The story of sunshine

SunFromClouds
Image by Bartosz Kosiorek, courtesy of Wikimedia.

It all started about 4.5 billion years ago. A small, unremarkable star began to shine, warming a small, unremarkable planet. After a mere billion years, life began to emerge. Another three billion years later, plants began to appear, and all that sunshine started being put to use.

Half an aeon on, and humans came on the scene. They took the solar energy that had built up over the previous few hundred million years – transformed from plants into oil, natural gas, and coal – and began burning it. They burned it so they could run things like steam engines and internal combustion engines. They also burned it to generate electricity. This allowed neat things to happen like the industrial revolution, the Space Age, and the Internet.

However, all that burning had the unfortunate side effect of destroying the planet. Oh, not all at once, of course. It started off slow, but like a snowball rolling down a mountainside, the rate of destruction got faster and faster until it looked like nothing could stop it.

This wasn’t an accident. Certain businesses had become very big and very rich by getting the oil, natural gas, and coal out of the ground. The people running those businesses tried to use their vast wealth to convince everyone that there was no problem with what they were doing. They did their best to prevent people from realizing that the carbon that came from their products was, in fact, nasty. They also did a very good job of blocking efforts to stop the planet from being destroyed. It seems a bit odd that they would do this, since their businesses rather depended on having a planet to reside on, but the things people do sometimes don’t make much sense.

Somewhere in the middle of all that burning, a clever person noticed something remarkable. If you took the right kind of material and shine sunlight on it, you get electricity. You can skip that whole multi-million-year step of waiting for dead plants to become oil, you could skip the step of burning that oil to boil water into steam, you could skip the step of using the steam to turn a turbine to generate electricity, and you could skip the whole planet-destroying thing as well.

It took a while for solar cells, as they were called, to take off. Perhaps that’s a poor choice of words, because one of the first things they did was literally to take off – or, actually, to lift off. At first, the only places where it made sense to make electricity from sunlight were ones in which nothing could burn because there was no air – outer space. As more and more solar cells were produced for things like satellites and deep space probes, some solar cells came down to earth, finding their way into other things like pocket calculators and marine navigation aids. The more solar cells that were produced, the cheaper they became.

Some people in government became concerned that the planet was getting warmer and the weather was getting weirder. There were more droughts, more floods, and more freak storms that killed people and did lots of damage. Those government people also noticed that oil, natural gas, and coal just kept getting more and more expensive, and tended to come from countries that were nasty and warlike. They thought that being dependent on those energy sources was a bad idea.

They began doing things to help solar energy to grow. Terms like feed-in tariffs, tax incentives, loan guarantees, and renewable portfolio standards started being bandied about. As governments set up programs to help solar, people and businesses responded. Soon solar panels – made up of dozens of solar cells –started appearing on rooftops and in fields.

The first people to get in the act were the ones that were most concerned about the planet. They decided to follow the put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is philosophy. Other people were in it for the cash. They couldn’t believe their luck – their roof used to be a liability, needing to be re-shingled every couple of decades at huge expense. Now, their roof had become an asset, like having a tenant in a basement apartment – except this tenant never had parties late at night, never took up any living space, and never skipped a rent cheque.

Early on, it was important to find a good roof. The best ones faced south, and had a rectangular shape. You could still make money if your roof faced southeast or southwest – you only lost about a tenth or so. Even if you had, say, a triangular roof (called a “hipped roof”, although it didn’t look anything like the part of your body that holds your pants up), you arranged the panels in a brickwork pattern and used up what space you could.

As time went on, the panels came to look less and less like an add-on, and more and more like they were always intended to be part of the building. They also got more efficient, so even roof areas that got only a bit of sun were worth wiring up. Most of all, solar panels just kept getting cheaper and cheaper.

The cheaper that solar panels got, the more that people wanted them. Soon, they were so cheap that governments didn’t need any programs to convince people to buy them. It was cheaper to buy solar panels and to get the power from them, than it was to buy the power from the local electric company.

In fact, the panels got so cheap that some governments found themselves in the awkward position of trying to explain why they had spent a ton of money building another way to make electricity – nuclear power. This type of energy was hugely expensive, hugely risky, hugely inflexible, took a very long time to build, had to be built a long way from the cities where the power was used, and had a nasty habit of producing poisonous waste that lasted thousands of years after the people who had used the electricity were quite dead. In other words, it was the exact opposite of solar in every way except that it produced watts. Half-built, abandoned nuclear power plants – and embarrassed politicians – became an all-to-common sight.

While all this was happening, something else was changing – the way people and stuff moved around. As oil, natural gas, and coal became more expensive, people started buying vehicles that ran on something else – electricity. Interestingly, people who owned this kind of vehicle were more likely than everyone else to buy solar panels. Something about being guilt-free while at home and on the road.

Solar carports started appearing in parking lots. Retail stores built them to attract electric car drivers. Businesses built them to show their employees that they cared about the environment. Municipalities built them to provide much-needed money, by charging people for charging their cars (in addition to charging them for taking up space in the parking lot).

The best thing about all these solar panels was that they lasted an incredibly long time. They would still produce power after a hundred years, long after the people who installed them were pushing up daisies. Instead of leaving behind a ruined planet and a bunch of poisonous garbage, people could choose to leave behind free electricity. In other words, solar gave people the chance to leave their children with a better planet rather than a worse one.

Eventually, the oil, natural gas, and coal companies went the same way as the stuff they once were paid so much to get out of the ground – they became fossils. The nasty carbon that their products spewed into the air began to subside, helped along by factories that pulled the carbon out of the air and used it to make other kinds of useful stuff. People realized that it was a good idea to plant trees instead of just cutting them down – since trees pull plenty of carbon out of the air, they helped repair some of the damage that had been done.

