Friday, December 31, 2010

Canada and the UAE

A much-debated editorial article in Gulf News, a publication from the UAE has provided me much amusement this New Years Eve. It seems that when they decided to run the article the preparers decided to try to cram as much criticism of Harper and his government (relevant or not) into as few paragraphs as possible. The blatant errors and hypocrisy amused me.

Harper would have to have invented a time machine in order to interfere with the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB), which has not existed for over a decade. The AECB was renamed the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission after Parliament passed the Nuclear Safety and Control Act back in 1997. No news article I've seen in Canada has ever made this mistake when dealing with the Linda Keen issue, so I have no idea how they could have made this mistake.

To refer to Harper as 'authoritarian' when the UAE government is fundamentally undemocratic is laughable. Laws in the UAE are created by an unelected Supreme Council and 'reviewed' by a council on which only half the members are elected at all. And those who are allowed to vote are extremely limited. By comparison, Harper is a radical democracy activist.

To criticize Canada's human rights record in any way shape or form is like a cast iron pot calling a zebra black. Sure, Canada isn't perfect but the UAE is far, far worse.

If Ignatieff and the Liberals had any sense in their head, they would stand up and loudly condemn the UAE for what it is doing.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

MP Bob Sopuck: Right Wing Scientist?

The Toronto Star has an interesting article on Bob Sopuck, the new Conservative MP from Manitoba. I strongly recommend the article as it seems to give an unbiased look at his environmental credentials and background.

What caught my eye however, was the fact that he attended and graduated from Cornell University. That name may not be as familiar to you as Harvard or Yale, but it is an Ivy League school which has been consistently ranked by multiple groups as one of the top 20 universities in the world. It is consistently ranked higher than any Canadian university, including the University of Toronto, McGill and the University of British Columbia.

This is not to say that his education puts him heads and shoulders above anyone else automatically, but it certainly gives him a head start in my mind. In a time when actual scientific background seems to be somewhat lacking in the halls of politics, its a breath of fresh air to see someone so qualified succeed.

Makes me sorry I wasn't following this more closely before.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Facts and the Long Gun Registry

The Chronicle Herald recently published an article that purports to state a number of 'facts' concerning the long gun registry. At least, I'm assuming that was their intent, because the title is "Harper's (long-gun registry) index" and it would make no sense if they were stating fallacies.

My problem with it? They're not all true, some are half-truths and of those that are true, some are irrelevant to the long gun registry.

For example:

"Percentage of spousal homicides that involved the use of long guns and shotguns: 72"

This is absolutely incorrect. The truth is that an estimated 72% of firearms related spousal homicides involved the use of long guns and shotguns (it depends on the year) [source (see Table 4.3)]. Between 1997 and 2006, only ~26% of all spousal homicides involve a firearm, so naturally, its impossible that 72% of all spousal homicides could involve a long gun or shotgun [source].

"Cost of obtaining a licence for possession and acquisition of a gun: $60"

That is most definitely not the 'cost of obtaining a license for possession and acquisition of a gun' although I can see why someone who only took a cursory glance at the issue would think so. It is only referring to the cost of obtaining the PAL, after you have completed the $130 Canada Firearms Safety Course. And this PAL only allows you to possess or acquire a long gun, not a handgun which would require additional training.

Of course, the cost of licensing is irrelevant to the long gun registry, since the two issues are completely different.

This matters because I'm not a fact-checker who will go through the article one line at a time and check if each detail is correct or not. I'm not being paid to do that, which would could take hours. I can only point out discrepancies that I know to be wrong from personal knowledge and/or experience. I'm also not a journalist who is paid good (?) money to generate factual articles and/or commentary on issues today. If you're going to produce an article listing what you purport to be 'facts', you should make sure that you are actually stating the facts.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Government Energy Subsidies: Poor Paying the Rich

If you've read my blog more than once or twice, you'll know that I oppose wind and solar power subsidies based on the fact that they do not generate electricity consistently or cheaply enough to be considered an 'alternative' energy source. Moreover, I do not believe that increasing the amount of electricity generated from wind farms will significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions since the intermittent nature of wind power requires fossil fueled generators to be running on 'standby' and because it holds the potential to de-rate or shut down nuclear reactors if the instability becomes too great. (When the nuclear reactors are shut down it will require greater amounts of fossil fueled generators to be used)

Those facts aside, we should not be using government monies to subsidize wind and solar projects for a different social reason.

