Climate Change – and Energy – A Canadian Perspective

I have heard some very bold statements recently.  We suddenly seem to have a lot of climate experts with all sorts of strong advice.

  • The mayor of Whistler found himself in trouble recently, when he wrote to an energy company, essentially laying much blame for our climate issues at the feet of the Canadian Oil companies. I now note that a collection of mayors is trying to put together a class action lawsuit against these same companies.
  • In the last few days, a paper published in LinkedIn suggested that we would soon see a lot of people going “off grid.”

These comments come from people that have best intentions, and in fact, this shows that there is a rapidly growing commitment to address the energy/emission situation.  I share some of the views and congratulate people with some authority that want to act, and not just talk.  But we need care.

Perhaps it is also a good time to have a look at some of the common assumptions for needed change and dig into what they might achieve.  Then take a separate look at what the sources of problems are – and compare the two, to see if we are getting value.

There is an interesting source of data on the Government of Canada website that gives a summary of energy sources and uses in Canada.  Fig 1

First, what are our major sources of emissions in Canada. Figure 1 shows that industry is our largest source of emissions, but close behind is our transportation system.  Between the two areas, they are responsible for more than 2/3 of total emissions.

Oil and Gas Industries

There is no doubt that our oil and gas industries are significant contributors to this total, but perhaps it is useful to look at the progress that has been made in recent years. Fig 2Figure 2 shows a significant improvement in the oil sands production efficiency, and in fact, oil sands products now are cleaner than some of the foreign products that we seem happy to import. Fig 3Figure 3 shows a comparison of the emissions created in the preparation and delivery of petroleum from a number of sources, and it is pretty clear that oil sands oil is not as bad as many wanted to believe.

The second source of significant emissions is transportation and almost 60% of total emissions here are from the use of personal vehicles. Fig 4Figure 4 shows the use of transportation fuels and the related emissions.  It is interesting to note that passenger car emissions have fallen only slightly, while passenger light trucks have grown by more than the car emissions have decreased – the total has been increasing slowly but steadily.

Overall, it appears that industry has been investing in methods of reducing emissions and improving their overall efficiency, but the private vehicle owners have made little if any progress. Perhaps this is a significant driver for the implementation of a carbon tax.

 Electricity

The NRCAN website shows that 81% of the energy sources used to generate electricity are carbon free.  Our electric supply is relatively clean, and in fact is far better than the US, that still generates more than half of their electricity with fossil fuel.  In some provinces, the electricity is almost all emission free (BC, Manitoba, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador), while in Alberta and Saskatchewan, aggressive programs are in place to reduce emissions, either by displacing coal with gas, or using carbon capture technology.  (Fig. 5) Fig 5

 

Summary

It appears that there is significant progress being made to reduce emissions by industry sectors while the demand side seems to have achieved little and is happy to assign blame to others.

What am I seeing?

I am seeing a large amount of interest in building new homes that are “net zero” energy.  This may be a very good initiative. I also hear about people wanting to go “off grid.” There are some important issues in personal energy use as follows:

  1. Electricity provides less than about ¼ of total energy, and in more than half of the country, the electricity is already carbon free. Why are we pushing solar – simply to displace existing hydro or other clean source of energy?  Would we not be better off to try to spend the same amount to reduce real emissions?
  2. The concept of using solar to go off grid is another interesting objective. I did a study on my own home in the Okanagan valley.  Displacing the supply of electricity that I use, not including the heat for the house and fuel for the car might be quite easy.  But it would accomplish relatively little.  In my home, more than 75% of my annual consumption (We have one car only, and it is electric.) occurs between mid November and early March.  At the same time, the more than 70% of our incident solar energy here comes between April and September.  I would need a good battery to carry me through the winter.  In fact, to be self sufficient, I would need a 5 MWh battery, which at 2025 estimated prices (less than half of today’s prices) would cost US$500,000.
  3. As I drive through our town, I pass by the Automobile Dealers – and their lots are filled with trucks; big trucks. While I have no issue with the use of trucks where they are needed, why do they seem to have become the vehicle of choice for many people that have no need for a truck?

I attended a solar energy conference a while ago and I drove my Plug in Hybrid that I had at the time, thinking that I would charge the battery in one of several spots at the college that were equipped with chargers, and were reserved for electric cars.  To my amazement, all of the spots were taken by – you guessed it – big trucks.

I went inside and listened to people that condemned the oil companies, electric utilities, the government and praised conservation, solar and wind energy.