The electricity continued to flow steadily off the rooftops. The electric cars continued to hum down city streets free of smog and noise. The weird weather gradually calmed down.

And the sun kept right on shining.

Please note: The tone and language used in this post was inspired by The Story of Stuff. Although I am a huge fan of TSoS and recommend that you watch it, neither I nor this blog are affiliated in any way with TSoS. No infringement of their copyright is intended.

Meet the new boss

childdiscipline-02022011a
No more kid gloves

Kids are very aware that some rules are enforced and some aren’t. They test every rule constantly. They keep testing in the hopes that the parents will get exasperated and drop the rule to avoid the hassle of enforcement.

Will mom and dad notice if I just leave the dishes beside the sink, instead of putting them in the dishwasher like I’m supposed to? After all, they do the morning dishes after I’m safely off at school, and the evening ones when I’m safely tucked in bed.

The answer (at least in my household): Yes, we will notice. Yes, you will hear all about it. And yes, next time you’ll get stuck with an extra punitive chore like emptying the dishwasher or taking out the garbage as a lesson not to cut corners with your responsibilities again.

In its handling of the Feed-In Tariff (FIT) review, the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) has behaved like the child cutting corners with household duties.

When the Green Energy and Green Economy Act (GEGEA) became law in 2009, its most prominent feature was the FIT program. One of the three categories of the FIT program, MicroFIT, includes systems up to 10kW in size. MicroFIT is synonymous with solar photovoltaic (PV) systems – PV accounts for 99.99% of MicroFIT contracts released in the current tranche.

A key objective of the FIT was to build an industry, creating green energy jobs for Ontarians, growing the corporate and personal tax base, and producing spin-off economic benefits. For the first two years, all looked well. MicroFIT created an entire sub-industry focused on rooftop and ground-mount solar PV installations. The industry included installers, distributors, manufacturers, and more. It looked like the GEGEA was living up to the billing.

Fast-forward to the present day, and it ain’t going so good. The OPA bears much of the responsibility for this, for behaving like a recalcitrant child. The Ministry of Energy and the Government of Ontario bear the remainder, for not being sufficiently stern parents.

In October 2011 the OPA closed the province’s MicroFIT program to new applications. The program remained in a deep freeze for the next nine months. In the end, the Ministry of Energy had to issue a public directive demanding that the OPA stop sitting on its hands, finish its review, and reopen the program. The directive was issued July 11th and the OPA obeyed and opened the MicroFIT window later that month. If I had been working for the OPA at the time, I would have been dreadfully chagrined, like the child caught shirking on chores. The exact same thing happened November 23rd; the province issued a directive demanding that the OPA reopen the small FIT window, and the OPA obeyed a couple of weeks later – more than a year after that portion of the program had been frozen. We can expect that the ministry will have to do the same thing again to get the OPA to re-open the large FIT window.

The Ministry had good reason to deal decisively and publicly with the OPA. The long delay dealt a mortal blow to many small companies. One installer, focused on MicroFIT and small FIT, had to let go a third of its staff in the spring of 2012. Half of the remaining staff left in July just before the program finally did reopen. The company partnered with mine in August, but the damage had already been done. We bought out what was left of it last month. The owner is seeking greener pastures outside of the PV industry.

I toured a PV manufacturing plant in Mississauga last week and my host told similarly sad stories from among her customers – she cited a number of examples in which a customer had been ordering PV modules one month, and the next their phone had been disconnected. Even larger businesses such as Siliken were driven under because they had essentially zero sales for the better part of a year.

History may soon repeat itself.

When the MicroFIT window was again opened in July 2012, the OPA indicated that it would accept applications for contracts totaling 50MW. As of the biweekly MicroFIT report issued on February 4th, the remaining amount is 13MW. Assuming the rate at which contracts are awarded stays constant, the current tranche will be completely used up at the beginning of April.

What then?

Many in the industry are pessimistic, and with good reason. They remember the lesson of 2011 too well. When the window closed in October of that year, the OPA was careful not to give itself a deadline for completion of its review. However, most indications were that it would be complete in a matter of weeks. The final public submissions were received in mid-December. I spoke to a number of people in the industry during that period, and most expected that the report would be issued and the program re-launched by March at the latest.

It took the OPA not three months, but seven.

How can anyone run a business under those conditions? Remember that nobody knew when the program would open again, but most thought it was imminent. It remained imminent for the better part of a year.

If the 50MW tranche is exhausted in April as anticipated, we have learned to expect the following:

  1. The program will be completely closed to any new applications.
  2. The OPA will not set a target date to reopen the program.
  3. Even the most cynical observer will underestimate the dry spell.
  4. More companies will close their doors.

The mandate of the OPA does not include managing an entire industry. However, with its monopoly over the province’s electricity market, it effectively has become the state planning department for green energy. This is a job the OPA is neither equipped nor willing to perform. It needs much closer supervision and direction from the Ministry of Energy, or the baby will get thrown out with the bathwater and the nascent Ontario green energy industry will starve to death.

Ontario has a new Premier. Since the GEGEA remains the boldest renewable energy program in the country, Canada also has, in effect, a new Most Powerful Patron of green energy. Kathleen Wynne has been making some encouraging noises on the topic, but it remains to be seen how truly committed she is.

This is a crucial time. It takes about four years to amortize the cost of a PV manufacturing plant. Several plants in the province are rapidly approaching that age. With plants fully paid for, PV module manufacturers may soon be able to reduce prices much further than the gradual but substantial drops we’ve already experienced in the four years since the launch of the GEGEA. This will benefit the green energy market not only within the province, but the export market to other provinces and to other countries (most notably the United States). If the industry can just make it through the next two years or so, price reductions in PV panels will mean that the Feed-In Tariff can drop significantly – eventually disappearing altogether.

