Energy Puzzle – The Missing Piece

I just saw Dr David Suzuki on TV claiming that we should build no pipelines – and get off fossil fuel.  I remember him well, when I was a student.  He was a well-respected expert professor in genetics at the University of BC in Vancouver and he was best known for his work with “fruit flies.”  As an engineering student, we all used to crowd into his final lecture each term and listen to him talking on a subject that he really knew well – the risks of “genetics engineering,” and the problems that it could lead to.  It was always spell binding.

Over the years Suzuki now seems to be viewed as an expert on energy, and yet, the papers claim he owns large houses, and drives an SUV.

We have real problems with climate, fossil fuels, and carbon emissions, but one needs to look carefully at what we face:

  1. The biggest sources of emissions in the US are the generation of electricity from coal, and the transportation industry (60% of which is for personal transportation). These two sources are responsible for more than 2/3 of the total emissions.  Canada is only slightly better, in that our electric system generates almost 60% of total energy with hydro and nuclear is a large contributor to clean electricity as well.  Our petroleum industry ranks second, behind transportation.
  2. Electricity provides less than 20% of total energy, the remainder is almost all fossil fuel. The average person gets fuel in three forms; electricity, natural gas, and transportation fuel (gasoline or diesel fuel).  Any major reduction in the direct delivery of fossil fuel will be expected to be replaced with electricity – and that may be a big challenge, given the fact that the electric grid at present delivers only about 20% of the total energy.
  3. Many people seem to think that if they can convert their current electricity use to solar energy, that the problem will be solved, but they tend to forget about heating and transportation fuel. In most cases, the fossil fuel energy is far larger than the electrical energy delivered.
  4. I keep hearing that the problem is someone else’s fault – Blame India, China, the oil industry or the government. We all need to look in the mirror – and see the big users.  North Americans are among the largest users of energy per capita in the world.  As “Pogo” would have said ”We have seen the enemy and it is us!”

There are two areas to look at; the supply of energy, and the use of energy.

Perhaps it is time for some real rational thought and a list of priorities, NOT aimed at eliminating fossil fuel in the short term but going for the “low hanging fruit” and hit emissions where they are worst.  We need some fast progress on items that can have an immediate impact.

The generation of electricity from coal is a great example.  Coal fired generating plants are about 30% efficient, largely because of the Rankine Cycle that they use to operate.  But coal also produces double the emissions that the same energy from natural gas would do.  Technology to use natural gas to generate electricity at much higher efficiencies exists.  A combined heat and power system (burns gas and delivers electricity, heating and cooling) may be more than 85% efficient – potentially reducing emissions by almost 90% if it is located in an urban area where the heating and cooling are used, and delivery losses are minimal.

Solar and wind are widely perceived as the perfect solution, but there are integration and intermittency issues that must be addressed.  California has found that it must keep conventional generation running to address needs after sunset.  Solar generation during the daytime, when demand is low, is causing a challenge.  California is apparently PAYING other utilities that have capability for storage or more flexible generation, to TAKE their surplus, only to buy it back a few hours later after sunset when needed.  Ontario, where a large program for wind was established by government, now has a Surplus Baseload Generation issue, where they have been heavily restricted on where and for how much it can be sold.  The result, some of the surplus is discharged as steam into condensers at a nuclear plant and discharged into Lake Huron. This is called a “nuclear maneuver” and candidly, the utility seems to have no alternative – this has been decreed by the politicians.

So, we are being driven by people like Dr Suzuki to eliminate all sources, and that will solve the problem. He forgets that this will do little to the demand and may well result in higher taxes and  higher energy prices for energy as it becomes scarce.  Our major sources could become offshore countries with little environmental protection.  The demand needs to be addressed immediately.

There is some good news that is taking place. The British Columbia Government has implemented a ” Step Code” for new construction.  All new buildings will be much more efficient than old buildings.  But that is a slow process because the turnover of buildings may take many decades.

Demand is another issue.  I drive by our car dealerships each day and I see nothing but big huge trucks. We need to have a good look in the mirror and start making some lifestyle changes.

On a structured basis, I see several needs:

  1. Eliminate or reduce coal use – and if needed, use high efficiency natural gas for heating.
  2. Take steps yourself to reduce energy use. There are lots of opportunities:
    1. Insulate your home well – there are almost always some things that may make a big difference – get rid of the old lights and replace them with LED lights… install an HRV (Heat Recovery Ventilator), use curtains or blinds to contain heat at night etc. Install a heat pump – the current electric rate structure mandated by government makes heat pumps uneconomic, but that will have to change.  I have a dual system – heat pump/high efficiency natural gas.
    2. Get rid of the truck or SUV and drive the smallest car you can justify. We used to have 3 cars and now have only one EV which we have had for more than one year.  In that time, we have driven 20,000 km, and the car has been in for service once – to change the tires (winter tires) and upgrade the software – maintenance is almost zero and fuel costs are about 1/5 of what I paid for gasoline.  In addition, many chargers are free.  The parking lot across from our favourite restaurant is equipped with 2 free chargers.  We get the equivalent of $10 in gasoline for free, while we enjoy the best Italian meal in town.
  3. Do not participate in opposition to natural gas exports. Much of this is destined to replace coal, and that is a very positive move.  It also helps to keep our taxes down.  Know the facts before standing up against anything.
  4. Be prepared to listen to real experts on energy. There are plenty around that really understand the options ahead and are not fixated on stopping all projects as Dr Suzuki attempts to do.

We need to move quickly to cleaner energy – this means a transition – not a step change.  It would be nice to survive this change, and not be bankrupted by heavy taxes and higher cost energy when demand is essentially left untouched.

Everyone seems to like to blame the oil companies and the electric utilities for the problems.  These are the people that deliver the energy.  WE are the ones that use it.  Some of the utilities and oil companies have innovative progressive initiatives. Here are a few examples:

  1. Shell has tied executive salaries to emissions – both inside their company and by the users of their products.
  2. Our local utility FortisBC has funded an Energy Chair at the local university and is looking at using surplus electricity (that others sell at negative prices) to make hydrogen.
  3. Portland GE has implemented systems that control demand – with a very large number of behind the meter loads – this reduces peaker starts, reduces emissions, and reduces system losses.
  4. Tesla, with their EVs and batteries have driven the sales of EVs far above most expectations and have brought the cost of batteries down to the point that they may be very cost effective in grid applications. They are involved in a large project, that my company is also working on, to provide similar savings, emission reductions, losses, and integration of intermittent generation.

And what are the users (That is US) doing?  For the most part, we are protesting, complaining, and blaming others for the problems ahead.  Dr Suzuki is probably one of the best examples. He is a smart man in genetics, but he lives an energy intense life and blames others.

We need a little change of attitude here! (In my humble opinion).

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