The Future of Electricity

The cost of electricity is “lightening rod” for public anger and frustration in Ontario. It has become a political hot potato with political parties vying to promise lower electricity bills. Yet, regardless of any political promises, the electricity market is going to be dramatically changed in coming decades by evolving technological innovations and economics.

Ontario doesn’t have an abundance of cheap hydro-electric power like Quebec or Labrador. (Or cheap – and dirty – coal power like some US states) It’s questionable whether we would want to flood significant natural areas to create hydro power anyway. Renewable sources (wind, solar and water) make up 36% of Ontario’s total generating capacity. We have put our money on nuclear power as a carbon-free form of energy although it has significant environmental and financial risks as well.

Electricity prices are relatively high because Ontario has ended up with a substantial over capacity of generating resources. The average electricity demand is about half of total generating capacity – that still has to be paid for. Although nuclear generation is about 35% of total capacity, it supplies 65% of our electric demand. Wind and solar make up 13% of capacity but supply less than 7% of demand. And overall demand in Ontario dropped 4% in 2017.

About half, or more, of a typical residential bill consists of an added “Global Adjustment”. This is described as “a total dollar amount for each month based on the difference between market revenues and [a list of] components” (IESO website). The largest of those ‘components’ is related to nuclear power:

  • Nuclear (non-OPG) and natural gas
  • OPG regulated nuclear and hydro

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Our Energy Future is Renewable

It’s not a matter of “if”, but “when”. The world is moving steadily and dramatically toward a renewable energy future dominated by clean electricity. As I mentioned before, the countries with the highest solar incidence are the ones making the most progress. Last year, Costa Rica supplied electric energy for 300 days solely from renewable sources. Some of the largest solar projects are being built in countries like India and China. Renewable energy in the UK increased by 27% in 2017.

Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) and the Energy Watch Group (EWG) conducted a study that “simulates a global electricity system based entirely on renewable energy on an hourly basis throughout a whole year. Its results prove that the existing renewable energy potential and technologies, including storage, are able to generate sufficient and secure power supply worldwide by 2050. Under favourable political conditions, a full decarbonisation and nuclear phase out of the global electricity system can succeed even earlier than that.” (my emphasis added)

According to the study, “A 100% renewable global electricity system is also way more efficient. It can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in electricity sector from about 11 GtCO2 equivalent in 2015 to ZERO emissions by 2050. The total losses in a fully renewable electricity system are significantly lower than in the current system. And, the global transition to a 100% renewable electricity system will create 36 million jobs by 2050 in comparison to 19 million jobs in 2015… The study shows that there is no reason to invest any single dollar in fossil fuel or nuclear power production. It also proves that energy transition is no longer a question of technical feasibility or economic viability, but of political will.” (my emphasis added)

This study comes at an important time as Ontario residents are preparing for an election this summer. With the price of electricity, the future of Ontario Hydro, and the ongoing refurbishment of nuclear generators at issue, determining the political will of our provincial parties is paramount. Unfortunately, one party seems to be entirely in denial about climate change and is paralyzed by its own political dogma. Its political will to form meaningful policy on this topic appears non-existent.

Where is Ontario now? Corporations successfully fought against feed-in tariffs and blamed renewable energy for higher electric rates; billions of dollars have been committed to nuclear refurbishment; the nuclear industry is hyping ‘micro-reactors’ to be scattered across northern remote communities; the bulk of Hydro One has been sold off and has made trans-national investments in pursuit of higher profits; revenue from carbon-pricing is being used to subsidize scattered voluntary conservation programs. We can do better but only if we have the political will.

According to the researchers, “policy makers should adopt favourable political frameworks and instruments, promoting fast and steady growth of renewables on the one hand and phasing out all subsidies to fossil fuel and nuclear power generation on the other hand.” (my emphasis added) This summer’s election may be a ‘watershed’ moment for Ontario, either seizing the leadership opportunity or slipping further behind the global trend.