The hypocrisy does not stop with individuals that drive big trucks!  Governments are also just as bad, or perhaps worse.

The BC Government, with best intentions, required the utilities to implement a 2-tier electricity rate. The first block of energy (about 6-700 kWh/month) were delivered at a low cost, and after that, the price almost doubled.  This was supposed to encourage conservation.  But what it also did, was to make the use of heat pumps, the cleanest and most efficient form of heating, unfeasible.  The city of Vancouver later announced that there would soon be no fossil fuel used in the city, including for heat. Heat pumps would become the primary heating system.

Some US states pushed solar energy, and the result has been impressive.  Many people installed rooftop solar, expecting to sell their surplus to the grid operator.  That has delivered a consequence that was probably not expected but should have been expected.  The solar generation peaks in the afternoon, when power demand is relatively low, and in some cases, the local utility has paid homeowners for their surplus energy, only to have to pay another utility to take the energy because they cannot use it at the time.  But after sunset, they are out looking to buy the same energy back that they paid to have taken away a few hours earlier.  Sounds crazy, but this happens frequently.  The bad news for the utility is the fact that their overall energy sales are declining, but the peak demand after dark is continuing to increase, and that results in a need to expand. But with declining revenues, increased rates are required. Essentially, the solar owners are being subsidized by people that do not have solar.

What Needs to be Done?

I have spent too much time complaining about what is happening – so what needs to be done?  There are all of the usual suspects that you hear from everyone, but I would suggest…

  1. Stop blaming everyone else; India, China, Government, Oil companies etc.
  2. Find a way to work together. At present it seems that many solar owners hate the utilities and vice versa – find a way to work together.  The concept of going off grid is not likely to work in any area that has winter.  The users and utilities need to be partners, and there are many opportunities coming.  In Australia, one utility has supported home solar systems – with battery storage, and they owners allow the utility to manage their storage.  Everyone wins.
  3. Look for the big sources of emissions and focus on them. In Canada, the use of petroleum liquids is likely the biggest source that most of us use.  Natural gas happens to be a fuel that has half the emissions of coal, and while coal fired generation runs at about 30% efficient, gas can be used at up to 80-90%.  Find some quick means to stop burning coal, and replace it if necessary, with a high efficiency natural gas substitute.
  4. Be prepared to pay for pollution. The carbon tax in BC was initially unpopular, but the complaints seem to have disappeared and BC has good growth in jobs.  The tax revenue needs to be spent directly on other methods of reducing emissions, as was the original intent.
  5. And finally, for those mayors thinking of a suit against the oil companies, consider the fact that owners are responsible for their own pollution – you may well find yourself explaining to a judge why you have had unreported small spills in the past – and what steps were taken to avoid them. The oil companies are meeting a demand – and they are pretty careful about compliance – look at what happens when gas stations are closed. I believe that under Canadian Law, the owner of the fuel is responsible for impacts – not the supplier.

I am a firm believer that if we can get rid of the silo mentality that seems to exist, and stop seeing other groups as “the enemy,” that there is a lot of common ground that can be used to build a far better and cleaner future.

Intermittent Energy – A New Paradigm

We live in a time where change is needed – quickly.  Many politicians and renewable advocates seem to think that a wholesale change from fossil fuel to renewables is essential, and many would like the nuclear capacity removed at the same time.  The most recent reports suggest that this change needs to be well underway, and the emissions in significant decline within 11 years.

The numbers present a challenging picture.  In 2017 in the US, fossil fuel provided almost 80% of the total primary energy, while solar and wind contributed approximately 3% of the energy.  In Canada, in 2016, solar and wind provided only 0.5% of primary energy, while fossil fuel provided over 70% of primary energy.

Nonetheless, the targets are set, and many people and governments are seeking to displace ALL fossil fuel with renewable energy.  The results, to put it mildly, are bordering on dismal.  Canada has set targets that are ambitious, and seems to do relatively little, other than to talk about meeting the challenges.  We are far behind in our targets for reduced emissions.

I see people spending large quantities of money on rooftop solar, assuming that they will reduce their costs and save the planet.  At the same time, I see utilities in trouble, both operationally and potentially financially, while doing their best under current methods to accommodate, and in fact, to encourage this concept.

As James Avery, a senior executive at San Diego Gas and Electric said, “Customers are often trying to do the right thing for the environment by going solar, but they aren’t being incentivized to do the right thing for the grid or for their neighbors. Today, one set of customers is subsidizing another to the tune of more than $100 million per year.”

