Category Archives: Renewables

Posts about renewable forms of energy including solar, wind, geothermal, tidal, hydroelectric, and biomass

Meltwater and underused wind farms

Load balancing is one of the challenges associated with deploying renewable energy. Different energy sources like wind and sunlight are available to variable degrees at different times, and output might not correspond to energy demand. That is true both day-to-day and across the year. For instance, right now the dams in the Columbia river basin have an excessive amount of water due to melting snow and ice. As a result, output from wind farms is not needed and going unused:

BPA managers say near-flood conditions in the Columbia river—and strict laws protecting the river’s endangered salmon—give the agency no choice but to disconnect the windmills as it grapples with a large power surplus. Not making electricity is not an option on the river, the BPA argues, because only a limited amount of water can be kept out of turbines and spilled over federal dams. Too much spill dissolves too much nitrogen in the river, which can kill migrating salmon.

Dealing with the intermittence of energy output from renewable sources probably requires a suite of approaches: energy storage using pumped hydroelectric and multi-lagoon tidal facilities, management of demand to correspond to periods where renewable output is high, using different types of renewable energy to balance one another, linking different regional grids, and more.

Climate wave subsiding

The recent state of global environmental policy reminds me of a quote from Hunter S. Thompson (or from his most famous character, if you prefer). Talking about the drug-related movement he had been a part of, he says: “So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back”.

It seems that way a bit with climate policy. For a couple of years, it seemed like things were coming together. People agreed about the science (reason to worry), and they agreed about the policy (domestic price on carbon, international agreement on targets).

Now, it seems like the energy of the movement has been sapped, even though the moral and economic arguments are as strong as ever. Activists, journalists, scientists, politicians, and bureaucrats are still right to point to the danger of climate change, the costs of fossil fuels, and the opportunity to power the world renewably. Despite that, the focus of political attention has moved on and the public doesn’t care. Maybe we will need to wait for real catastrophes for that to change.

Or maybe activists need to go back to building that energy, as dispiriting as it has been to be knocked back by a bunch of coal-fired corporations and mega-libertarians. I hope we will rebuild the personal energy required to do that. We can slowly convince people that fossil fuels are not safe bets, that forests and other carbon sinks need to be protected, and that we need to find a new way to get our energy. At the moment, people may be distracted. They have definitely lost their focus on the environment. But people do ultimately care about passing on a decent world. In order to do that, we need to stay on top of the risk posed by climate change, since it threatens to transform everything.

Why care about 2100?

I know it sounds obscure and Klingon to say it, but protecting future generations from climate change is a matter of honour.

As far as scientists can tell, climate change is the most serious major threat facing people a couple of hundred years from now – worse than nuclear proliferation, worse than other environmental problems. If the icesheets really start melting, they will have major problems. How many times in history have dozens of major cities been moved?

At the same time, we have the technology now to stop climate change by abandoning fossil fuels over the span of a few decades. It will be expensive to do that, but it will bring other advantages. Fewer people will die from air pollution. We won’t need to import fuel from dangerous places or produce it in incredibly destructive ways like the oil sands.

It will probably use up a lot of land, but it seems possible that it can be made to work in a way that is fair for all of humanity, with everybody living in comfort.

We are lucky that we live in this generation – the one that will start to pay the cost of decarbonization. That is far preferable to being part of the generation when the actual warming of the planet peaks after all the lags kick in.

Zircaloy is a problem

Fuel rods in many types of nuclear reactors consist of pellets of fissile material (uranium and plutonium) sheathed in a metal alloy called zircaloy, made unsurprisingly from zirconium.

Zircaloy seems to be one of the major reasons why the Fukushima crisis is scary. When the earthquake happened, the reactors automatically inserted neutron-absorbing control rods to stop the nuclear chain reaction. This process is called a SCRAM. Despite this, the fuel rods are still producing heat because of other ongoing nuclear reactions (decay heat). This is what makes Zircaloy so worrisome, because when it gets heated up it can oxidize or burn exothermically, producing even more heat. That adds to the risk that fissile material will end up in the wider environment. It also adds to the risk that the nuclear fuel will melt, dribble down to the bottom of the reactor containment vessel, and re-form a critical mass.

That’s the really scary possibility, as far as reactors one, two, and three at Fukushima are concerned. If the fissile material in the fuel rods forms a critical mass again, it could melt through the bottom of the containment vessel. It could also trigger a large steam and/or hydrogen explosion that could spread radiation further.

