Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Liberals "Surge" in Polls Within the Margin of Error

"Liberals continue to gain steam" shouts the headline from the Globe and Mail.

"But the poll, as emphasized by La Presse, showed the Liberal Party climbing to 19 per cent of decided voter support, up significantly from the meagre 14.2 per cent share of votes it received in the province last May" declares The Hill Times.

"The Liberals, on the other hand, have gained nine points in Quebec since that same June poll, and sit at 19 per cent. Support for the Bloc Québécois is stagnating at only 22 per cent" states Maclean's confidently.

In the poll quoted by the Hill Times and Maclean's they conveniently ignore the fact that according to the poll, the Conservatives are now sitting at 25% in Quebec (compared to their 16.5% result in the 2011 election).  A far greater increase than the Liberals who only increased from 14.2% (2011 election) to 19%.   Neither publication even mentioned the Conservatives' numbers, I had to go to the original article in La Presse to get that.  So I'm suspicious that these articles are biased already.

In the poll quoted by the Globe and Mail, the Liberals have gained 3% so they now sit at 22%.  The Conservatives hover around 37% and the NDP around 28%.   Can we say that the increase in Liberal support is significant?  For the case where a party or person has increased their support by 20% in a single week, I think no one will argue that the increase is not significant. Conversely,  if a party or person only increased in support by 1%, I think very few people would argue that the increase is significant.  But where do we draw the line and how? 

The poll says it has an accuracy of plus or minus 3%, 19 times out of 20.  So an increase in 3% is pushing that limit, right? But what if the last poll slightly underestimated the actual Liberal support by 1.5% and this poll slightly overestimates the actual Liberal support by 1.5%? In which case the actual difference would be almost zero but the reported difference would still be 3%.

In scientific terms, if we are trying to determine if a change is significant there are a number of tools and methods available and some are far more thorough than others.  I'd like to show a very simple way.

1. Take the difference between the two values in question. In our case, the difference in the Liberal support was +3%.

2. Assuming that the errors are independent and Gaussian, add the standard errors of the two polls in quadrature (add the squares and take the square root of the total). In our case the square root of 9 + 9 is about 4.2

We would then say that the difference in Liberal support is 3% plus or minus 4%, 19 times out of 20.

So is it possible that the Liberal "surge" could simply be the result of random errors in the poll? Absolutely.  

Is it more likely that the Liberals are increasing in support than they are decreasing? Of course.  

Would I feel confident stating that they are and drawing a number of conclusions about the direction of the party? No.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ignorance is not Strength

So I ended up reading an article entitled "some people shouldn't talk about science".  While I found the article interesting at first, I was utterly repulsed by the idea that we should arbitrarily limit scientific discussion.  Even someone who is uninformed can contribute meaningfully to a scientific discussion, I thought.

And then I read this article. And, filled with righteous indignation I began to question whether or not some people really shouldn't talk about science.

While warning that "it only has to leak" once to cause an irreversible calamity, the author then points to a leak that occurred at the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station where 6 L of heavy water were spilled on the floor. Evacuation of the 'facility' occurred.  And more ominously, the author warns us, some of that dangerous radioactive stuff may have escaped into the atmosphere.  This comes on the heels of an incident where barrels of diluted hydrazine were accidentally dumped into the ocean.

I'm not completely familiar with the incidents, but a couple things I want to note.

Firstly, as you probably know the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station has been shut down for refurbishment for a few years now and they are on the verge of starting it back up so they are refilling the primary heat transport system with heavy water.  Without heavy water, a CANDU reactor cannot sustain nuclear reactions.  Heavy water that has been inside the primary heat transport system of an active nuclear reactor will have increased amounts of tritium and potentially radioactive iodine and other radioactive elements from failed fuel elements.  Heavy water that has never been inside a core still will contained some tritium.  But the water in your fridge also contains tritium, because tritium is produced naturally through the interaction with cosmic rays (although less than heavy water).  I'm not sure if the heavy water that spilled had ever been inside a core or not, but since the discussion is only about tritium I'm guessing not likely. So, if 6 L of heavy water spilled inside a building and some small trace amounts of tritium escaped will anyone, anywhere be harmed by it? Absolutely not. Which is why the CNSC stated unequivocally that [1]

"The spill did not result in any risk to the public, the environment or the workers."

So why evacuate the 'facility' you may ask? Well, chances are they didn't evacuate the whole 'facility'. They probably evacuated staff from a portion of the facility, specifically the reactor building [1].  And probably it was just a precaution.

Finally, hydrazine is a non-nuclear danger at power plants in general, not just nuclear power plants. Thermal power plants such as natural gas or coal fired power plants both use hydrazine. So even if nuclear power plants never existed and instead Point Lepreau was a giant natural gas fired power plant, it would still be possible to have hydrazine accidentally dumped into the ocean.

