas-fired plants are used to deal with demand peaks. As the level of electricity consumption rises and falls, a dispatchable plant can be turned on or off, and the output can be dialed up or down to match demand.

Nuclear plants are very difficult and expensive to turn on and off, and there is not much leeway to adjust their output. This is evident from the fact that when demand drops below a certain threshold – often in the middle of the night – the amount of electricity being drawn from the grid may be less than the amount that the nuclear plants are pumping into it. At present, there’s no way to store the extra juice for later. This leads to the absurd situation where the utility actually pays customers to sop up the excess power. Doing so is cheaper than throttling back the output from the nuclear plants. Any rational person should find this to be outrageous.

Earth Hour casts a candle-lit spotlight on this absurdity. If individuals, businesses, and institutions are all jumping on the bandwagon, demand drops through the floor. But it’s only for one hour. The utility knows full well that demand will creep right up again as soon as the hour is over. What options does it have?

Shutting down the nuclear plants for just sixty minutes would be hideously expensive. However, it may well be the only choice. Local customers won’t pay to take the excess power off the utility’s hands – most of them are doing their best to be visibly consuming little or no electricity. Export customers can’t help either, for the same reason (unless they happen to be in a different time zone). For the moment, at least, there’s no way to store the surplus electricity.

Any utility with substantial nuclear generation capacity is caught between the Scylla of an inflexible technology and the Charybdis of a transient downward demand spike. If I was in charge of such a utility, I would hate – hate – Earth Hour.

Technology is supposed to serve the needs of society. However, Earth Hour shows us that society is in thrall to the needs of our technology. We are not free to make the simple, well-meaning gesture of shutting off the lights for an hour in the name of saving ourselves from a global ecological catastrophe. Doing so actually costs us more than doing nothing at all. Make no mistake: If your utility depends on nuclear power, Earth Hour will have a cost. It will be high. You and I will pay it on our next electricity bill. No good deed goes unpunished.

This is all thanks to our misguided decision to invest in a technology that demands as much from us as we demand from it. What kind of monster have we created?


Tilting at windmills

One of the first Landscape Guardians

In Cervantes’ novel, Don Quixote catches sight of thirty or forty windmills towering over the Spanish grasslands. Mistaking them for foul and dangerous giants, he sets out to slay them. He is convinced that the valour and honour of his quest is sure to warrant divine blessing. Quixote’s motives are pure. However, his perception of the nature of the objects before him is so off base it is laughable.

Half a millennium later, the successors of Don Quixote are alive and well and fighting to save the world from the scourge of industrial wind turbines. Some, like Don Quixote, have pure motives. Others, not so much. However, both the proponents and the opponents are failing to see the forest for the trees.

An example of questionable motivations is the long-standing linkage between wind energy protest groups and the nuclear industry. The most obvious such connection is Sir Bernhard Ingham, who serves as secretary of Supporters of Nuclear Energy as well as vice president of the UK anti-wind campaign group Country Guardian. There are similar links with Australia’s Landscape Guardians.

It’s not hard to figure out why those who financially benefit from the nuclear sector have a problem with wind energy. As countries the world over grapple with global climate change, nuclear has been repeatedly promoted as our salvation as it is far less carbon-intensive than fossil fuels. Industry advocates predicted that this would bring about a nuclear renaissance. However, it hasn’t happened – industry growth rates remain stagnant. With an annual capacity growth rate of more than 30% over the past decade, wind energy poses a serious alternative, and therefore a serious threat.

This raises some critical questions. First, can an objection have merit even if it comes from a biased objector? Second, if the objection has apparent merit, what must be done to confirm its validity? Third, even if an objection is valid, could other considerations eclipse it?

A common tactic in public discourse, especially in the political arena, is to attack the person rather than the argument. If the person presenting an argument is suspect, then their argument is weakened in the court of public opinion. However, it should not be so. The argument is the argument, and must be evaluated according to the evidence on both sides.

So any argument, even one that may appear absurd at first glance, must be evaluated. Healthy scepticism is a crucial tool in this endeavour. Not everyone can be trusted to collect, analyse, interpret, and present data – they may not be competent to do so, or they may deliberately distort the information. This is why science, with its time-tested tool of peer review to root out bias, shoddy work, and woolly thinking, is trusted above rhetoric.

All other things being equal, the burden of proof should rest upon whoever advocates a change from the status quo. This is called the precautionary principle. Sadly, it has not been followed as strictly as it should, and often it seems that the general public is on the hook to show that something is dangerous – and their task is harder and harder the more money is on the line.