Ms. Wynne, and her new Minister of Energy Bob Chiarelli, have the opportunity to usher in a new era – an era in which solar energy grows explosively with no government involvement at all. Perhaps this time the OPA will play ball, and the MicroFIT window will reopen with minimal delay. However, if history is any guide, Wynne and Chiarelli will only bring about that exciting green energy future if they are ready and willing to take off the kid gloves when dealing with the OPA.

The great leap inward

If there is an environmentalist’s dream technology, it is surely solar photovoltaic (PV) power generation. All you need is sunshine, and a PV array will produce electricity. No harmful byproducts. No carbon dioxide. No smog. No acid rain. No radioactive waste. No noise.

snake-eats-itself
Tastes great. Less filling.

PV has grown dramatically since Bell Labs displayed the first demonstration unit in 1954. The International Energy Agency notes that the annual growth rate has averaged a mind-boggling 40% for the last two decades. Despite recently achieving the milestone of 100GW of worldwide installed capacity, growth continues – GlobalData estimates a 16.5% compound annual growth rate to 2020. This at a time when most other industries are struggling to avoid contraction.

With rising production volumes, prices have dropped, the technology has become attractive to a broader range of potential buyers, and the market has expanded. As this trend continues, PV promises to become cheaper than competing, environmentally damaging power generation technologies like coal and nuclear fission. It is in the best interests of our economy, our species, and indeed all life on the planet for PV technology to develop and to grow as rapidly as possible.

On the global PV manufacturing stage, one of the most significant players is China. Like many other products, PV modules manufactured there may not always have the best reputation for quality, but it’s tough to beat the price. If our objective is to have PV generating capacity spread as far and as wide as possible, supplanting its nastier non-green brethren, buying Chinese-made modules sounds like sound policy. If you can buy more generating capacity on the same budget, you can replace dirtier sources of energy that much more rapidly.

Not so fast. Although PV produces clean power, traditional energy sources are still required to produce the panels; no manufacturer yet claims to have built a breeder supply chain, in which all of the power to produce the PV panels comes from PV panels. If you want to make sure you’re producing clean power, you need to look upstream at the manufacturing end of things and assess whether that is as clean as the end product.

On this measure, China does not score nearly so well. The country burns a staggering amount of coal to feed its industrial machine – nearly 50% of global supply and still growing. Coal-fired electricity generation is the most carbon-intensive of the lot, to say nothing of all the other noxious emissions from this technology – remember the images of the choking smog in Beijing leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics? Pollution in China is so bad that the government announced in December that it would spend US$56 billion to cut pollution in the countries major cities, according to professional advisor website Mondaq.

This must mean that if we want clean power, we would do well to steer clear of Chinese-made solar panels.

Right?

Right or wrong, it may soon be irrelevant.

China exports most of the panels it produces; 90% or so, according to GlobalData.  However, this state of affairs is changing. Chinese domestic demand is growing rapidly. It seems that government estimates are being revised upwards every time you turn around – a recent report in PV Magazine indicated that the state may be planning to double its previously published 2015 target of 21GW. That’s an incredible jump when you consider that only 2GW were installed in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available (not to mention the fact that the global install base only just reached 100GW). To hit a 40GW target, capacity will have to more than double every year.

If manufacturers in China will soon struggle to keep up with domestic demand, why would they bother continuing to invest in serving more costly and difficult export markets? Why indeed would the Ministry of Commerce do anything but discourage the sale of Chinese panels abroad? The days of cheap Chinese panels flooding Western markets and triggering trade disputes may be numbered. This is bad news for PV markets in Europe and the Americas, but good news for PV manufacturers in those regions.

It is also good news for the environment, be it the local smog level in Beijing or the worldwide atmospheric concentration of CO2. A domestic PV install base that is growing by leaps and bounds will hasten the day that new Chinese coal plants become an absurd economic proposition. Further down the road, it will even bring about a state of affairs where it is more expensive to continue operating existing coal-fired plants than to replace that capacity with yet more PV. Coal plants that close up shop, or are never built in the first place, are coal plants that won’t put a burden on Chinese lungs and global weather patterns.

Since many environmentalists see the People’s Republic as Public Enemy Number One, they should welcome the trend of massively growing domestic PV installations. If fewer cheap Chinese panels are available in the rest of the world, so be it. Most of those countries (consider Germany and Japan) are driven by an agenda to phase out nuclear power generation. If they install more PV, it won’t make nearly the impact on global carbon intensity. There is one place where PV modules will do the most to mitigate climate change, and that one place is China.

China’s domestic PV market will grow. Chinese PV manufacturers will shift focus from outward to inward. Competition in the PV market outside of China will ease. PV customers in the rest of the world will struggle to obtain Chinese-made modules. PV module prices will continue to decline, but not at the rate that they have in the past. More and more PV panels will appear in Chinese fields and on Chinese rooftops. Chinese coal plants will stop being built, and some will close.

And we will all breathe easier.

Brighter Tomorrow is back after an eight-month hiatus, during which I was busy adapting to a new job, a new home in a new community, a new wife, and a new baby on the way. Thank you for your patience, and I look forward to providing you with more insights into clean energy!

A license to print money?

On the way to equilibrium (Image posted on Flikr by avlxyz)

All things natural tend toward equilibrium. A hot room in your house will eventually find a middle ground of temperature with the cooler rooms – a state called thermal equilibrium. Water falling on highlands will drain through gradually growing watercourses until, ultimately, it reaches the sea – another form of equilibrium called base gravitational potential. When molecules organize to form a mouse, the mouse survives for a time, but eventually dies and decomposes, its once-organized molecules returning to their original chaotic state – in other words, the mouse has come to equilibrium.