There are other risks with Zircaloy. When hot, it oxidizes in the presence of water, stripping oxygen from water molecules and producing explosive hydrogen. Zircaloy is also what makes spent storage pools so scary. If they lose cooling, the rods can heat up, burn, and release large amounts of radiation into the environment. Cooling ponds are not placed inside containment vessels in the same way reactor cores are.

So, what seem to be possible lessons learned here?

1) If it is possible to find something better than Zircaloy, we should. It needs to have a low neutron cross-section, so that neutrons from different fuel rods can induce fission in one another. At the same time, it would be really nice if it would not oxidize exothermically, generate hydrogen in the presence of water, or burn.

2) Perhaps spent fuel cooling ponds should be inside containment structures.

3) Perhaps containment pools should be embedded in solid rock, not perched atop buildings.

It’s possible there is no material that satisfies (1) and it is possible that (2) would make nuclear reactors impractically expensive. If so, perhaps the appropriate option is to pull back from nuclear power as an energy source and concentrate on reducing total energy demand, while deploying renewable forms of energy.

Expensive oil in a weak global economy

Despite ongoing global economic weakness, oil prices are back over $100 per barrel, driven partly by concern about unrest in the Middle East.

People condemn renewable forms of energy for being expensive and unreliable. Increasingly, the same is true of fossil fuels. In addition, fossil fuel reserves are inevitably dwindling. As oil, gas, and coal become harder to come by, they will become more costly and more unreliable in supply. By contrast, as renewable forms of energy are further developed and deployed, they will become cheaper and more reliable.

So, which is the smarter bet for the global economy in the long run?

‘Ethical oil’

Ezra Levant has introduced a powerful new soundbite into Canadian politics – the idea that fuels derived from the oil sands are ‘ethical oil’ because the people who profit from them are less objectionable than the government of Venezuela or the regimes of the Middle East.

As I mentioned in a letter to Canada’s new environment minister, there is some validity to this argument. I would rather the profits from the fuel I use go to the government of Alberta than to the House of Saud. That being said, the idea that fuels from the oil sands are ‘ethical’ when taken all in all is simply indefensible. Indeed, that idea seems to be reflective of a problematic perspective on the environment that has become very widespread: the tendency to accept the fact that something is better than its alternatives in a single narrow way as an overall endorsement of that thing. Increasingly – and especially when used by government and businesses – the words ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ simply mean ‘better than the worst thing in the world’.

Another defence of ‘ethical oil’ runs along similar lines. Advocates argue that producing it is only a little bit worse than producing conventional oil, from an environmental perspective. I will leave aside for now the question of whether that is true or not. Even if it is true, however, exploiting the oil sands remains horribly dangerous for humanity. This is because the amount of climate change the planet experiences depends fundamentally on the total quantity of fossil fuels we burn, and what quantity we choose to leave unused and underground. Burning up the oil sands isn’t something humanity is doing as an alternative to burning conventional oil. Rather, it is something we are doing in addition to burning conventional oil. That means oil sands exploitation inescapably increases the total quantity of greenhouse gas pollution humanity will produce and, by extension, just how dangerously we will alter the climate.

The world’s scientists and politicians have basically agreed that if we warm the planet to more than 2°C above where it was prior to the Industrial Revolution, we will be endangering humanity. Avoiding that level of increase will be very hard. If we were to just keep emitting greenhouse gas pollution at the same rate as we are today, we would almost certainly cross the 2°C threshold well before 2100, with more warming afterward. If we want to avoid dangerous climate change, we need to dramatically reduce global pollution by choosing to leave more and more fossil fuels underground. Exploiting the oil sands is the very opposite of the strategy we need to follow.

When we burn fossil fuels, we knowingly and intentionally impose harm on future generations. Sufficiently severe climate change would threaten the ability of nations to hold together, drown important cities, destabilize agriculture, and cause enormous suffering. All of those outcomes are made much more likely through the exploitation of the oil sands, as well as the more general exploitation of unconventional oil and gas reserves. Because of that, the oil sands do not produce ‘ethical oil’. Rather than digging up those fuels and extending North America’s fossil fuel addiction, we should leave them buried and invest our knowledge, abilities, and resources in the development and deployment of truly ethical energy sources like wind, solar power, and geothermal energy.