I could go on about how no a single death can be attributed to Three Mile Island accident.  How Windscale's "deadly release" only caused an additional 30 cancer deaths, but over 100 people were killed in a Russian dam accident in a single day.  How the public hysteria about a shipment of steam generators from Bruce Power is an example of junk science winning over reason.  But you get the idea.

The article over-hypes the dangers of nuclear power plants and to someone who is uninformed of the topic, will badly mislead them.  However, I'm not worried and I don't believe that the author shouldn't be allowed to voice his opinion on nuclear power plants.

Whenever someone or some group exaggerates the truth to make a political point or makes a statement that is uninformed it will inevitably backfire on them. Because when the truth is ultimately made known and the person or group is shown to be untrustworthy on the topic, their credibility in general goes into the toilet.  Hilary Clinton's claim that she landed 'under fire' was shown to be false and public backlash over her exaggeration helped turn the tide in favour of Obama.

So if you think someone is twisting the facts about a scientific topic, as frustrating as it may be, don't try to ban them from talking. Let them have their say and then prove them wrong.  But that's just my opinion.


[1]  "Small spill of heavy water at Point Lepreau", CNSC, December 14th, 2011 [link]

Monday, January 9, 2012

Joe Oliver is Right

Joe Oliver's open letter is right on the money. Critics of his comments miss the point entirely (see here and here).

As I highlighted earlier using the example of the Darlington nuclear power plants or the Bruce Power steam generators, large segments of the environmental movement are no longer interested in the safe construction of oil pipelines, nuclear power plants or other industrial projects. They are simply interested in stopping them altogether based on a narrow ideology influenced by personal opinions and unfounded fears.  And they are interested in propagating their irrational fears to the general public.

Again, this is not to say that there aren't legitimate environmental concerns to industrial and energy projects. But separating legitimate concerns from the spurious ones is time consuming and costly, which is exactly what some want.

Nevertheless, overhauling the environmental assessment process is not necessarily going to change things so long as the radicals continue to look for ways to game the system.  What is needed is rather a change in attitude on the part of the Canadian public and especially the media.

Environmental radicals need to be called out when they cross the line into obstructionism.  When environmental groups calls for no time limits for all individuals and groups in public hearings (essentially giving any and every crackpot the ability to filibuster), the media should hound them for the absurdness of their demand.  When they insist on a full accounting for all greenhouse gas emissions in nuclear power plant construction, the media should highlight the hypocrisy in not demanding the same for their solar and wind projects.

But that's just my opinion.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ontario's Green Plan: Cut, Measure, Repeat

The recent Auditor General's Report on Ontario's Electricity Sector - Renewable Energy Initiatives highlights trends where the McGuinty government failed to adequately assess, plan or analyze their renewable energy plans. Perhaps it should have been taken as a bad omen when, in explaining the objective and scope of the audit, the report states:
We did not rely on the Ministry’s internal audit service team to reduce the extent of our audit work because it had not recently conducted any audit work on renewable energy initiatives.
In their summary, the auditor-general stated that comprehensive business-case evaluation was done to objectively evaluate the impacts of the billion-dollar commitment. Such an evaluation would typically include assessing the prospective economic and environmental effects of such a massive investment in renewable energy on future electricity prices, direct and indirect job creation or losses, greenhouse gas emissions, and other variables.
The Auditor General did not mention the natural gas fired power plant in Mississauga that was supposedly cancelled (construction appeared to be ongoing last I checked) part way through construction. But this plays to the theme of the government making commitments for political purposes.

Concerning the Samsung deal, the auditor-general found that economic analysis or business case was done to determine whether the agreement with the consortium was economically prudent and cost-effective, and neither the OEB nor the OPA was consulted about the agreement. 
I find it hard to believe that neither the OEB nor the OPA were even consulted about the agreement. If this is true, then have we truly reached a point where politicians don't even bother asking the experts for their opinions before going ahead with a plan?

Concerning the FIT prices, the report states that
There was minimal documentation to support how FIT prices were calculated to achieve the targeted return on equity
Which explains why they accidentally started giving out 20%+ rates of return for some solar projects.

To justify themselves, the government repeats ad nauseum about a study back in 2005 that claimed there were $4.4 billion in savings to be had by closing the coal fired power plants.  The study I believe they are quoting did not show that there were $4.4 billion in savings to be had by closing coal fired power plants and replacing them with natural gas (which is what the government is actually doing), it actually showed that there was less than $2 billion in savings.  That report also did not analyze the impact of trying to replace coal and nuclear with a mixture of natural gas and solar/wind backed by natural gas fired power plants running on standby.  Ironically, that very same report recommended instead that additional nuclear power would provide the greatest health benefits and lowest costs. The study also examined the effect of applying more stringent controls and the best available technology at the time to coal fired power plants and found that the net cost would be similar to that of natural gas. Moreover, the study performed in 2005 used the best knowledge at the time of the projected energy demand, which has substantially changed since the recession.