A great deal of attention has been paid to the growing gap between the rich and the poor, even before the latest financial crisis. One question has been, what is fueling this growing gap? In my opinion, as the saying goes, you need money to make money. If you are rich, you have money to invest to earn more money. If you are poor, you have no money to invest and can only make money directly through an exchange of labour for money (ie by working). But if I may add to that saying, you need money and opportunity.

The Ontario government solar power subsidies were a huge opportunity for those with money to make more money. The government even admits now, that based on their original subsidy rates, the profit margins were in the range of 25-30%. Even the revised subsidy rates still leave the profit margins around 10%. Without the subsidies, building these solar energy projects would leave investors losing money hand over fist.

How much money do you make if you put your money in the bank? In mutual funds? In the stock market? Do you think you're making the equivalent of a 10% profit margin? Probably not.

There is a reason that even Conservatives like Rahim Jaffer were getting into the 'green energy' business.

Those with money, opportunity and the connections are going to be laughing their way to the bank with their profits courtesy of the Ontario taxpayer, thanking their lucky stars to have been at the right place at the right time. Meanwhile, the average worker will have the good fortune to be paying increased electricity rates in order to line the pockets of the fat cats on Bay street.

Perhaps they should send the Ontario government a thank you note in the form of a pink slip next election.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Wind Power's Problems Not PR

If you read the Toronto Star recently, you might think that wind power's only problem is unreasonable health concerns, and a minor case of NIMBY.

I'm still undecided about the health effects of wind power, to be honest. I can't see any reason why they might cause health problems, but I'm not willing to dismiss the idea out of hand without any widespread implementation and observation. I'm pretty sure though that in 20 years or so we'll have enough samples for some researchers to make a study examining health and proximity to large commercial wind farms.

But that is not wind power's main problems. The problems facing wind power are dual; its too expensive and too intermittent. Problems that have been largely papered over by the wind power lobby and have not been brought to the public's attention.

Other nations and jurisdictions, such as Scotland and Spain, are finding out the hard way that wind power is no alternative to coal or natural gas. Both in terms of electricity generated and in terms of cost per unit output.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Ignatieff and Wedge Politics

People often criticize Harper for excessive partisanship, and while that may be true, I'm unwilling to accept that as a criticism from Liberals and Ignatieff supporters. Principally because the Liberals have attempted to turn every issue into an attack on Harper in one way or another.

His criticism of Harper and the nuclear industry illustrate this more clearly than most:

Michael Ignatieff says the Conservative government has "walked away" from Canada's nuclear sector, leading to problems such as the delays and cost overruns with the refurbishment project at the Point Lepreau nuclear plant.

This logic is beyond my understanding. How Harper is responsible for poor management and the technical problems surrounding the Point Lepreau refurbishment is not clearly explained in the article but I'd be really curious to see a reporter press him on how exactly that is.

He tries to argue that "we need to make sure that we have nuclear technologies and capabilities and the capacity to repair our nuclear stations", but this is irrelevant to the situation. The technical problems surrounding the Chalk River shutdown and repairs nor the Point Lepreau refurbishment were not a result of the lack of government monies. Repairing the Chalk River reactor required using techniques that AECL has never used before and that required extensive training and preparation. Point Lepreau's scheduling disaster was a failure management-wise to properly project overall costs and scheduling and to account for technical problems that arose.

Ignatieff goes on to say that "if we're having problems with that refurbishment, the ultimate responsibility for that is not with AECL, it's ultimately with the Conservative government."

First of all, was anyone accusing Chretien of being responsible for the Pickering A refurbishment when it went late and far over budget? If they did, then the accusations were as much baloney then as they are now.

He's right about one thing however, the government is the shareholder of AECL and does have some responsibility for its failures. And as the shareholder, the government has decided to absolve its responsibility for AECL by selling it. For the government, its not hard to see why this is an attractive option.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Monthly Wind Report - June, 2010

Looking at electricity generation from windfarms in Ontario from last month reveals some interesting details. As always, the data that I am using is publicly available on the IESO website.

Figure 1: Wind generation for Ontario in June, 2010 - Datapoints are hourly.

As I've come to expect, sometimes the windfarms produce large amounts of electricity and sometimes they produce nearly nothing. The average capacity factor this last month was a dismal 18.8%. The most output for any one hour was 746 MW, and the least was 0 MW.

No, that wasn't a typo. In fact, there was a period of two hours where not one MW was recorded as being produced. Since the markets are required by law to include wind power where possible, its safe to say that this is because of the wind turbines themselves and not because regulatory limits. If I recall there was some nasty weather around that time but that wouldn't explain why none of the wind turbines were producing useful electricity.