The Ultimate Roller Coaster Ride: An Abbreviated History of Fossil Fuels

This video is rather quick, and might be overwhelming to those not already somewhat familiar with the history being described. Still, it does a remarkable job of relating the history of fossil fuels in five minutes:

Readers may not agree with all of the arguments – some are certainly debatable – but it seems like a good way of pressing people to think about some of the ways fossil fuels have influenced history, and about some of the interconnected issues of today.

The video was produced by the post carbon institute. The organization has written material that expands on the video: The Post Carbon Reader – Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises. They have some pretty high-profile fellows: Bill McKibben and William Rees among them.

Canada’s petro-currency

Canadian Economist Jeff Rubin (whose recent book I reviewed) argues that exploiting the oil sands drives up the value of the Canadian dollar, hurting exporters of other goods and services:

At triple-digit prices, the oil sands will produce three to four million barrels per day. In turn, the tandem of soaring oil prices and soaring oil production will propel the Canadian dollar to heights it’s never seen.

A soaring currency may bring long-lost NHL franchises back to Winnipeg, Quebec City and maybe even Hamilton from Dixie and the desert, but that’s about all the Canadian economy can expect from its major trading partner. Other than Canadian bitumen exports, American consumers won’t be buying much from their northern neighbor.

Quite possibly, this is another way in which Alberta’s economic interest is increasingly at odds with that of the rest of the world. As it becomes clearer that for the population in general, fossil fuels are a harmful and extremely dangerous addiction, places with economies dominated by their production and export will find themselves increasingly isolated from the rest of humanity, as far as their short- to medium-term economic interests go.

The oil and gas industry represents a massive investment of financial and intellectual resources. Given that it is ultimately an industry with no future, it makes sense for Canada and its provinces to consider applying those resources to the real problems of the future: how to reduce energy demand while simultaneously deploying more zero-carbon energy capacity, until all of our needs can be met in a carbon-neutral way.

Firms don’t like the free market

While companies often pretend to view the free market as their preferred economic arrangement, that’s not really the way of things. Like most people, they would rather have things skewed to their advantage and they will press government to try to achieve that. After all, would you prefer?

  • To compete with other firms that are working on putting out products that are better than yours and cost less
  • To have the government pass a long requiring consumers to buy more of your product every year, ideally at prices that are mandated to increase

That utopia is what biofuel producers have achieved for themselves, in the form of mandatory volumes for renewable fuel production and purchasing. For example, the 2005 U.S. Energy Policy Act mandated that 7.5 billion gallons of biofuel be produced by 2012, regardless of the cost. It is also what mandatory levels of construction of renewables like wind and solar give to firms.

In the first case, that is deeply inappropriate given that today’s biofuels don’t help with climate change and tomorrow’s may never exist. In the second case, the mandate is actually quite defensible. For economic reasons, we need to boost the volume of renewable capacity installed, since that is what will drive technological advancement and the development of economies of scale. Politically, we need to produce a group of companies that are invested in renewable options and which deliver jobs, tax revenue, and votes.

For firms, the free market is a consolation prize. If I can’t get special treatment, at least I can try to stop my competitors from getting it. Something like that dynamic eventually needs to emerge for climate change. It is unfair and probably ecologically disastrous to give away the right to pollute to big firms that have been doing so heavily so far. Instead, we need to establish common rules for everyone, like an economy-wide price on carbon. Realistically speaking, we also need to work towards a situation where the inevitable political favours that will be granted will be given to firms that are actually doing things that will help us avoid global climate calamity – not those that are doing all they can to hasten it.

Stephen Harper on low carbon technology

In an ironic statement, Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently said that: “Ultimately, a transition to alternative fuels is inevitable and I’m convinced that the way to handle it is to develop new technologies in an orderly way, not in a crisis.”

I agree. The transition is inevitable and there is every reason to start soon and work with ever-increasing seriousness to move beyond fossil fuels.

The irony in Harper’s statement, of course, is that what he proposes is the opposite of what Canada’s government is doing. Canada has never had an effective federal climate change policy. As such, there is nothing driving the gradual development and deployment of low-carbon technologies. Rather, Canada’s government is doing everything it can to protect fossil fuel industries and promote the expansion of the oil sands.

Unless humanity sharply curbs its emissions of greenhouse gases, climate change will eventually be an obvious crisis all around the world. It would be at that point – after years of inaction and delay – that moving to new technologies would need to be done “in a crisis” rather than in the orderly way that is possible if we start now.