The greener technologies offer no silver bullet ~ by Dave Wilkin and Tim Lutton

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A mini-series on the future of energy
By Dave Wilkin, P. Eng., M.Eng. and Tim Lutton, BSc., MBA

Our previous articles demonstrated the challenges in reducing carbon and particulate emissions in the face of high population and economic growth, and the geopolitics of uneven distribution of reserves. Now we examine the technologies vying for a role in our energy future.

First, wind and solar energy combined provide about two per cent of global energy. Yet due to their nature, they are unable to produce a steady supply of energy, and their output therefore varies dramatically—between ten per cent and 30 per cent, depending on local climate, with extended periods when no energy is produced at all. The missing 70–90 per cent of energy must come from other sources, such as natural gas plants running on stand-by, or extremely expensive energy-storage systems, including battery storage or pumped hydro-power. This also requires very costly expansion/retrofit of the power-grid to balance the uneven energy load, as the grid wasn’t built with variable energy supply or highly distributed, unreliable sources of energy in mind. Today, wind/solar doesn’t replace any power generation facilities, and its share of the energy grid share can exceed approximately 25 per cent when power imports from neighbouring jurisdictions/countries supply the missing power when needed, as  Germany and Denmark have recently discovered.

Most of the cost reductions typical for new technologies have already occurred (over 80 per cent so far for solar), so don’t expect significant future declines in cost for many greener technologies. Dave estimated the capital costs to replace all Canadian carbon-based energy with wind/solar at $5 trillion. Globally, it would likely exceed $100 trillion.  Sadly, media reporting and environmental activists mislead policymakers and the general public about these economic limitations. They also downplay the environmental and community impacts. One German study found that to replace all carbon-energy with wind power required their entire country to be covered in huge windmills, spaced every mile.  Notably, solar and battery-storage component manufacturing is rare-earth resource intensive (China has 85 per cent global production and 70 per cent of reserves) and with battery life hovering under ten years, a growing toxic-waste issue is very real.

Hydro-electric power remains at the heart of Canada’s electricity supply, suppling over 60 per cent of our electricity (>90 per cent in Quebec/BC)  and an 18 per cent energy share. Globally it meets approximately seven per cent of the energy demand. Building large hydro projects today can be exceedingly expensive, as Newfoundland’s Muskrat Falls project unfortunately discovered, where the total project cost will exceed $13 Billion. This is five times more than equivalent-sized gas-powered plants. Also, building these hydro projects causes damaging methane gas to be released from flooded areas behind dams. Globally, there are few good sites left to exploit, so growth is limited.

Nuclear fission generates four per cent of all global energy today. On the upside, over 200 years of uranium reserves exist for nuclear fission purposes. On the other hand, nuclear fission plants have higher capital costs, require costly waste disposal, and carry some nuclear proliferation risks. However, it remains the only proven grid-scale, zero-emissions, option left. A range of new reactor designs are coming that should lower up-front capital costs (and shorten project delivery times).  Today, nuclear plant operating costs are among the lowest of any plants. Sadly, high capital costs, a past few nasty accidents and heavy anti-nuclear lobbying continues to hamper the sector, so most countries are not investing (notable exceptions are China, South Korea and France). Worse yet, 65 per cent of nuclear plants in service today face retirement over the next two decades. That lost energy supply will almost certainly be replaced with carbon-based energy, as Germany discovered the hard way. We see nuclear-fission power playing a key, though capped, future role. We note that nuclear fusion still faces significant engineering challenges and thus remains a distant future hope.

Biofuels/biomass have a similar energy share as wind and solar. They burn cleaner than coal or oil, but not as clean as natural gas/propane. They also carry other environmental and ecosystem impacts, including land use changes/deforestation, and the generation of pollution during production. Hydrogen energy is insignificant today and is really an energy storage/transport mechanism, not a true energy source. It’s very volatile and lacks storage and distribution networks.  As for geothermal power, it’s economically and technically viable only in those rare locations where near-surface geothermal activity exists, such as Iceland and Hawaii. None of these energy sources are likely to be a major future player.

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) can remove up to 90 per cent of CO2 emissions from power plants, but it’s relatively expensive when high CO2 transportation and storage costs are included. As it does not address depletion of carbon-energy reserves, it remains a transition option. This is particularly important in Asia, where coal still supplies over 50 per cent of their energy requirements.