In any case, I'm not sure there can be a much clearer illustration of why wind power doesn't work in Ontario. Sure, you can produce electricity maybe 18.8% of the time on average, but the other 81.2% of the time you require another source of electricity, like coal.

That doesn't mean that wind power is a bad idea everywhere all the time, but we need to have an honest discussion about the drawbacks of generating electricity via the wind. Something that environmentalists and many politicians are unwilling to do.

While someday in the future someone may figure out a way to 'smooth' the inherent instabilities of windpower to make it a viable option while making it cheap enough for us to afford, that day isn't here yet, and it might never come. And we shouldn't pretend that if we just wish and hope hard enough that it will.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Electricity Without Subsidies?

Increasingly, the question must be asked whether or not electricity generation can occur without direct or indirect government subsidies and loans. If the answer is no, then to what extent should the government be involved in the process and should it be allowed to 'play favourites' when it comes to supporting groups pursuing electricity generation.

There needs to be a clear difference made between industries that require govenment 'subsidies' and industries that require 'loans'. A subsidy is the equivalent of the government giving money to a company either through guaranteed electricity pricing or tax exemptions. A loan on the other hand involves the government giving a company money with the expectation that the money will be returned with interest.

On principle, I have no problem with the government providing loans to companies that it feels will be faithful in fulfilling their end of the deal by repaying the loan with interest. If the government doesn't believe that the company will repay the loan, then higher interest rates can be charged (in proportion to the financial risk) or the government can refuse to loan the money. The key part of this policy involves the government making the loan decision based on a financial assessment as to the risk involved with providing the loan, not political considerations as to if providing the loan will help the government politically.

The other consideration to be given is the scale of the loan required. Companies desiring to build nuclear power plants require government loans because of the scale of the loan required. Building a nuclear power plant costs billions of dollars, an amount that many private banks would be unable to provide.

Subsidies on the other hand, is the equivalent of throwing money out the window never expecting to see it back and can create a situation where a company that would typically fail, can survive because of government largesse. From the point of view of the government, there can be reasons to do this if financial considerations are not the only prevailing interest. For example, promoting a local mining company that produces rare earth metals may be a strategic interest for a government to retain a reliable domestic supply of rare earth metals.

There is a third and not completely distinct issue to be considered beyond loans and subsidies and that is the regulatory environment that a government establishes. Jurisdictions can introduce legal barriers to certain industries that make it difficult or impossible to operate successfully within that jurisdiction. Alternatively, the government can relax regulations to allow a specific industry to operate successfully where it otherwise might not.

In the Ontario electricity market, an example would be the status afforded to nuclear power plants as base generating sources, practically guaranteeing that their electricity is sold. Similarly, wind and solar plants are guaranteed that their electricity will be sold. Is such non-financial intervention better or worse than government subsidies? And to what extent should the government be able to regulate the electricity market in that way?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Australian PM Steps Down

Kim Campell, err... I mean Julia Gillard has been appointed Prime Minister after Brian Mulron... I mean, Kevin Rudd stepped down.

The reason seems to surround the climate change policies that Rudd advocated, and then back-tracked on, but as all things, is likely a combination of a large number of things. In any case, it will be interesting to see if Gillard's term is short lived.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Helium-3 Supplies Running Low

Who cares?

Most people reading the title probably thought exactly that.

Helium? And what's that three mean? And so what if we're running out of it? Bear with me and I'll try to change your mind.

Helium-3 is an uncommon isotope of Helium that has two protons and a single neutron. It occurs naturally and can be produced through the beta decay of tritium, an isotope of hydrogen with three protons. Helium-3 is not radioactive and shares similar properties to the more common Helium-4, but at low temperatures (~2 K) does not undergo a phase transition, making it ideal to be used in cryogenics. As opposed to Helium-4, Helium-3 also very readily absorbs neutrons, having what is called a high 'absorption cross section' for neutrons.

This gives Helium-3 a broad range of applications, not only in the pure research, but also in things like magnetic resonance imaging of the lungs, missile guidance systems and nuclear detection technology used by the IAEA and the US Department of Homeland Security. Right now, all of that is in jeopardy as the US Department of Energy has rationed Helium-3 supplies, the Russians have ceased exporting it altogether and the US has canceled more shipments of the isotope to the IAEA. The price of Helium-3 has soared from $100 per litre to over $2000 per litre. [1]

Now, some of you still might be thinking "who cares?". But the capitalists out there are probably rubbing their hands with glee thinking "how can I get my hands on this Helium-3?".

