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.

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The Bear, the Volt, and the Saint Bernard

The bears have it figured out.

Their diet consists of berries, shoots, grasses, honey, squirrels, salmon, and the odd unfortunate hiker. Though these foods are plentiful in the warmer months, they become scarce to non-existent in winter. But bears don’t starve when the snow falls. In late summer and fall they gorge themselves, storing up reserves of fat, and then settle down in a convenient den to sleep away the lean wintertime.

Like bear food, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are not available all the time. Sometimes the wind does not blow. Sometimes the sun does not shine. Like bears, we can adjust our electricity consumption to match when it is available, but only up to a point. We need to power our hospitals, public transit, roadway lighting, and innumerable other non-negotiables.

For now, this isn’t a problem. Wind and solar are merely the garnish on the edge of our collective energy plate. The mainstays of our energy diet are hydroelectric dams, nuclear reactors, and thermal plants which produce electricity by burning fossil fuels.

However, this is a passing state of affairs. Most significant sources of hydropower have already been tapped. Nuclear is prone to massive construction cost overruns and rare but catastrophic accidents, and carries a near-perpetual liability of radioactive waste storage. Fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – grow more expensive and scarce, and will inevitably price themselves out of the market. More troubling is the local acid rain and global climate change that they cause.

Sooner or later, all of our energy will have to be renewable. If we are to avoid massive collapse of world ecosystems under the weight of runaway global warming, it had best be sooner rather than later. But before that can happen, we will have to smooth over the difference between the pattern of generation and the pattern of consumption. That means finding methods to store energy on a huge scale.

What are we going to do, build a massive rechargeable battery?

No. But we are going to build a whole bunch of little ones.

Some of these rechargeable batteries won’t be so little. Pumped storage, like the 400MW facility proposed in Marmora, Ontario, uses cheap off-peak electricity (picture wind turbines spinning madly on blustery nights) to pump water into an elevated reservoir. Then, when rates are high, the water is allowed to flow back down into a lower reservoir, turning turbines and generating – well, re-generating – electricity.

The other rechargeable batteries are actually the solution to two problems. Nearly every mode of transportation – be it the plane, the train, or the automobile – relies on combustion of fossil fuels. But like fossil fuels, the internal combustion engine’s days are numbered. The transition to post-gasoline transportation began in 1997, with the advent of Toyota’s hybrid gas-electric Prius, and continues today with the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt and its brethren.

Eventually internal combustion engines will go the way of the electric typewriter, electric cars will reign supreme, and a sizeable rechargeable battery will be parked in every driveway. These will charge up at night, when both electricity demand and electricity rates are low. When the sun rides high, and electricity rates do likewise, and the car is just sitting in a parking lot anyway, some of that stored energy will be fed back into the grid. And the owner will get credit for it.

That brings us to the third column holding up the temple of the new energy economy.

The price we pay for electricity is like a fixed-rate mortgage. We know exactly how much our payment will be each month. It’s predictable. It’s easy to understand. And, in the long run, it’s also a lot more costly than a variable-rate mortgage.

Our electricity prices are fixed through government regulation. The electricity utility has to deal with a spot price that moves all over the place in response to the laws of supply and demand. However, we as consumers never see that. We are insulated from the harsh reality of fluctuating electricity costs. We are protected. And, just like with a fixed-rate mortgage, that protection comes at a cost.

Early in the previous decade, various jurisdictions flirted with the idea of removing this protection. Let the price that consumers pay reflect the cost to the utility, and people will make sensible economic decisions about such things as when to run their air conditioner, dishwasher, and clothes dryer. Ultimately that should drive costs down, right?

The problem was that it was a case of too much, too soon. Consumers were not used to adjusting their electricity usage to reflect the spot price, and they were not given time to adapt. Their appliances did not offer automation to make this adaptation any easier. And the mechanism to supply price information to customers was also flawed.

Our electricity grid is like a Saint Bernard – big, dumb, and not agile in the slightest. It can cope with a small number of high-output generating stations, but not with a huge number of tiny ones. It is ill-equipped to power a panoply of high-tech devices that react badly to random voltage fluctuations – fluctuations that were inconsequential at the time that the grid was designed and built, when people were only plugging in such comparatively insensitive devices as electric lights and toasters. It can figure out how much electricity each customer uses, but not – at least until recently – when that electricity was consumed. And it cannot cope with the meter running backwards, which is what will happen when rooftop solar panels and electric car batteries are feeding power back into a needy grid.

The technology now exists to match up supply and demand in real-time. It allows for appliances to become smarter about when they start up and shut down, avoiding peak usage periods. It allows for electricity to be generated everywhere, instead of solely in massive centralized plants. It allows metering of electricity being fed in as well as being drawn out. And it allows one part of the grid to isolate itself from another during a fault, preventing massive cascading system failures like the Northeast blackout of 2003. These technologies are referred to collectively as the smart microgrid.

Renewable energy, electric vehicles, and the smart microgrid are the three key technologies that will deliver us from the dead-end energy world of today into the living, breathing, and clean energy world of tomorrow. But technology is only part of the solution. Next week I’ll discuss the people and political side.