As my first-year thermodynamics professor once pronounced with much gravitas, “Sooner or later, all of us come to equilibrium.”

This tendency exists in economics as well. If two products, identical in every meaningful respect, have different prices in different markets, natural forces will drive the prices together. Governments struggle against these forces with taxation policy. For example, as every Canadian smoker fed up with the high tax on cigarettes knows, cheap cigarettes can be found at the nearest First Nations territory. This puts pressure on the government to keep “sin taxes” to a reasonable level. If they do otherwise, retail establishments suffer and their owners vote against the ruling party.

Markets out of equilibrium can be a profitable prospect for enterprising souls. If you can buy the product where it is cheap, and sell it where it is expensive, you can pocket the difference. This is called an arbitrage opportunity.

There is an arbitrage opportunity in the market for electrons. Electricity generated in the middle of the day is worth a lot more – twice as much, on average, if you look at the last five years’ worth of data from Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) – than electricity generated in the middle of the night. Sometimes, the price of electricity drops below zero – the utility is paying its customers to take the electricity off its hands. This is because its base load is too inflexible to be throttled. One of many drawbacks of nuclear energy.

A keen-eyed arbitrageur will note that if a physicist were to examine a watt of electricity generated at midnight and a watt of electricity generated at noon, she would see no difference. Electrons are electrons. The only reason the price difference exists is because storing those electrons – or, more accurately, storing the energy that those electrons carry – is no easy task.

But it is by no means impossible. Numerous technologies exist to store energy. One that is familiar to all is the rechargeable battery. Mobile phones, cars, iPods, even solar garden lights all rely on the ability to convert electrical energy to chemical energy, where it can be stored for a time. Rechargeable batteries, along with pumped storage, compressed air, flywheels, and other technologies, allow energy to be stored.

The rub is that for every watt that is stored, somewhat less – for some technologies, substantially less – than a watt can be retrieved. Energy storage must forever toil under the tyranny of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Whenever energy is converted from one form to another, a little bit is lost forever as heat.

The trick is finding an energy storage technology with small enough losses – not to mention other costs of doing business, like financing, machinery maintenance and upkeep, executive salaries, corporate taxes, and so forth – that there is still money left over after buying electrons low and selling them high.

One business that is hoping to do just that is Hydrostor, with its underwater compressed air energy storage technology. The concept is simple. At night, when electricity rates are low, air is pumped into balloons sitting on the bottom of a water body – Lake Ontario just off the city of Toronto, say. This process produces heat, and heat is energy, so the system includes a way to store that heat in an insulated thermal reservoir. During the day, when electricity rates are high, air is released from the balloons and heat is liberated from the thermal reservoir, driving turbines that produce electricity.

In fact, if Hydrostor gets one of those nights when demand is so low that the utility is paying its customers to use electricity, they will make money twice – once when it stores the energy, and once when it spits it back out.

If your raw material is something that a supplier pays you to take off their hands, that’s a good business to be in.

Hydrostor claims their process is 70% efficient. If we go back to our IESO data set, that actually leaves Hydrostor with a pretty narrow window of profitability. If they only run the system for two hours a day – pumping air from 3AM to 4AM and then releasing it from 6PM to 7PM – they will have a gross margin of 57%. If they pump for the six cheapest hours and release for the six most expensive, their margin will drop to 36%. If they do 12 hours on and 12 hours off, the margin is a paltry nine percent. Hydrostor has an odd business model – the more they produce, the less money they make.

So they’re better off somewhere in the middle – probably the six hours in, six hours out option. 36% is still a healthy margin. More power to them, in my view. If the Ontario Power Authority and other agencies like it buy into the idea, investors will follow, and Hydrostor will have a winning ticket.

Arbitrage can be a money-spinner for a time, but it inevitably becomes the victim of its own success. As supply is drained from the cheap market, the price rises there. As cheap supply flows into the expensive market, the price drops there. Eventually the two prices will be driven together – or at least so close together that there ceases to be any profit in the arbitrage. The two markets have come to equilibrium.

For now, there are few enough players in the energy storage market that there is no danger that Hydrostor and its ilk will make a meaningful impact on the diurnal variation in the price of electricity. But technology will advance, more players will enter, and eventually – who knows when – a high-noon electron will cost almost the same as a midnight one.

Unnatural but unavoidable

Wind energy has become the favourite whipping boy in the renewable energy world. However, solar energy has its critics as well. Wind energy opponents are usually current or prospective neighbours of turbine installations. Solar energy naysayers are typically actual or would-be economists.

“Why should we invest in solar photovoltaic systems? They aren’t cost effective.” This is akin to asking, “What use are seeds? You can’t eat them.” No, solar PV is not cost-effective. Yet.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Solar PV is already a highly competitive option in cases where the solar resource is plentiful, or alternative power sources are expensive, or both. However, there are still relatively few situations where solar PV can compete against coal, natural gas, nuclear, or hydroelectricity without subsidies.

Why should we care? Subsidies cost the taxpayer (or, in the case of feed-in tariffs, the ratepayer). The cost cannot be justified unless it brings some benefit. So what benefit do solar subsidies provide?

First, it’s worthwhile examining what will happen in the absence of subsidy. Fossil fuel energy sources are limited to however much is stashed away in the earth’s crust. As time goes on, these sources are being depleted. That is why the price of oil and coal has been climbing inexorably. Occasionally a new technology such as hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) comes along which offers up a large amount of new supply, but such events only postpone the inevitable.