You might remember that I told you it occurred naturally, and as a bi-product of tritium decay. Tritium is routinely produced in CANDU nuclear power plants, and OPG separates it out and stores it until it decays, treating it as 'waste'. The US estimates that over the next 10 years, these stockpiles could produce 130 000 litres of Helium-3 [1]. Even if we assume a price of only $1000/litre, that's still $130 million.

Imagine that, something that Canada has thought of as 'waste' could actually be worth hundreds of millions of dollars and could generate tens of millions of dollars a year in revenue. Now all we have to do is figure out how to safely get it out from where it is stockpiled, separated from the tritium and packaged off to market.

Like my father used to say, "Don't throw that away! That could be worth something someday!".

[1] "DOE begins rationing helium-3" Physics Today, June 2010

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Art of Deflection

So, Obama is seeking some big deal on alternative energies as a result of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Trying to link the two issues is akin to proposing to repair the roof when your basement is flooding. Sure, maybe your roof needs fixing, but shouldn't one focus on the leak in your basement?

The US' problem is that their oil dependence is forcing them to ally with less than reliable nations (ie Saudi Arabia) and explore more dangerous sources of oil (ie offshore drilling). Reducing their dependence requires a fundamentally honest assessment of where that oil is going, which Obama either doesn't want to provide, or doesn't know.

Petroleum has many applications but only a tiny fraction (7%) of it is used in electricity generation, almost all of it goes to the transportation (71%) and industrial (23%) sectors according to the EIA [1]. So trying to change the electricity generation system to renewable energy sources may have many benefits but reducing oil consumption will not be one of them. In fact, it may exacerbate the problem of America's oil dependence.

America depends on petroleum for gasoline and the only real alternative (ethanol as it stands is not a true alternative since it can never be produced in large enough quantities) is to use electric cars. But if you spend all your time switching from cheap electricity sources (coal) to expensive ones (wind, solar), you'll make electric cars even less competitive compared to gasoline.

There are plenty of things that require fixing in the US electricity generating system, but not one of those corrections will reduce oil consumption significantly. So what Obama is doing is either incompetent decision-making by an ignorant leader, or a political trick to try to defect attention and appear that he is tackling the problem but really push a totally different agenda through. Pardon my skepticism, but after all, his chief advisor was the one who said 'never let a crisis go to waste'.

[1] "Annual Energy Review 2008", Energy Information Administration [link]

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Media Goes Nuclear

One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the endless fear mongering about nuclear power plants. In some sense, its understandable that in the aftermath of the oil spill disaster in the gulf, people are more and more skeptical of safety claims of so-called 'experts' and people who work for certain industries.

But sometimes, the media blows minor issues far out of proportion.

Reading the Japanese and Hong Kong news, I noticed that there was a fair bit of attention being given to a nuclear 'leak' near Hong Kong. Reading some of the early reports it sounded like it was a serious breach of containment and that radiation had contaminated local waters, a real disaster. In reality, what actually had happened was a relatively routine occurrence.

Uranium fuel inside a nuclear reactor is contained within fuel elements which act to keep the radioactive uranium and fission bi-products from entering the water that is used to transport heat from the reactor to the boilers. The water is inside a completely contained cycle and under normal circumstances won't leave the system.

Sometimes, fuel elements are defective and 'leak' into the water. Radioactive iodine levels in the water are measured and trended to detect when these fuel defects occur, and if too many fuel defects occur, the reactor is shut down to remove the defective fuel. (In a CANDU reactor, with on-line refueling available, the reactor doesn't need to be shut down and the defective fuel can be removed without turning the reactor off.) Since shutting down a reactor is costly and finding a single defective fuel element among many can be time-consuming, there are international standards that are established that judge how high radioactive iodine levels can be before shut down is recommended.

What happened in the Daya reactor was a single minor fuel defect that left iodine levels slightly elevated but likely below the internationally accepted unsafe levels. I say likely because I can't find any specific information on how elevated actually is, but none of the journalists writing these stories seem to have asked either. None of them probably knew to ask.

No injuries, no radiation exposure, no elevated radiation levels at all. But remember that the media thrives on sensationalism, they make money when they can rile you up. So maybe I shouldn't be surprised at the endless fearmongering...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Real Costs of Electricity Rates

If your electricity rates were to double, the effect it would have on your monthly bills wouldn't mean more than a few hundred dollars a year most likely. To be sure, that might crush those living beneath the poverty line and those living paycheque to paycheque, but for the middle and upper class, just a mild inconvenience.