100% renewable electricity worldwide is a new cost-effective reality, Hans-Josef Fell & Prof. Dr. Christian Breyer, (The Beam, Feb 1, 2018)

The Politics of Power

I’ve written previously about the Ontario government’s Green Ontario Fund ($377 budget), and the accompanying lame* approach to this energy conservation initiative. While I applaud the plan to devote carbon-pricing revenues to energy conservation, I think our governments, national and provincial, are way too timid in their approach.

As an example*, I got a quote to install a new gas furnace ($3,000+); the Green Ontario rebate is $500. This old house could benefit from upgraded insulation in the walls – rough estimate up to $15,000 – possible rebate $1,280, based on total square feet. Still, $200 million more is allocated to school retrofits and $85 million for social housing upgrades.

It’s obvious that countries with greater exposure to solar radiation have recognized that sunlight is literally gold. India and Australia, for instance, are making massive investments in solar energy and battery storage solutions. Canada’s weak and haphazard approach means that we will be importing this technology for decades, as we have already with wind power.

One project that I’ve just read about emphasizes the difference. South Australia, which is already the location of the world’s largest grid-storage battery installation, courtesy of Elon Musk, is proposing an even more spectacular solar project – Continue reading

The Price of Power

Bruce Laurie caused a stir with his article, “No one can make electricity cheap again”. I tend to agree with him, if only for his observation that the Darlington nuclear plant was built:

“10 years late and almost $12 billion over budget. No one could afford to pay the real cost of Darlington, so Ontarians carried that debt for the next three decades.”

With billions more committed by the Ontario government to refurbishment of our nuclear plants, there is no likely escape from this scenario in the near future.

Some critics blame Mr. Laurie for his role in higher prices as a “former director of the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) and Ontario’s Independent Electricity Systems Operator (IESO). He served as a member of the Electricity Transition Committee under the Harris government.”

So how high is ‘high’ for electricity prices? Hydro Quebec and Financial Post published comparative figures for 1,000 kWh of electricity from suppliers across North America (U.S.  figures were converted to Canadian dollars). InnPower came in at $182.09, which is not that different from Toronto Hydro at $181.95. ‘Low density’ rural Ontario had an average bill of $229. In Ontario our power relies on nuclear (60%) and hydro (24%).

Looking further afield, Montreal was $100, Winnipeg was $117, Ottawa $224, Halifax $220 and Vancouver $148. If we look across the US border, 1000 kWh averaged $409 in New York, $383 in Boston, $161 in Miami, $156 in Houston, $118 in Indiana.

How can we account for these variations?  Continue reading

Green Affordable Energy

I occasionally still see a comment or letter suggesting that abolishing the Green Energy Act would somehow remedy concerns about high electricity prices. When I read about advances in renewable energy that idea seems to be the least sensible approach.

Here are some of the things I’ve noticed lately:

  • Solar cells are becoming more efficient. Solar panels typically capture 23% of energy. A special reflective dish arrangement claims to boost this to 34% (EcoWatch, “5 solar innovations revolutionizing the world”)
  • “Battery technology is advancing and becoming more affordable. Tesla’s sister company, Solar city is offering Tesla batteries at a price point that’s more than 60% less than previous solar power storage products …” (EcoWatch, “5 solar innovations revolutionizing the world”)
  • “A subsidiary of Bouygues SA has designed rugged solar panels, capable of withstand the weight of an 18-wheeler truck, that they’re now building into road surfaces. After nearly five years of research and laboratory tests, they’re constructing 100 outdoor test sites and plan to commercialize the technology in early 2018… To resist the weight of traffic, Wattway layers several types of plastics to create a clear and durable casing. The solar panel underneath is an ordinary model, similar to panels on rooftops. The electrical wiring is embedded in the road and the contraption is topped by an anti-slip surface made from crushed glass.” (National Post, “Solar panel roads to be built on four continents…”)
  • “… Green Sun Rising earns its bread and butter building solar plants in isolated Canadian communities, many in the far North, that have generated all their power with diesel generators … People are often surprised Dohring can make a living selling solar power plants, like his latest on Banks Island in the Canadian Arctic, which has 10 weeks a year of constant darkness. However, if the sun never sets in summer, I have a nearly infinite amount of energy supply,” says Dohring (CBC News, “Green tech ready to step in when oil prices rise”)
  • “A U of T Engineering innovation could make printing solar cells as easy and inexpensive as printing a newspaper. Dr. Hairen Tan and his team have cleared a critical manufacturing hurdle in the development of a relatively new class of solar devices called perovskite solar cells. This alternative solar technology could lead to low-cost, printable solar panels capable of turning nearly any surface into a power generator.” (Journal News of the World, “Printable solar panels on the horizon says new research”)
  • “Scientists from Skoltech’s Institute of Problems of Chemical Physics, and Moscow State University have come up with inorganic perovskite solar batteries with tremendous efficiency, said Skoltech’s press service. The new devices exhibit very high efficiency in light conversion (10.5%) comparable with those of perovskite batteries based on classical hybrid materials (about 12%).” (Tass Russian News, “Russian scientists create highly- efficient, inorganic perovskite solar batteries”)
  • “… as of the 1st of January, 2017, all electric train rides in the Netherlands have become even greener. They are now entirely powered by clean, renewable, wind energy. Dutch railway companies, of which NS is by far the largest, teamed up with energy company Eneco in 2015 to cut train ride emissions drastically. Originally, 2018 was set as the target for changing to 100% renewable power sources. After having reached 75% in 2016, though, the 100% transition was completed one year ahead of schedule.” (Clean Technica, “All Dutch Trains Now Run 100% onWind Power”)
  • “Wind turbines in Scotland provided enough electricity to supply the average needs of almost all Scotland’s homes last month, according to a report. Data from Weather Energy showed turbines generated 792,717MWh of electricity to the National Grid in October, up more than a quarter on the same month last year. The amount is enough to supply the average needs of 87% of Scottish households, WWF Scotland said.” (Independent, “Scotland generates enough wind energy to power almost every household …”)
  • According to a US report, “There was a record amount of gas burned for power generation last year … But there was also a record amount of photovoltaics and the second highest amount of renewables that we have seen added in a year… The research shows that both gas and renewable energy are expanding at the expense of coal, says Zindler. The falling price of technology plus greater efficiency mean that solar panels and wind often remain cheaper than gas.” (CBC News, “Green tech ready to step in when oil prices rise”)
  • Four teenage girls figured out a way to use a liter of urine as fuel to get six hours of electricity from their generator. Fourteen-year-olds Duro-Aina Adebola, Akindele Abiola, and Faleke Oluwatoyin, and 15-year-old Bello Eniola displayed their invention this week at Maker Faire Africa in Lagos, Nigeria, an annual event meant to showcase ingenuity.” (Forbes, “Teens Create A Way To Use Urine As Fuel”)
  • Researchers at the University of Bath have developed an innovative miniature fuel cell that can generate electricity from urine, creating an affordable, renew‐ able and carbon-neutral way of generating power. In the near future this device could provide a means of generating much needed electricity to remote areas at very little cost, each device costs just £1-£2. (Science Daily, “Urine turned into sustainable power source for electronic devices”)

Energy and Alternatives

People continue to complain about the price of electricity because it is divorced from the cost of generating it. The IESO website lists the average weighted price in June at 2.02¢/kwh while the byzantine “global adjustment” is 9.55¢/kwh. The Ontario government’s commitment to sink $12.8 billion into refurbishing nuclear plants just contributes to uncertainty about price stability and affordability. Renewable energy alternatives appear more stable and predictable in comparison.

When I am at consumer shows I occasionally enquire about the cost and feasibility of solar panels. Aside from price, I have always been told that I have ‘too many’ trees on the property. It happened again last fall when an exhibitor asked my address and then thrust a tablet at me showing an overhead image of a dense tree canopy and said, “That’s your house”. I was taken aback because I know that my home is not totally obscured by trees. In spite of several mature trees, the rooftop does receive direct sunlight for a portion of the day. Never mind, I moved on. More recently I decided to use a government sponsored geographic mapping service available on the web to access an aerial view of my property. Sure enough, most of the roof was clearly visible. From now on, I think I’ll bring my own aerial photo along.  Continue reading