As traditional energy sources climb in price, there appear more and more marginal cases in which solar becomes a cheaper option, and the market for solar PV grows. As the market for solar increases, industry capacity increases to meet the demand. As production volumes increase, companies work their way up the learning curve and drive costs out of the process, bringing the price down. Since competing technologies are rising in price, it is an inevitable consequence that the price of solar will drop, and the market for solar will grow.

So what’s the problem? Why not leave well enough alone, and let the solar market evolve naturally?

One would do as well to ask, “Why should I leave the Titanic and get into your lifeboat? I’m not wet yet.” Yes, we’re not wet yet. But the ship is sinking, the water level is rising, and time is running out.

Fossil fuel combustion produces greenhouse gases, and greenhouse gases are altering the Earth’s climate. The damage is getting worse as time goes on, and many disastrous effects won’t even appear for many years yet. We do not have the luxury of waiting. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now.

There are two ways to accomplish this. The first is to continue burning fossil fuels, but reduce or eliminate the greenhouse gases they emit. The second is to stop burning fossil fuels, and deploy non-polluting energy sources to pick up the slack.

Option #1 can be accomplished through Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) technologies. However, such technologies won’t attract investment if there is no money to be made. Until carbon taxes or carbon cap-and-trade regimes are in place worldwide, there won’t be any market for CCS and the technology will continue to be a hammer looking for a nail.

Even if a CCS market springs up, it still won’t be enough. Too many fossil fuel applications don’t lend themselves to CCS, most notably automobiles. Converting the automobile fleet over first to hybrid technology and then to all-electric drives will be a mammoth undertaking requiring massive investment. It will also necessitate replacing the energy of gasoline and diesel fuel with yet more electricity.

If you run down the list of alternative energy technologies – wind, solar, geothermal, wave and tidal, biomass, whatever else is out there – and ask which of these is going to solve the energy crunch, the answer is “Yes”. None is a silver bullet. We will need all of them, including solar PV. And we will need them sooner than will be possible if market economics is the only thing driving the agenda.

Market interventions are a bad-news-good-news story. The bad news is that feed-in tariffs, renewable portfolio standards, carbon taxes, or other policy options – are a necessary evil if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. The good news is that these interventions don’t need to last forever. They are not a life sentence. It is helpful to think of them as being like raising a child rather than owning a car.

The car will cost you as long as you own it. Loan payments, repairs and maintenance, fuel, insurance – they never go away. Clean energy interventions are not like that. They do not last forever.

A child is utterly dependent when first born. A parent must commit to providing care 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365.25 days a year. But the level of care declines over time. First the child starts schooling. Years later they get their driver’s licence. Eventually the parent is lucky if they get a phone call once a week.

Renewable energy subsidies are the same. At the outset, they look like a significant commitment, although the miniscule size of the market and the industry ensures that the total cost is actually not that great. Over time, the market increases in size, but simultaneously the costs are driven down and the subsidy can be as well. Then the first major milestone is reached – retail grid parity, where the technology can provide energy at the point of use for the same cost per watt as the retail price. Finally, nirvana – wholesale grid parity, where the technology competes on the same level as any other source that is feeding energy into the grid. At that point, the subsidy has done its job and can be eliminated.

Renewable energy subsidies are costly, make no mistake. But leaving the clean energy market to evolve at its own natural pace will lead to planet-wide ecological catastrophe.

Life is hard, but it beats the alternative.

Treasure trapped

Short-term thinking is the bane of the energy world. It has been so since the early days of the oil business, and it remains so with today’s market for solar photovoltaic power generation. In the former case, oil producers were guilty of the flawed thinking. In the latter, it is the producers of public energy policy.

An oil reservoir is typically found in a permeable stratum sandwiched between two impermeable ones. As the oil is extracted, the pressure it exerts on the layer above is reduced. As a result, the overburden subsides.

At some locations in the reservoir, the stratum between the two impermeable layers may be quite thin. The subsidence phenomenon may be pronounced enough that the impermeable layers squeeze off the flow of oil at some points. Entire sections of the reservoir may be cut off in this way, leaving pockets of oil that are too small to merit a dedicated well, but large enough that their loss is painful to the producer.

There is a solution, literally and figuratively. The producer can inject water into the reservoir some distance from the well. The injected water displaces the oil, forcing it toward the extraction borehole. It can also provide enough pressure to keep the adjacent strata separated, preventing portions of the reservoir from being choked off. This is called secondary recovery.

There are a few of reasons why secondary recovery hasn’t always been used. For one, the methods were only developed in the 1930’s, so any oil extraction prior to that was possible only while the reservoir pressure remained above a certain critical level. Even after secondary extraction techniques were developed, some oil production companies simply did not bother to invest – once the well stopped producing, they simply moved on.

Here’s the rub. If they didn’t use secondary extraction during production, there is often no going back – the oil is trapped irreversibly. For each barrel of oil extracted, one to six barrels were left in the ground, forever out of reach.

In the movie Dances with Wolves, Lieutenant John Dunbar and his Cree friends come across a scene of heartbreaking carnage. Dozens of dead buffalo litter the prairie, killed by white hunters only for their hides, leaving the massive skinless carcasses to rot in the sun. The Cree are devastated at the horrific waste of their most precious food source.

Like the buffalo corpses, mismanaged oil wells are a grim monument to greed and short-term, get-rich-quick thinking. And history is repeating itself with the solar energy market.

In Ontario, a Feed-In Tariff (FIT) program implemented in 2009 has offered property owners the opportunity to generate their own electricity, feed it into the grid, and receive (at least until recently) lucrative compensation for it. However, built into the FIT program was the incentive to recreate the same waste as oil well mismanagement and wanton buffalo slaughter.