The Auditor General highlights this tangentially when he reports that
Although gas-fired plants emit fewer greenhouse gases than coal-fired plants, they still contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Our review of experiences in other jurisdictions showed that the original estimated reduction in greenhouse gases had not been reduced to take into account the continuing need to run fossil-fuel backup power generating facilities.

Which also highlights that the government is not being fully upfront about how much greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced because of the practical limitations of solar and wind.  Without any practical way to handle the variability of wind/solar, natural gas fired power plants will be required to run in 'standby' just in case they are needed.  According to the Auditor General
The only analysis on backup power that the Ministry cited was a study done by a third party engaged by the OPA as part of its 2007 IPSP development. The study noted that 10,000 MW of wind would require an extra 47% of non-wind sources to handle extreme drops in wind. We noted that the third party who carried out this study also operated an Ontario wind farm, raising questions about the study’s objectivity.
The Auditor General, in examining other jurisdictions warned that
A 2008 study in the United Kingdom found that power swings from intermittent wind generation need to be compensated for by natural-gas generation, which has meant less of a reduction in greenhouse gases than originally expected.
A 2009 study in Denmark noted that although the country is the world’s biggest user of wind
energy, it has had to keep its coal-fired plants running to maintain system stability
and also that
The German government also had to build new coal-fired plants and refurbish old ones to cover electricity requirements that could not be met through intermittent wind generation.
I am willing to accept that the government may act on priorities that I do not believe are important (ie increasing mandatory minimum sentences) or in choosing policies may decide to focus on one kind of benefit (ie health, environment) over another (ie cost). But when it does so, it needs to be upfront and honest with the people it was elected to govern about the cost, and should at least be able to show that their plans will lead to the benefits they promise.  The Ontario government, in developing and implementing their Green Energy Plan has repeatedly failed to do so. But that's just my opinion.


"Cost Benefit Analysis: Replacing Ontario's Coal Fired Generation", Ministry of Energy, April 2005 [link]

"Electricity Sector - Renewable Energy Intiatives", Ontario Auditor General's Report, 2011 [link]

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ontario's Green Energy Bill

To fully cover what's in the Auditor General's report, I'm going to try to explain the main points in a few postings. So please bear with me as I try to explain how the Auditor General came up with some startling facts on how much McGuinty's Green Energy plans will cost you.

According to the Auditor General's report on Ontario's renewable energy plans, only 14% of Ontarians know that renewable energy like wind and solar costs more than conventional sources like gas, coal and nuclear. I can hardly blame them, with the McGuinty government introducing things like the "Clean Energy Benefit" to reduce the electricity bills of Ontarians, it makes it seem as if renewable energies are cheap. Unfortunately, McGuinty's government has a reality problem, solar and wind are tremendously more expensive than the alternatives.

Per the Auditor General's report, the Feed-In Tariff (FIT) program and microFIT program provide a guaranteed rate to solar power of between 44.30 and 80.20 cents per kWh. Wind power has a guaranteed rate of between 13.50 and 19.00 cents per kWh. By comparison, the average price of electricity in Ontario in 2006 was slightly more than 5 cents per kWh. By the way, that is the price that was being paid on average to the generators, not necessarily the price you see.

The price of Ontario's electricity is divided into two relevant parts, the Hourly Ontario Electricity Price (HOEP) which is determined through free market bidding by generators and the Global Adjustment (GA) which is determined through the cost of government mandated programs and special deals to certain generators to guarantee backup generation is available in an emergency or for baseload electricity. In 2006, the GA cost the Ontario ratepayers about $700 million per year (a lot of that likely went to nuclear power plants but the Auditor General doesn't provide a breakdown) making up less than 10% of the combined HOEP and GA cost. By 2014, the GA will surge to over $8 billion per year and make up 66% of the combined HOEP and GA cost. The HOEP will actually fall from almost 5 cents per kWh to about 3.5 cents per kWh, but the GA will increase from almost nothing to over 6 cents per kWh.

In simple terms, the cost of electricity in Ontario is going to go up by over $700 per person, the average price nearly doubling.

The Auditor General asked the government to provide a breakdown of how much their renewable energy plans would cost the average Ontarian and received an answer that by 2018 it would cost approximately $400 per year per household. But the costs to businesses (which will inevitably be passed down) will be much more; $6000 per year per small business, $60000 per year for a medium business and $28.8 million per year per factory. Not mentioned is the effect that this increase in electricity costs will have on employment.

But it didn't have to be this bad.

In 2009, the Ontario Power Authority warned the Ontario government that it was overpaying for solar power installed on the ground since the installation costs for ground based solar is far less than roof based solar. They told the Ontario government that reducing the guaranteed rate to something more comparable to other jurisdictions would save the ratepayers an additional $2.6 billion; the Ontario government ignored the advice.