Key to know is that just 16 per cent of all global energy is delivered through the electric grid, but most future greener energy will be delivered that way. Therefore, the power grid must be significantly expanded, made more intelligent and resilient for a more vulnerable 21st century world, which faces increasing cyberattacks and potentially more extreme weather events.

The Bottom-line: No ‘silver bullet’ replaces today’s 85 per cent global carbon-based energy market, meaning future energy will come from many sources. Let’s be clear, future energy costs are increasing greatly. The era of cheap energy is ending.

Our next article portrays a bad future scenario, demonstrating how the main system pieces interact, with potentially devastating consequences. Watch for it!

Dave Wilkin is a Professional Engineer who lives in Huntsville. He is an electrical engineer with a career spanning 35 years in IT, banking and consulting.
Tim Lutton worked in the natural gas and LNG industry for 32 years; with Imperial Oil in Canada, and ExxonMobil in the USA, Australia and Qatar and now lives in Huntsville.

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15 Comments

  1. Very interesting glad to see you are explaining just why we will depend on oil and gas for a long time yet. What I would like to see is someone coming up with a solution and stop just saying we have to do something. Student.s protesting global warming doe’s nothing just as politicians saying they are doing something about global warming by taxing us more. Let’s just get all the brilliant minds working on some kind of new energy instead of talking gloom and doom.

    • Ray, conservation must play a key role and that is where the carbon tax comes in. We cannot just dump the entire responsibility for energy supply and emissions reduction on our energy suppliers. We consumers must do our part. There is plenty of potential for consumers to help.

      • Murray Christenson on

        Hugh, has carbon tax changed behavior? No. Has any of the revenue generated been redirected into new green projects or innovation initiatives? No. What we have now is nothing more than a virtue signaling exercise by the Liberals that results in nothing more than inflating an already inflated bureaucracy.
        The level of tax required to do what it’s supposedly meant to do would result in an economic shock that would drive the country into recession. Consumers are doing their part already and will continue to help, let’s incent the smart people to drive the green initiatives here and get needless regulation and government out of their way.

        • Murray, there is no mystery here. Canada’s emissions per capita are among the world’s highest because our energy consumption per capita is almost the world’s highest. There is some justification for that such as low population density, cold climate, and the fact that we use energy to make energy for the USA (78% of our oil production goes to the USA) and of course lifestyle is a factor.

          But when you consider that Canada’s energy use per capita is 323% of China, 186% of Germany, 140% of Russia, and 104% of the USA, it is clear we in CANADA can do better. There is a long list of opportunities to reduce energy consumption and to slowly but surely shift away from the more harmful types of energy. We need them all and we need to speed up the change. We have seen the list of opportunities over and over and over but we continue to waste our time arguing over petty politics while Rome is burning.

          After doing in-depth research on the subject, the world’s energy economists endorse the refundable carbon tax as the most widely effective measure to do both, for both large industrial and residential consumers. Even the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers endorses the carbon tax. Some consumers will respond to the tax and some will not.

          Similarly, some industrial producers of emissions will respond to the Conservative’s mandated emissions target and fines and some will not. Consumers will pay for mandated targets but not for the carbon tax – – provided they make their refund bigger than their tax. If we give a hoot about our grandchildren, we should stop the time-wasting arguments and do both.

          • Murray Christenson on

            First off Hugh, can we stop using per capita data to in order to dramatize how terrible things are here? It’s a completely irrelevant stat. Second, not sure where you came up the fact CAPP supports carbon tax but in reality, it doesn’t.
            As for economists weighing in on climate science, I’ll go with the old expression…”if you laid all the worlds economists end to end, you’d never reach a conclusion “.
            I’ll expand a bit on my earlier point on carbon tax. It doesn’t work because at the level this government has set, it won’t change behavior. If it doesn’t change behavior, it only succeeds in driving up the price of absolutely everything making life harder on those who can least afford it. The rebate issue is a farce. What’s the point? Any revenue generated should be redirected into funding green research and projects that will have an effect on ghg’s.
            In order for carbon tax to work, as I mentioned earlier, it needs to border on punitive. People will not stop driving their big trucks here because gas goes up a few cents. Of course, that would be political suicide in Canada.
            The problem truly is global in nature. If we can aid big polluting countries reduce their reliance on coal through exports of much cleaner LNG as well as carbon reducing technologies, we’d actually be accomplishing something. We have world class renewable energy companies right here in Canada like Brookfield Renewable and others. We should be supporting their efforts around the globe and stop with the virtue signaling we see from this current government.