In this case, the resource is not oil nor buffalo, but rooftop space. The highest FIT rate was for rooftop solar photovoltaic generation projects. However, the rate dropped off dramatically once the installation exceeded a generation capacity of 10 kilowatts (kW). The rate structure was such that once the generation threshold was exceeded, the lower rate applies for the entire project.

Hence, the FIT program contained a built-in incentive to keep a project under the 10kW threshold.

The result is easy to see. All across the province are rooftop solar arrays which cover only a fraction of the available space. For example, the array on the roof of Dublin Street United Church in Guelph leaves a considerable margin of bare roof on all sides. The array as installed has a capacity just under 10kW.

Like the oil reservoir, once the array is built, the die is cast. Nobody is going to go back to a completed installation and make it bigger. The wasted space will remain wasted. Yet another resource is left to sit idle, unused, and unusable.

There is another way.

The perverse incentive to stop just short of 10kW could be removed if a blended rate were used. Until the program was frozen in October 2011 for a review, the top rate for rooftop PV was 80.2¢/kWh.  If the installation exceeded 10kW capacity, the rate dropped to 71.3¢/kWh. It would have been a simple matter to make the higher rate apply to the first 10kW of capacity, and the lower rate for capacity above that (at least until 250kW, the next rate break point).

It’s all a moot point now. As a result of the FIT review completed last month, the rate for rooftop solar will be slashed to 54.9¢/kWh for arrays up to 10kW, and 54.8¢/kWh for arrays from 10kW up to 100kW. A tenth of a cent is not going to affect decision-making very much. The days are over when FIT (well, to be terminologically correct, MicroFIT) projects would sneak in just under the 10kW limit to secure the higher rate.

In fact, the days of MicroFIT projects may be over altogether. It remains to be seen whether industry players can still turn a profit now that rates are nearly one-third less than they were.

In any case, there is a clear message to any jurisdiction that may be considering a FIT program: You have a valuable resource in rooftop space. If you don’t set up your rate structure correctly, you could be setting yourself up to waste an awful lot of that resource.

From buffalo, to oil, to solar rooftops – you’d think we’d learned. Clearly we haven’t yet.

Feeling the heat

A bad sunburn should be enough to teach a person respect for the closest star to our planet. Sitting on a black leather car seat on a sunny summer afternoon should do likewise, especially if you happen to be wearing shorts. Even better, try leaning against the hood of that same car on that same day. And who hasn’t felt the scalding hot water coming out of a backyard garden hose that’s been baking in the sun?

The sun delivers an incredible amount of heat every second that it’s in the sky. When directly overhead, it delivers 1000 watts to each square meter. That’s the same amount of energy your iron consumes when you press your clothes.

In spite of all that, solar hot water systems are a tough sell. Why is that?

Before we get into it, let’s recap what a solar hot water system is. First, the purpose. It may simply heat up your pool. It may supply domestic hot water to a home or business – for showers, washing dishes, and doing laundry. It may supply hot water for heating a building, for example by means of a radiant floor. It may even (and this, I’ll confess, is an application that causes me to geek out vigorously, although I won’t spend any time on it today) provide building cooling. Yes, using heat to make something cool. Wild.

Solar thermal water heating systems have a number of key elements. The first and most visible is the collector. This may be just a series of tiny capillaries made of black plastic, arranged in a long panel that looks like a mat. It may instead be a flat glass plate over manifold copper pipes, easily mistaken for a skylight. Or, it may be a set of evacuated tubes arranged side-by-side. The collector typically sits on a rooftop, although it may be on a rack built directly on the ground.

The second element is the working fluid, which circulates through the collector to carry away the heat to where it is used. This may be simply water, as is the case with solar pool heaters. However, water has a very narrow band between its freezing point and its boiling point. If a wider band is required, a different working fluid is needed. For example, in a region with cold winters and hot summers, a good choice is a 50-50 mix of water and propylene glycol. This mixture will only freeze at around -26°C (-25°F) and boil at 144°C (291°F).

Up next is the heat exchanger. In pool heaters, there typically isn’t one – the sun-heated water mixes directly with the rest of the pool water. For systems with a non-water working fluid (like the glycol mentioned above), in the heat exchanger the working fluid flows past one side of a flat metal plate, and the water flows past the other side. The glycol heats the plate, and the plate heats the water.

Finally, there is storage. Again, with pool heaters this element is absent. For other systems, the hot water tank is not much different from a typical water heater tank, except there is no electric element or gas burner at the bottom. The water circulates through the heat exchanger and back into the storage tank until it reaches the desired temperature.

In summary, the working fluid is heated up in the collector, it gives up its heat to the water in the heat exchanger, and the heated water is stored until it is needed.

All that is simple enough. So why are these systems so rare?

First, the sun suffers from Rodney Dangerfield Syndrome – it don’t get no respect. People just don’t seem to believe that a heater that uses sunshine could work, or work well enough to ensure, say, a suitably hot shower. This despite all the lessons we repeatedly learn about sunburns, hot car seats, hot car hoods, and hot water in garden hoses. The sun is plenty hot. It’s photosphere is 5500°C (9900°F), after all. Perhaps we take it for granted because it is such a familiar, everyday thing.

I had a personal and novel experience with the reality of sun-heated H2O this week. I was on the roof of a new retirement complex, doing the finishing touches on an eight-panel solar hot water system. We put some water through the array to flush out any debris and check for leaks. The leaks were easy enough to find, as there was steam – yes, steam – shooting out of them. The panels were hot enough from the mid-April Canadian sunshine to flash cold municipal water into steam. (We fixed the leaks and had the system up and running the next day.)