But at the system level, I also see real problems.  Intermittent sources are just that, and in some cases, the power available is difficult to predict.  The utility is expected to provide a reliable and firm source of power at all times.  People suggest that batteries will do that task, but it will likely take more than that.

From a 40,000-foot look, the utility is designed to work well, but there are a number of standards that have become the established norm for over 100 years:

  • The sources of power are dispatchable – they can be started and stopped according to a plan, and the output can be reliably managed. The utility expects to be able to fully control the power from almost any generator that is connected to their grid.
  • The load, on the other hand, may be intermittent, random and may be applied or removed at any time, without advance notice or warnings.

The system has worked well with this concept, and utilities have been able to manage economically while providing a reliable service.

The introduction of intermittent renewables has caused a little confusion.  These sources are generators, but in fact they act in the way that a load is assumed to do.  They are relatively random, and intermittent, and yet people want to run them as a generator that is “supposed” to be fully dispatchable.  That does not work within the current method of operation, and the results are visible.

But, in fact, the current system has other issues, and a good look from far above may produce a system that can accommodate a high level of intermittent sources and cure some other issues at the same time.

The existing system is not all that efficient in its methods of operation.  Utilities have developed very sophisticated systems to get the best out of their system, but there are some inherent issues:

  • Under the existing concept, when generators are run up and down during the day, as they must do to match a demand that has a wide range over a day, the generators are operating at less than maximum efficiency for much of the day. This may be either a large or a small loss, depending on the generator.  Some utilities have used market sales to other utilities to smooth out their operation and gain efficiency.
  • The transmission and distribution systems have a similar problem, in that the loss increases with the square of the current, so if you double the current to meet peak demand, the loss goes up by 4x.  It is more efficient to operate at a constant level.
  • The grid is designed to meet peak demand – an event that lasts about 15 minutes once annually, and perhaps not at all. The average demand on the grid is about half of the peak capacity that is available, and the system design is largely based on meeting peak demand. The addition of solar generation has reduced the mid day energy sales in many utilities, but the peak that occurs after dark, is continuing to grow, requiring added expense while the utility revenue may be falling as energy sales decline.  This is leading to some rate changes that may impact the financial viability of home based solar systems.
  • The addition of large amounts of solar generation result in very rapid changes in demand seen by the utility as the sun rises and sets, and this results in a need to use generators that can ramp up or down very quickly to match the change. Generally, this is not the lowest cost generation. So the utility is essentially experiencing higher costs as a result of the rapid changes in demand caused by increased penetration of solar systems.

There has got to be a better way – to run the grid, in a way that will get maximum efficiency on a continuous basis, deliver more energy, smooth the variations in the demands on central generation, and on the delivery systems, meet the needs of all customers, AND accept a large and growing component of intermittent generation.

The key seems to be that a major part of managing the grid will have to move from the “top” (Central generation) to the “bottom” – at the grid edge near the loads.  If the demand on the central generation and delivery system can be managed to be near a constant, the system could deliver almost double the energy that is delivered today and could operate at a  much better level of efficiency.

There are many people that have suggested to me that the central utility will soon be redundant.  I would strongly disagree with this concept.  The electrical grid currently delivers about 20% of the total energy.  I hear many people that think that if they can displace all of their utility supplied electricity, that all problems will be solved, but they seem to neglect the other 80%.  We need to include heating for buildings, fuel for our vehicles, and potentially a lot of other energy that will replace processes that currently rely on fossil fuels.  I would need enough energy to collect more than double my current electricity consumption to fully address my energy use, and that does not consider the fuels used to provide the services and supplies that I need.

What is needed is a long-term transition plan and short-term targets to capture the “low hanging” opportunities.  For example, the largest source of emissions in the US is the generation of electricity from coal.  This is a little frustrating as that one large source provides less than half of the primary energy to generate electricity.  And that electricity delivers only about 1/5 of the total energy used.  In other words, the biggest source of emissions is delivering only about 10% of the energy needs.   It seems obvious that getting rid of coal generation would be a very big first step in cleaning our air.  The longer term can then focus carefully on what can be done at the grid edge to accommodate more intermittent energy, smooth the demand and yet maintain stability and reliability.

There are real challenges ahead, but the ideas currently promoted by many politicians – get rid of all fossil fuel NOW and replace it ALL with intermittent sources is not going to work.  We need a plan that will meet the energy needs going forward, and a transition that will reduce the major sources of emissions quickly.