  2. I’m sorry but there are blanket statements in your article that need to cite sources..for example; I was visiting Denmark recently and the Danes have managed to capture wind power quite well..they, wisely, have turbines off their coastlines (safe distancing from land and shipping).

    • Susan, thanks for your response. Denmark is a very small country, surrounded by ocean coast line that is ideally suited to leverage off-shore wind energy. Today they get about about 40% of their electric energy supply from off-shore wind. When the wind is not blowing (capacity factor there is about ~35%) , they must import electric power from neighboring European countries, mostly Germany and Sweden. The source of that imported power is mostly from carbon energy sources. Electricity supplies about a third of all energy consumed in the country. Here is one source of that electric energy mix in Denmark. http://www.pfbach.dk/firma_pfb/references/pfb_danish_electricity_balance_2017_2018_02_13.pdf

      Most people forget that EU countries have substantial electric grid interconnections, allowing for substantial import/exports of power cross-borders, so you can’t easily assess the carbon footprint of the electric sector by looking at a single country. Germany faces a similar situation to Denmark. Most of their power imports to offset their 25% wind/solar grid share comes from either France (Nuclear mostly), or Poland (mostly coal based).

      Hope this helps.

  3. Murray Christenson on

    Another good piece guys, keep up the good work! As someone who has followed, and invested in, the renewable energy sector for some time, you are pretty much bang on. The transition is going to take a long time and require a virtually unimaginable amount of investment. Given governments currently have maxed out their credit cards so to speak, it’s apparent we’ll need to rely on private sector to get the job done. Thankfully in Canada we have some terrific renewable companies like Brookfield, Algonquin and Innergex to help get us there.
    Seeing political parties such as the Greens suggest we can be 100% renewable in Canada by 2030 is beyond ridiculous. It’s scary that they may even have a say in any likely minority government here with views like that. I hope we can develop a framework that will allow our private companies to innovate and continue the great work they’re already doing.

  4. A red flag saying “take all this with a grain of salt” popped up for me when I read that “for geothermal power, it’s economically and technically viable only in those rare locations where near-surface geothermal activity exists, such as Iceland and Hawaii.” Hmmm.
    First of all, my sister’s family in a small farming community just outside Saskatoon have had geo-thermal power for over twenty years. Also the word “viable” tells me that the authors are evaluating all the options from the perspective of the current state of our way of life–both economically and technically. Their assumption is that we will forever have a power-grid similar to the one we have now and we need to strive for maintaining our current life-style. The times they are a’changin’ dear friends and the world as we know it is being turned upside down. I know of many human beings around the world who are finding ways of living a good life that does not depend on the current power “grid.” I’m getting a sense that this series is not going to be much help for finding a good way forward. But I’ll keep reading because I care and I live in hope. In the meantime, I wonder if the authors and their readers are aware of the book “Drawdown:The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming” edited by Paul Hawken. It’s a good book to read when you begin to feel hopeless and powerless–which we must go through before finding our way forward.

  5. Meg thanks for your comment. For clarity, when we referred to geothermal power, we were talking about generating electric energy. We were not talking about geothermal heat transfer for home heating, which is presumably what your sister has.

    Geothermal heat can be tapped with heat pump systems, which uses electricity to run. Similar principle applies for air heat pumps. Both are more energy efficient than straight resistive heating under most situations, but geothermal is costly to install, much more so than air heat pumps. Neither work particularily well in very cold climates. Heat transfer pipes that go vertically deep into the ground do extract more heat, and can work better in cold locations, but will be significantly more expensive to install and repairs are likely quite expensive.

    Just a personal note, I had an air heat pump for many years, but the compressor brokedown several times, and repairs were costly, and temperatures below about -10 C the efficiency factor was not enough to make running it worthwhile. Also, I never really liked the low-grade heat they blow into your house, and they run constantly on colder days to maintain the temperature. I found myself running the gas furnace more over time.

    Hope this helps to clarify.

  6. Enjoying your articles and can’t see the magic bullet to all this yet. Our church has installed a 10kw solar system, led lighting, recycling and reduced plastic bottles as we try to be better stewards of the earth. The questions I have re solar, is where does the solar system go when it wears out? How do we as consumers reduce plastic when supermarkets sell food in large containers? We live on the top floor of a condo overlooking the highway and am amazed at the amount of trucks passing by every minute as well as increased car traffic. Southern Ontario is booming especially here in Niagara and traffic jams are taking its toll on people. It’s a holistic problem.