Second is the issue of timing. People think about when the sun is hottest – high noon – and compare that with when they most want hot water – for their shower first thing in the morning. What’s the good of hot water if it’s not hot when you need it? The answer is that the hot water stays hot for quite a bit longer than many would imagine. Anyone that’s used a double-walled, vacuum-insulated container like the ones made by Thermos will realize how well a properly-designed vessel can retain heat. One 100-gallon storage tank that my company installs is rated for a loss of 5°C (9°F) per 24 hours. To provide you with a hot (40°C, or 104°F) shower at 7AM, your system just needs to have heated the water to 42.5°C (109°F) when it calls it a day at 7PM the prior night.

That raises the third issue – reliability. The system may work just fine, but what if the sun doesn’t shine? A string of overcast days would make for a string of cold showers if your only source of hot water is sunshine. That is absolutely true, and that is why solar thermal hot water systems are rarely implemented without some form of backup, typically electrical.

The last issue, and the one that is the biggest barrier to wider adoption of solar thermal hot water systems, is economics. Four years ago, the price of natural gas was at an all-time high and people were looking very seriously at alternatives. Today, largely because hydraulic fracturing technology has offered up huge new reserves, the price of natural gas is one-seventh what it was. Solar thermal can only compete in areas without natural gas service, where electric water heaters are the only other option.

There’s only so much natural gas in the ground. Inevitably, the price will rise again. However, until that day comes, solar thermal hot water systems will be limited to applications where government subsidies are available, and locations where natural gas is not available.

But in those applications and locations, it is real, it works, and it is reliable.

And the fuel is and always will be free.

A chill wind from across the water

Neighbours? What neighbours?

A new US consortium. A year-old Canadian moratorium. On the Great Lakes, the wind is blowing in a completely different direction depending on which side of the border you find yourself. The US has the right idea. Canada does not.

What’s so special about offshore wind energy?

The first answer will be obvious to anyone that has worked offshore – principally oil and gas production facilities, or (as in my case) construction of the same. It’s a dangerous, alien, unforgiving environment. Blowing wind and crashing waves exert astounding forces on artificial structures. Ice, be it in the form of sheet ice, icebergs, or just build-up of ice on exposed surfaces, can make short work of insufficiently stouthearted designs. Salt water in particular is extremely harsh; there is an entire science dealing with protecting pipelines, pilings, and other (usually) steel construction elements from corrosion. So offshore wind energy facilities have to be much more robust – and are hence much more expensive – than their onshore brethren.

The second answer will be obvious to any sailor, especially the kind of sailor that worries about whether to hoist a sail or keep it furled. On open water, the wind blows with much more strength and with much more consistency than it does across land. Humans have taken full advantage of this fact for thousands of years, harnessing wind power to propel their vessels across lakes, seas, and oceans. If you’re in the business of converting wind power to electricity, offshore you’ll find a much higher capacity factor – meaning the amount of output that a given wind energy installation actually produces compared to what it is theoretically capable of producing.

The third answer will be obvious to anyone – there aren’t any people around. Onshore wind farms have evoked considerable controversy, as I discussed in my March 22nd post, Tilting at windmills. Most objections have come from people who don’t like the idea of having wind turbines located close to their homes. Needless to say, this is not an issue when the nearest homes are scarcely if at all visible across an expanse of open water. When you go far enough from land, even the birds become rare – if you can’t nest, if you can’t even land, you can’t live.

So although it costs more to get in the game, you can produce more power offshore, and you don’t have to worry about disturbing the neighbours. If the particular offshore location you’re considering is the Great Lakes, you have the added bonus that the environment is kinder and gentler than, say, the North Sea – fresh water rather than salt, meaning less corrosion; much more modest winds and waves; and a far less significant threat from ice. All without producing the greenhouse gases or radioactive waste that go with other key power generation technologies. What’s not to like?

Europeans have voted with their collective pocketbook. The European Wind Energy Association reported that at the end of 2011, there were a total of 1,371 offshore wind turbines in production spanning ten European countries, with a total generation capacity of 3,813 MW. That was up from 1,136 turbines in production one year prior. Those 235 new turbines represent an investment of €2.4 billion (US$3.1 billion).

The US has caught the offshore wind bug. On March 30th, President Barack Obama announced the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between five US states and several US federal government agencies, intended to encourage the development of more offshore wind energy projects on the Great Lakes. Proponents of the initiative expect that it will create jobs and increase energy security.

Ontario has the most ambitious green energy initiative out of all the Canadian provinces, promoting expansion of wind, solar, and biomass energy generation capacity through a Feed-In Tariff (FIT) program. In spite of that, in February of 2011 the Ontario government placed a moratorium on offshore wind development in the province. Since Ontario is the only province with any of the Great Lakes within its territory, its moratorium effectively freezes any offshore wind energy on fresh water in the entire country.

What is up with that?

There are two reasons – the first being the reason which the Ontario government presented to the public, and the second being the real reason. The reason then-Energy Minister Brad Duguid offered is that not enough is known about the effects on human health of wind turbines in fresh water. That, of course, is silly – you would do as well to fret over the effect of emperor penguins on human health, because they are as likely to come in contact with people as offshore wind turbines.

The real reason is as both a sop and a goad to the anti-wind lobby, principally Wind Concerns Ontario. The sop: Folks, we hear your concerns, so we’ll stop one aspect of wind energy development. The goad: There’s no reliable science behind any of the WCO concerns, but we acknowledge that there is a gap in our scientific understanding of offshore wind turbines standing in fresh water, so we’ll sit tight until that science is clear.

Apparently the Ontario government has no sense of urgency to get the question answered so that the moratorium might be lifted (or, indeed, made permanent). There was no follow-on announcement of a research program to assess the health impacts of wind turbines located offshore in fresh water bodies. No rush, right?