But rising electricity rates don't just affect your monthly electricity bills, they can have serious repercussions on businesses and industries. Reading the news today I came across a significant example of how cheap electricity can fuel an entire industry and undermine the industries of other jurisdictions.

The electricity costs per day for that NPI are huge, and yet, the overall costs for electricity from a coal fired power plant only 3-4cents / kWh. Suppose that over the long term, the primary expense for NPI is not the raw material costs, which they get cheap, or the manpower costs, which are practically nothing in China, but the electricity costs. If you were to only double the costs of electricity in that context, NPI would stop being a viable alternative to Sudbury's nickel.

If electricity costs were only half the total costs for each kg of NPI then quadrupling the electricity costs to 12-16 cents / kWh would have the same effect.

So cheap electricity has a huge impact on the effectiveness of an industry to compete on the international marketplace and overcome challenges from new industries.

Something to think about the next time you hear talk about how great it is that wind mills (12 cents / kWh) or solar panels (44 cents / kWh) are being built by McGuinty's government.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Never Trust the New York Times

By amusing coincidence, I happened to be reviewing the recent Czech legislative election results which will in all likelihood lead to a centre-right coalition taking power with a decrease seen by all the parties of the left; Green, Communist and Social Democratic Party

And then I happened on an article in the New York Times talking about the increasing power of the Communist party in the Czech Republic. Some samples from the NYT article, published the day of the election are below:

"Analysts say the Communist Party is benefiting from a regionwide disappointment over the failure of liberal parties to live up to the promises of 1989."

"In an election that is unlikely to yield a majority for either the leftist Social Democrats or the rightist Civic Democrats, analysts say the Communist Party could come closer to real power than at any other time since the Velvet Revolution here overthrew Communism in 1989."

"The Communists’ secret weapon is Katerina Konecna, the youngest member of the Czech Parliament, who at age 28 says she feels as at home wearing designer black stiletto heels as she does reading Das Kapital. The daughter of Communist Party members, Ms. Konecna says that the current crisis of capitalism has proved a boon to the Communist Party among the young, who were drawn by its promises of free education and guaranteed jobs."

In the end, the communist party dropped from just under 13% in the 2006 election to slightly above 11% this time around. That marks the second drop in support during elections for the Communist Party, which obtained support of 18.5% of Czechs in the 2002 elections and won 44 out of 200 seats during that election.

In fact, this election marks the first time in a long time that the size of the communist contingent in parliament won't cause significant coalition building problems (see the 2006 coalition building crisis as an example).

Way to read the situation New York Times, you really showed us your keen insight into the situation.

Canadians Didn't Buy the H1N1 Hype

A recent report shows that even in Toronto, Canadians generally didn't buy the H1N1 hype, and wisely chose to ignore the hysteria and go about their normal lives.

I've always felt that the H1N1 hysteria was overblown and that people who bought into it were worrying themselves sick over nothing. I can recall the media breathlessly reporting that this could be the Black Plague of our times. Opposition politicians literally stood on dead bodies to declare that the government was mishandling the H1N1 response and demanding that every Canadian be given a vaccine immediately or tens of thousands would die. A conservative blogger even accused me of putting her children at risk with my opposition to the H1N1 hysteria.

In the end, it was all a tempest in a teapot as the vaccine came out as predicted and was given out to those who wanted it. As more and more people contracted H1N1 (including my family members) people found out that it really wasn't as dangerous as the media had hyped it to be, and ignored the chicken littles who were claiming that the sky was falling. The second wave fizzled and people have pretty much forgotten the whole unpleasant events.

Of course, the 'experts' are upset now because two things have become clear. The first is that they were absolutely, 100% wrong about H1N1. Not only was it no more dangerous than the normal flu, but the vaccination program (which only vaccinated 28% of people in Toronto) didn't prevent a 'second wave' as they may have previously believed. The second thing that is annoying them, and probably this is the hardest for them to accept, is that people stopped believing them and ignored their very clear and explicit instructions to get the vaccine.

"How dare those uncouth plebians dare to ignore our instructions!" They cry from their ivory towers. "We know best for them!"

Of course, one might expect that it would be wise to heed the call to action from a person who has dedicated their life to the research of dangerous diseases and pandemics. But time and time again, they have proven themselves to be chicken littles, crying that the world is ending whenever a new flu strain is found. So is it any wonder that people stop believing them?