    • Thanks Roger. great question about old solar panels. We are not experts on electronic waste disposal, but it is clear that solar panels don’t contain as much valuable metals or other valuable reusable materials as say cellphones. The cost to extract and separate the materials is exceeding high for them. Recently China, who use to accept upwards of 70% of old electronics for their materials, has changed their stance, and are taking far less now. Worse, many solar panels being manufactured now in China are cheaper, necessarily to drive broader adoption, so them have much shorter life spans than before. By some estimates, there will be upwards of 80 million tons of solar panels to dispose of by 2050 globally, so its not a small problem. Sadly, most will likely end up in dumps somewhere..

  7. Great articles, all of them. They add perspective and facts to the current debate.

    So here is a question.
    I am either blessed or cursed, depending which side of MPAC you are on, with quite a bit of land. Some of this is original pioneer farm fields, the fields they cleared before they discovered that the only crop they would grow is rocks!
    These areas are close to my business and I would like to put solar panels on some of them and use them in a “net metering” set up such that these panels, at the end of the year, will have made approximately the amount of energy I use.

    I am not looking to be paid for this energy. What I am looking for is for Hydro to simply total what I make and “net this off” against my bills for about 5 other local accounts.

    I am told that this can currently be approved, only if the panels are located “on the building which has the service to be netted against. Unfortunately, my buildings don’t face in an ideal direction. The panels on a roof are technically difficult and prone to leakage. Panels on my roofs would not be efficient and would look kind of ugly. This being a tourist area makes this matter too.
    If the powers that be would allow me to put the panels on ground mounted racks in some of the vacant (and due to local zoning restraints, likely to be forever vacant!) areas that I own and then just meter my generation and do the math each month on my bills then I could effectively reduce my home and business use or energy to near zero on a yearly basis.

    I would pay all costs for this work. All I am needing from our government is approval so that I can get some wizard at Hydro to do the math and keep the record on a monthly basis. This will cost them nothing as their computer could be programed to do just once to do this and it would dutifully do the job forever more.

    This should be a multiple win scenario. It costs nobody but me any money to do. It makes the energy with solar, during the afternoon peak when it can be used better than that made with say wind power. It will reduce my actual ongoing energy costs to close to zero forever into the future. It is silent. It will not even be visible from any public property or roadway. It will not bother any animals and so on it goes. There is virtually nothing in negative aspect to this idea.

    So why does our government, the one that purports to be “saving us from ourselves with a carbon tax” not allow this? One would think they would jump for joy when I proposed this idea but they just say it is “not in their rule book… go away”.
    Kind of a sad commentary on our times.

    I’d welcome a contact by anybody, government or private that could figure a way through this tangle.

    • Thanks Brian. Your question is a great one. If there was more thoughtful regulations, it might encourage more people to make the costly capital investments to move towards a more sustainable energy future. But alas, as you point out, it seems to be too hard for governments to get right.

      I think this is one important dimension of a federal national power grid strategy. It should include both policy recommendations/guidance to provincial government regulators, as well as the necessary grid infrastructure R&D/investments necessary for a much more distributed power generation/distribution architecture. Yes, it will take time, but the roadmap and leadership must start now.

      Perhaps a good question for the upcoming candidate debates?

  8. I had a question about where the $5 Trillion capital cost figure for replacing all carbon energy came from. I forgot to put the link to a previous article where I did that rough calculation. Here is that link: https://www.muskokaregion.com/opinion-story/9357617-canadians-can-handle-climate-change-truths-muskoka-reader/
    I couldn’t find any one who had done the calculation for Canada, so I did it myself. The easy part was the generation part. The capital costs for the power stations are straight forward, as is the amount of carbon energy that they need to replace, and the power storage costs (mostly battery based) required for wind/solar are also readily available. The hard part is calculating the required grid expansion costs. The grid must carry about 4 to 5 times the power it does today, as well as handling far more distributed and smaller generation sources, along with far more bidirectional power flow. This pushed the grid upgrade cost estimate to well over 1 Trillion, as I recall.

    This $5T total rough cost estimate is not out of line with similar US carbon energy replacement cost estimates when scaled down by a factor of 10. There are a few of those out there in the $30 – $40 Trillion US$ range. I encourage readers who are skeptical to do their own calculations or research. The bottom line is that it’s enormously costly, and not really financially viable with today’s technology.

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