But now the pressure is on. The Americans have taken up the challenge of offshore wind energy development on the Great Lakes. They apparently do not share the Ontario government’s concerns about health impacts. They have a broad-based coalition with both state and federal support. Ontario will never have anything remotely similar as long as the current fossil-fuel-fixated federal Conservative government remains in power.

Ontario needs to reverse its stance on offshore wind, commissioning health studies if necessary, and then getting on with the job. Canada has within its grasp the opportunity to be the first to innovate with a promising new technology, to build a new industry, to create jobs, and to establish itself as a world leader. If nothing changes, Canada will be handing this opportunity to the United States on a silver platter, and it will be the Avro Arrow debacle all over again.

The real China Syndrome

Welcome <cough> to <cough> Beijing

Dark clouds are gathering in the east.

We depend on China for all manner of manufactured goods. Consumer electronics, cookware, children’s toys, and virtually any other item you can name – or purchase – all come with the familiar “Made in China” label. In 2009 the country overtook Japan to claim the #2 spot on the World Bank rankings for Gross Domestic Product (GDP), second only to the United States. And with an annual growth rate that has hovered around 10% for the last four years, it won’t be long before China tops the charts.

The energy it takes to keep all that industry running is astounding. In 2009 China used 2,257 Mtoe (million tonnes of oil equivalent), making it the world’s top energy consumer. The International Energy Agency estimates that in 25 years, China will consume 70% more energy than the United States.

Where will all that energy come from?

The answer is enough to any environmentalist blanch. The country’s 12th Five-Year Plan, encouragingly, calls for lower carbon intensity and more diversification of energy sources. Despite this, two of the most significant sources of energy that will drive Chinese growth are nuclear and coal.

A burgeoning Chinese nuclear energy sector should be unsettling news both within the country and without. The Chinese people will have to bear the high cost of nuclear power and the near-eternal commitment to safeguard radioactive waste. Likewise, they will have to accept the risk of nuclear disasters. There are more stakeholders beyond the country’s borders; nearby countries like Korea, India, and Japan will also have to live with the danger of a Fukushima-style catastrophe.

The effects of coal will reach even further. A 2007 MIT report stated that China was building new coal-fired generation facilities at a rate equal to two 500MW plants per week. Olympians surveyed with dismay the dirty Beijing skyline, as much a result of the country’s addiction to coal as it is the massively polluting two-cycle engines of countess mopeds and motorcycles. While particulates and acid precipitation from burning coal take their toll on the Chinese, the carbon dioxide will be felt across the globe as temperatures rise and weather patterns increase in chaotic intensity.

Were China a democracy, there is at least a chance that the people might demand change. North American democracies are hardly a model for decisive action against climate change, but Europe has taken a firm stand. Germany has become a leader in renewable energy technologies and has made huge strides towards reducing its dependence on fossil fuels. Denmark has done likewise. All this because the voters have demanded it. There is no such pressure on Beijing – politburo members are accountable neither to the international community nor to the Chinese citizenry.

The term “China Syndrome” is used to describe an extreme-case nuclear disaster. In this scenario, the core of a nuclear reactor melts down, burning through the containment vessel and the secondary containment building, and continues right through the earth’s crust. In a stroke of childish hyperbole, the radioactive mass eventually emerges on the other side of the planet – China.

A more modern version of the China Syndrome would be this. The authoritarian regime ruling the world’s most populous country is bent on acquiring wealth for its elite members (and perhaps, through economic trickle-down, the rest of the citizenry). It pursues this agenda in spite of international pressure to clean up its environmental act. It rationalizes that the developed nations had their turn at the messy carbon trough, so why can’t the up-and-coming economies? Resources are consumed and greenhouse gases are emitted at an eye-watering rate. Global CO2 levels rise relentlessly. The world rides an express elevator to complete ecological meltdown.

The original China Syndrome has never happened (Fukushima may be the exception). However, the modern China Syndrome is taking place at this very moment.

Can anything stop it?

The avenue of formal, binding, global, multilateral agreement has failed. The Kyoto Protocol offered some hope, but that evaporated last year at the Durban Climate Change Conference. The so-called Durban Platform amounts to nothing more than hitting the snooze bar until 2015. Few are optimistic that anything meaningful will be accomplished then either.

As I pointed out at the beginning of this post, China did not get to where it is by catering to the needs of its own population. Its growth has been, and continues to be, fuelled by exports. China consumes coal, but we consume the products that the coal creates. If we want to know the real culprit, we have only to look in the mirror.

Consumers in developed countries have demanded more and more for less and less. To retain market share, manufacturer after manufacturer has been forced to relocate operations to locations with the lowest cost. All that we have demanded is that the products we buy be cheap – we don’t give a tinker’s cuss about the environmental impact. Heck, we don’t even care much about the quality. Who cares if it breaks, if it’s so cheap that you can just buy another one?

The only way the China Syndrome can be stopped is if we change our mindset, and our purchasing patterns. Manufacturers provide us with crappy merchandise produced in an utterly unsustainable way for one simple reason – we haven’t demanded anything different. If we demand products that are manufactured in an environmentally responsible way, producers have no choice but to supply them.

The most innovative players will identify environmental responsibility as a differentiator. Such products will, at first, be able to command a premium. With time, competitors will get in on the act. Hopefully, before too long, sustainability will be table stakes – producers simply won’t be able to sell goods that were created in a way that depleted the earth.

The clock is ticking. China’s trade balance took a sharp dip into deficit recently, meaning that the value of imports exceeded that of exports. The domestic Chinese market is growing as more and more citizens reap the benefits of economic advancement, and the middle class becomes larger and larger. Soon, Chinese firms will be able to profit without exporting. And any leverage the outside world has over Chinese environmental direction will vanish.

We’ve got the power to avert the modern China Syndrome. But we won’t have it for long.

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?