The wind energy debate is often framed as a question of whether wind turbines are a good or a bad thing, and therefore whether society should accept or reject them. However, this is not the real debate. Without ample supplies of energy, society will grind to a halt, with the world as we know it ending in chaos, anarchy, and devastation on a scale never seen in human history. Hydro energy is largely tapped out, fossil fuels are causing global climate change, and nuclear faces huge public opposition in the wake of Fukushima Daiichi. The only way forward is a massive shift toward renewable energy, but no one such source is enough – we need a mix of every kind. So the question is not “Wind energy: Yes or no?” Rather it is, “Wind energy: How do we make it work?”

There are many arguments against wind energy, but at the end of the day, none of them is serious enough to overshadow the apocalyptic issue of climate change.

This is where the urban-rural divide comes into stark focus. City dwellers have long looked down upon their country cousins, or disregarded them entirely. When rural-based wind opponents raise issues such as Wind Turbine Syndrome, shadow flicker, bird strikes, and property devaluation, the urbanite response is to dismiss or debunk the concerns. This is thoroughly missing the point. The arguments are just the visible exterior of the problem. Behind them is something entirely different.

Nobody likes to be pushed around. Americans don’t like the UN telling them what to do. Canadians don’t like the US telling them what to do. The Canadian provinces don’t like Ottawa telling them what to do. And rural Ontarians don’t like Queen’s Park (the seat of the provincial government) telling them what to do. People are people, at all levels, and they rankle at being treated with disrespect.

Cities are in a constant state of change. Urbanites accept this. New high-rise condo complexes spring up seemingly overnight, highway bypasses are pushed through, derelict warehouses are gutted and replaced with studio apartments and trendy restaurants. City limits sprawl outward inexorably.

Change is far more gradual in the country, and those that live there are more likely to view it with suspicion and hostility. Wind turbines change the landscape, no question. Where there was once stillness and tranquility, a wind farm brings a view that is in near-constant motion. Trees, the odd grain silo, and the village church once dominated the vista; now turning turbines tower over them. And some corporation from the city is raking in the cash thanks to the rotating blades. What benefit does that bring the nearby farmer or cottager? The outrage is not just understandable, it is inevitable.

For wind energy to succeed, an entirely new approach is needed. Proponents of wind energy need to accept that, for the most part, the resource is located in rural areas. The inhabitants of these rural areas are the custodians and owners of the resource, just as surely as a farmer with an oil reservoir beneath his back 40 is the custodian and owner of that resource. They must be treated as such, and not as nobodies to be steamrollered.

Rural dwellers need to be engaged in an open, honest, and two-way dialogue. This conversation must recognize that although climate change and rising fossil fuel costs are everyone’s problem, urban dwellers will bear a disproportionate share of the pain just because there are more of them. Hence it is those from the city, not the country, on whom the social problem is most pressing.

What’s more, city folk are not the ones that that have to give up something they value – the very countryside that has remained largely untouched for time out of mind – to solve the problem. Urbanites need an attitude adjustment. They must accept rural sovereignty over the precious resource. They must respect the rural dwellers that hold that sovereignty. They must recognize what country folk will be sacrificing in the name of solving the problem. And they must explore appropriate compensation for that sacrifice.

That compensation could take many forms. As I suggested in my previous post, offering ownership stakes to residents is a powerful tool. So is working with village councils to identify new public goods funded from the proceeds of a local wind farm – perhaps a new public library, sports complex, or nicely landscaped green space. Another possibility would be to partner with a local school, training youth so they may take full advantage of the opportunities of green energy.

In the end, the arguments are beside the point. Beating someone in a debate does not make a friend of them. To bring them around, you must seek to understand why they are unhappy, and work collaboratively to find ways to right the wrong.

Blue sky mining

Energy out of the blue

Wind energy has a certain cachet – clean, technologically advanced, ingenious, and nearly magical in its ability to pull electricity out of thin air. Mining, on the other hand, seems its very antithesis – dirty, primitive, and reliant on the brute force of explosives and massive, pollution-spewing machines. All the same, the mineral extraction industry has some important lessons for the wind energy sector.

The mining industry has learned the hard way. Firms have scoured the globe in search of rich ore deposits, and have often found these in developing countries. In these nations, their dealings with local communities have often been ham-fisted, insensitive, blundering, and self-defeating. But they are learning the right way and the wrong way to do it.

The first lesson is the role of central government, and its limitations. The power brokers in the national capital grant mineral extraction rights. However, the mine won’t be located in the capital city. It will be off in the backcountry somewhere, in a place the suit-clad bureaucrats and their burly henchmen never visit. The fact that the central government has sanctioned the mining activity won’t carry much weight with the locals. Getting the concession is only half the battle – the other half is winning the hearts and minds of the nearby community.

Regardless of what the central government may think, the local community believes that they are the true and rightful owners of the resource. The extraction equipment must travel along the roads that the local people have traveled for generations. The mine will be placed on land with a long history. Once the mine is played out, the land will be less than it was. The mineral will be gone. The local environment will be changed, dramatically in the case of an open-pit mine. Most spillover economic benefits from the presence of the foreign mine operators will disappear overnight.

