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.

Power to the people

Something very exciting is happening. Something that was once discussed only by highly trained experts is now the talk of ordinary people. Something that was once the exclusive preserve of huge corporations is now within the reach of small business and middle-class individuals. Something that everyone once had to buy, they can now make for themselves.

It’s like the advent of democracy all over again. But it’s not political power moving into the hands of the citizenry. It’s electrical power.

All across Ontario, people are discovering that electrical power can be like vegetables. With a bit of effort, investment, and TLC, you can grow your own – a few solar panels can bring your net electricity bill down to zero, or even earn you a few extra shekels. And like homegrown veggies, homegrown power encourages people to take a fresh look at the commercial alternative. Is it produced in a way that doesn’t harm people or the ecosystems on which people depend? Is the supply as reliable as it could be? Is the price fair?

People are learning that the answers to these questions are no, no, and no.

Most of our energy comes from fossil fuels or nuclear power, which present a host of threats to our environment and our society. The link from fossil fuels to global climate change is well established. Our economy’s dependence on often hostile and frequently unstable petro-dictatorships presents a threat to national security. Nuclear power plant construction projects suffer from chronic cost overruns as high as 250%. Nuclear accidents have poisoned crops and public opinion, and the problem of how to store and protect nuclear waste for tens of thousands of years remains unsolved.

Solar energy, on the other hand, is comparatively benign. Photovoltaics are manufactured using traditional energy, with all its warts. However, a day will come when solar panel manufacture is also solar panel powered.

Our electricity grid has remained largely unchanged since it was built fifty years ago. Back then it didn’t matter if the power went out for a second or two. Nowadays, a tiny outage like that can cause untold damage to computer systems, and can result in the loss of vast amounts of precious data. The unreliability of the grid led to the creation of an entire sub-industry, producing a product called an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS). No server room worthy of the name would be without one. But why do electricity customers accept the fact that a UPS is a must? Why do they not demand twenty-first century reliability from their local utility?

Solar power, coupled with local energy storage (for when the sun isn’t shining, or isn’t shining enough) as well as advanced fault-tolerant electricity supply management devices, will help mitigate the reliability problem. Some industry commentators and researchers point to electric cars as the ideal energy storage device. You won’t have to pay for a UPS when sitting in your driveway (or company parking lot) is all the necessary capacity to handle a temporary dip in supply. And you won’t have to worry about the wires going dead when you can isolate yourself from the fault by temporarily establishing your own “microgrid”. Bob Galvin, former CEO of Motorola, has extolled the virtues of such a system in his book Perfect Power, and continues to promulgate the idea through his Galvin Electricity Initiative.

Then there’s the price. Historically, utilities were rewarded for building more and more generation capacity just to meet peak demand. Many of the power plants would only be brought online during peak times; they would sit idle (or nearly so) the rest of the time. The price you pay would reflect the cost of all those plants, whether they were running or not. Even more nonsensical, if the plant cannot be throttled back during slack times – as is the case with nuclear plants – the utility actually pays customers to use up all the excess power.

Today, at least, the utilities have woken up to the fact that with proper price signals, people can be encouraged to make more economical decisions about electricity use. Hence, time-of-use pricing and smart meters. Instead of having to invest in more power plants, the utility just has to shift usage from peak to off-peak times. Solar energy generation goes hand-in-hand with time-of-use. Solar panels generate the most electricity at high noon – the exact time when demand is highest.

With Ontario’s Green Energy Act, anyone can get into the solar game. If you have a roof, you can buy a solar array and start generating electricity. If you don’t, you can buy stock in a company like Canadian Solar Inc. that produces the panels, or buy a share in an organization like the Hall’s Pond Solar Cooperative. It’s even more democratic than voting – you don’t even have to be of the age of majority to get in on it.

Solar energy is already helping to cultivate a new breed of informed electricity consumer. Such consumers will demand that their electricity utility deliver a service with a level of quality appropriate to the twenty-first century. They will demand that their energy expenditures stop funding hostile regimes and environmental degradation. They will demand the ability to influence their own electricity bills by adjusting their usage to reflect the cost.

Solar energy is helping to bring about an era where electricity is clean, reliable, and fairly priced. And produced not solely by a remote, hidebound, and unresponsive corporation, but rather by people like you and me.