In 2010, the Ontario Power Authority again warned the Ontario government that it was overpaying for solar power installed on the ground, telling them that they were giving investors a 24% rate of return. The Ontario government waited five months and accepted 11000 more applications from investors before closing the loophole, costing the ratepayers over $1 billion. Raise your hand if you're getting a 20% rate of return on your savings or retirement fund...

Also in 2010, the Ontario Power Authority informed the government that the estimated costs for a proposed hydro project had increased from $1.5 billion to $2.6 billion. The Ontario Power Authority questioned whether the project was in the financial best interests of the Ontario ratepayers and requested that the government provide a direction instructing it to continue. The government did so saying that the project was in line with the government priorities despite the cost overrun. Does that sound like the OPA requested the direction as a precaution or that the OPA insisted they wouldn't continue unless the government ordered it to - the Auditor General's report didn't clarify which it was.

But its a worthwhile investment, right? We're creating lots of jobs, saving the environment and will save on health costs from closing all those coal fired power plants, right?

According to the Auditor General, the answer is not necessarily, but that's a subject for another day.

NOTE: All facts are from the Auditor General's report on Renewable Energy. Everything else is just my opinion.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Ontario Green Energy Plan: Big Surprise Revealed

I'm feeling quite sarcastic today after reading about the Auditor General's report on the Ontario Liberals' green energy plans.

Who would have thought that rapidly giving out billions of dollars to projects that generate electricity at significantly higher cost than other sources would result in increased costs to the consumer. The only thing new, perhaps, is the exact cost which the Auditor General pegs at $220 million per year for the Feed In Tariff (FIT) program and $110 million per year for the Samsung deal.

There's more to it than just the dollars and cents though. Projects were approved without any cost-benefit analysis being performed, without business cases, due diligence or pretty much anything else. The OPA and OEB were not even consulted about certain plans. The promised jobs are not going to show up or are going to disappear soon.

A representative of the solar industry attempted to justify some of this claiming that their industry was saving lives through the closing of coal fired power plants. This is baloney. Not one coal fired power plant has been closed as a result of the wind and solar industry, they have been closed because of increases in natural gas fired power plants. According to the IESO, since 2003 there has been a decrease of over 3000MW in generating capacity by coal fired power plants (and the remaining 4000MW is used less and less), increases in nuclear generating capacity amount to over 2500MW, increases in generating capacity from natural gas fired power plants is over 5000MW. Increases in wind power amount to less than 1500MW (which only operates on a 33% capacity factor so its actually about 500MW) and "others" which include biogas and wood wastes only makes up 122 MW generating capacity in total.

But his response is telling at least; the solar industry is not a business. It exists solely because of government largess, whether it is here or in China. Which is why I'm proud of Oliver for standing up to the solar lobby and telling them that they need to start acting like businesses if they want to survive.

There's more in the Auditor General's report though, stay tuned.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Acts of Sabotage

Climate groups and others are advocating that Canada stay home from Durban since they are not willing to commit to Kyoto. Some see this as transference, an attempt to avoid criticism of the real problems (ie the USA and China) and find a scapegoat. What I think they are really concerned about is that Canada and its representatives will act as saboteurs at the conference, stalling or slowing progress on a deal in order to avoid making any commitments themselves. They know first hand how successful such behaviour can be because the environmental movement routinely engages in it themselves.

At the Darlington New Build (new nuclear power plant) hearings, Greenpeace and other environmental groups became involved in the public hearings and the environmental assessment process, not with the intention of improving the safety of the eventual plant, but with the intention of raising every trivial concern they could imagine (ie completing a full life cycle assessment of all greenhouse gases produced by the project) and using every trick (chaining themselves to a portable table during the hearings) they could think of to delay and increase the cost of the project. Eventually, they hope, if they can make the project too expensive or too uncertain of approval, backers will give up and look elsewhere. Among Greenpeace's other recommendations included one preventing any time restrictions on oral presentations at the public hearings. (Filibuster anyone?)

This is not to say that every single concern they raise is invalid. But its hard to take their concerns seriously when its well known that the only result they are interested in is one where the nuclear power plant isn't constructed.

(Although I have less knowledge of the situation facing the Pacific Gateway pipeline, I'm willing to bet that it is not dissimilar.)

As it pertains to Canada at Durban, I think Canada is the least of the environmental movements' concerns if what they are looking for is a real cap on carbon dioxide emissions. Asking the developed world to pony up $100 billion in indulgences (in addition to all the subsidies for green power and other domestic environmental projects) for the fast growing economies of China and Brazil while they run roughshod over the environment and while Europe's economy is imploding may be of greater importance than any obstructionism Canada can muster.

But that's just my opinion.