Regardless of the voice of law and central government authority, the local community has an ownership claim over the mineral resource. They have the means to enforce this claim. Road blockages, vandalism, and threats of violence against expatriate employees can render continued operations impossible. The company must recognize this claim, and follow it to its logical conclusion – ensuring that meaningful benefits accrue to the local population.

If the community feels that the operation yields them no benefits, any perceived costs will be inflated and magnified. Side effects that would otherwise have been dismissed as inconsequential will take on great significance. The company will be called on the carpet to address even the most minor accident, leak, or other problem. Firefighting will become the order of the day, draining the ability of company leadership to focus on keeping the operation running smoothly.

If, however, the community receives direct and tangible benefits, they will have a much higher tolerance. They will even jump to the defense of the company in the face of external criticism. I’ve seen this in my own hometown when visitors remarked in disgust about the sulfurous smell wafting over from the nearby pulp mill, only to be told pointedly by the locals, “That’s the smell of prosperity.”

All of this is laid out in Getting it Right: Making Corporate-Community Relations Work, by Luc Zandvliet and Mary B. Anderson. The book provides examples the world over of companies – mostly in the mineral extraction business – either making significant mistakes or chalking up major successes in the ways they deal with the local community. The wind energy business would do well to learn some of the lessons this book has to offer.

Let’s look at Ontario, Canada as a case study. With its Green Energy and Green Economy Act (GEGEA) of 2009, the Ontario government set out to make the province a leader in renewable energy. It offered lucrative Feed-In Tariff rates as a means to encourage individuals and organizations to generate their own electricity and sell it to the utility. One of the supported forms of renewable energy was wind.

To jump-start the initiative, the GEGEA streamlined the approval process for new wind energy projects. One of the ways this was accomplished was by largely cutting out the local community, bypassing a patchwork of inconsistent local bylaws and agencies. A couple of public consultations were required, but these tended not to get much attention. Typically, by the time it became common knowledge that a new wind farm was going in, it was too late for people to do much about it.

Unfortunately, the large wind farm developers assumed that whatever consultation process the government specified would be enough to ensure their success. They did their wind resource studies, conducted their mandatory public consultations, and got on with the job. Wind farms began springing up all over the province, and the GEGEA appeared a rousing success.

But seeds of discontent had been sown. The only local beneficiaries of these projects were the landowners that sold or leased the property where the turbines would be located. Little attention was paid to the immediate neighbours or the broader community. People watched the landscape they had known from childhood transformed by tall towers and rotating blades. And they got mad.

Stories began to appear that tarnished the clean, inspiring, and hopeful image of the wind business. Stories of property values dropping in the vicinity of wind farms. Stories of flocks of birds struck from the sky by spinning turbines. Stories of epileptic seizures induced by light flickering through turning vanes. Stories of sleep disruptions and knock-on health impacts from turbine noise. Discontent in the countryside of Ontario grew.

In the October 2011 election, the Liberal party lost its majority, due primarily to rural ridings rejecting the GEGEA and the candidates that espoused it. And earlier this year, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture demanded a moratorium on new wind energy projects until the interests of farmers and rural dwellers were protected. The issue has become such a political hot potato that the future of the Liberal government may well hang in the balance.

It could have been so different. If only the industry had recognized that the local community is a resource every bit as valuable as the wind itself.

In the community of Saint Agatha, a more inspiring story is unfolding. A local co-operative has been formed, with the intent of constructing one wind turbine that will provide electricity equivalent to that consumed by the entire town. Residents are encouraged to buy in to the co-op, and in return they will receive a share of the revenue from the sale of the electricity to the utility.

You can bet that when their dividend cheques start arriving in the mail, they will cast a more skeptical eye on claims that wind turbines cause all manner of harm. Rather than taking such claims at face value, they will rightfully note that they are based on junk science and financed by unions representing workers in the nuclear energy business (which has the most to lose if wind energy really takes off). And you can bet that it won’t be long before someone points out that if one turbine cuts their net electricity bills to zero, two will yield a tidy profit. A community of wind barons is in the making.

If the wind energy sector has a little patience, abandons its habit of doing the bare minimum consultations that the government requires, lets communities take the lead, and shares the benefits with those communities, it will do more than restore its soiled image. It will re-establish itself as one of the best paths toward a clean, sustainable, and profitable energy future.

Divide and conquer

20th century tech for a 21st century world

Our electricity infrastructure was once our society’s greatest asset. It brought light where there was darkness, heat where there was cold, and motion where there was stillness. It powered our entire economy, and still does. However, it has become a liability.

Like the baby boomers, it grew up in a different era. At that time massive, centralized bureaucratic organizations were the norm. Fuel was cheap. Much of it came from domestic sources. The primary threats to security were the nuclear arsenals and massive armies of NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

The electricity production, transmission, and distribution reflected that society. Electricity was produced in massive, centralized facilities. The principal fuel sources were oil, coal and uranium. Little of that was imported.

That world is gone. While massive organizations still exist, the engine of economic innovation is small business. Increasingly, individuals are free agents, contracting their services out to the highest bidder and resisting the allure of “going corporate”. More and more people work out of their homes instead of commuting to an office.

At the same time, fuel has become more and more expensive. Partly because of steadily increasing demand, and partly because of declining domestic reserves, much comes from overseas.

The cold war is long over, and few now worry that our world will end in an all-out nuclear war followed by nuclear winter. Instead, the prevailing security concern is terrorism. Since 9/11, our entire society has reworked itself to defend against an enemy that is not on the other side of the globe, but potentially next door. Critical infrastructure assets are protected in a way they never were in the last century.

Because of our legacy electricity infrastructure, we remain vulnerable. Nuclear power plants present a tempting terrorist target. A successful strike on one of these would not just release radioactive material into the environment, it would also leave a gaping hole in regional generation capacity. This could lead to rolling blackouts and economic chaos while the utility fought to restore the lost capacity.

A hydroelectric dam is similar. These massive structures would be difficult to destroy, but not impossible. The instantaneous release of all the water stored in the reservoir would cause a wave of destruction worthy of a Hollywood disaster flick. The loss of the generation capacity would have a similar impact to that of our hypothetical strike on a nuclear plant.

Less consequential, hence less well-defended, and hence more vulnerable, are thermal plants like coal-fired generating stations. A successful terrorist strike would be unlikely to inflict physical destruction on the surrounding area, at least not on anything approaching the scale of a nuke plant strike or a dam burst. However, it would cause comparable economic damage.

With the advent of renewable energy technologies like wind and solar, the logic behind large-scale, centralized generation facilities has been largely eliminated. Wind and sun are everywhere. In spite of that, wind and solar developers have persisted in perpetuating the centralized model. Large wind farms, with turbines covering a huge area, are commonplace. Ditto large solar farms. Like the coal-fired generating station example, these facilities are vulnerable to terrorist attack. What’s more, they fail to address one of the largest challenges to renewable energy – its transience.

The wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine. However, if generating capacity is spread out instead of concentrated, it spreads out the risk. The sun may not be shining here, but it probably is somewhere else. Today may not be windy there, but it is here. On average, the risk of cloudy skies and feeble breezes is mitigated, but only if solar arrays and wind turbines aren’t all in one place.

Big wind and solar farms are not the way to go. They are vulnerable to terrorist attack – albeit with little or no knock-on effects to the surrounding area. They fail to mitigate the risk of variable sun and wind. What’s more, they necessitate upgrades to transmission infrastructure in remote locations – a costly and unattractive proposition – and because they are remote, an appreciable amount of their electricity is lost as heat as it passes through transmission lines on the way to market.

Far better to site generation facilities close to the point of use. Solar panels are a natural fit for many buildings. Parking lots are an ideal location for large dual-axis trackers, and offer the added bonus of potentially being coupled with charging stations to supply power for electric vehicles. Even wind turbines – the vertical axis variety – are perfect for mounting on rooftops of tall buildings, where winds are high, birds are few, and what little noise there is will go unheeded.

Thermal plants also offer significant potential for distributed generation. Legacy thermal generation facilities are grossly inefficient, as they produce a phenomenal amount of waste heat. If the plant were located in an industrial park or a high-density housing development, the heat would no longer be wasted – instead, it could warm all of the buildings in the area through a district heating system.

As for a fuel source, the best-established choice is natural gas. The price of this fuel has dropped precipitously of late with the advent of shale gas. It has the added bonus that it can be replaced or supplemented by renewable biogas produced by running organic waste (sewage, compost) through an anaerobic digester. It could also burn hydrogen. A gas turbine would produce both electricity and heat.

Another option would be, believe it or not, nuclear. Traditional uranium-fuelled reactors are a non-starter, because nobody would want them in their neighbourhood, and they’re much too large anyway. However, a Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) fuelled by thorium could, in theory, be built small enough to supply combined heat and power to a neighbourhood. The high-grade heat from the reactor spins a turbine for electricity, and the low-grade leftover heat supplies the district heating system.

It’s time our utilities ditch their mindset that bigger is better. Big generation facilities are big targets. Big wind and solar farms are big risks for when the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow. And big heat means big waste.

Power generation needs to be small. And it needs to be everywhere. It eliminates targets, reduces risk, and gives more bang for our buck.