Now I know all the arguments, they decided to 'err on the side of caution'. It was better to be 'safe than sorry'. But anyone looking objectively at the facts could have come to the same conclusion that I did and concluded that the whole issue was fabricated hysteria. As I posted on my blog at the time, the experience of Australia without a vaccine should have been enough to reassure us that the world was not coming to a crashing end.

Unfortunately, the loss of public trust in medical experts can have all kinds of tragic consequences. There will come a day when we need these experts to warn us of a serious and dangerous disease or virus and their cries of 'wolf' will go unheeded for far too long because the public stopped trusting them. Next time there is a flu 'pandemic' both the experts and the media should consider this before promoting mass hysteria.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Brain Drain to Canada?

Wait! Stop! No!

This doesn't fit our neat narrative of the Harper government hating science!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

On the Future of NASA

Just wanted to point out a few things about Obama's plans for NASA. Compare the following two statements.

Obama noted that the Constellation Program, which had sought to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020, is behind schedule, over budget and overall less important than other space investments.
"By the mid-2030s I believe we can send people to orbit Mars and bring them safely back to Earth," Obama said. Landing on Mars will follow, and "I expect to be around to see it," he said.
So... they can't put together a program to send people to the moon. But he expects that they will be able to put together a program to send people to Mars?

Beyond that, Obama is gambling on two other things. Firstly, that NASA can come up with some as yet unknown form of propulsion to go beyond Earth orbit. While its noble to invest in such ground-breaking technologies, why not continue the Constellation program in addition to searching for new propulsion technologies? Secondly, that some commercial enterprise will fill the gap that NASA currently occupies ferrying people and items up into space. If getting into orbit is so easy that private companies can do it, then why hasn't anyone achieved it yet?

Most of the plans I've heard of from private enterprises only involve getting into space 'technically' and not being truly functional 'space ships' let alone 'ferries'.

I'm willing to bet that this had more to do with politics (erasing Bush's 'stain') than it did science or good policy.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Obama Snubs and is Snubbed

The big nuclear summit ended with a fizzle. No major announcements, no big agreements. Just a token consensus to secure 'vulnerable' nuclear supplies. Because those dangerous stockpiles in Canada are the real threat to nuclear security, eh.

Meanwhile, Japan-USA relations reached a new low as Obama refused to squeeze Hatoyama in for more than a chat during the summit, and so in return Hatoyama used the summit as an opportunity to discuss territorial spats with China's Hu Jintao and the opportunity to help Vietnam build roads and nuclear power plants. The irony is thick.

Other nations similarly took the opportunity to use the summit, not to talk about nuclear security, but chat it up with other foreign leaders concerning other, unrelated matters.

Canada, despite its agreement handing over chunks of our highly enriched uranium back to the USA, felt no compunction against publicly contradicting Obama when he made unfounded and incorrect claims. Considering Hilary Clinton's poor behaviour recently in Canada, I'm not surprised.

On Iran, China is still not enthusiastic, to say the least, about any sanctions. Despite the media and Obama administration's misleading statements, the most China would commit to was opening negotiations concerning sanctions, not that they would support sanctions (see the correction at the end of the article).

But Obama gives as good as he gets, at least when it comes to small US-friendly countries. Obama took the opportunity to snub a USA ally that has been literally falling over itself to try to help the USA; Georgia.

Success, indeed.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Obama's Major Foreign Policy Victory

Yes, you read that title right, a major threat to international nuclear safety has been eliminated thanks to the Obama administration. The Canadian government, widely known to be a prime proliferator of nuclear weaponry has, under great pressure from Obama, broken down and agreed to transfer its stockpile of highly enriched uranium to the USA.

What's that you say? It was being used to produce medical isotopes? Nonsense! It was a treat to international peace and security!

Also, that threat to nuclear safety and security, Ukraine, has similarly broken down and agreed to transfer its stockpile of highly enriched uranium to the USA. A much needed diplomatic victory that will ensure Ukraine never spreads its nuclear technology around again.

Focusing on whats really important the Toronto Star reports the following:

Satellite photo evidence showing the first wisps of steam from a new nuclear reactor in Pakistan came as a rude awakening for U.S. intelligence officials, according to the New York Times. They interpret the images as proof positive that the country is preparing to ramp up production of weapons-grade fuel to keep pace with India, even as it struggles to safeguard its nuclear facilities against possible attack by Al Qaeda.

Though Obama met separately with his Pakistani and Indian counterparts on the eve of the Washington summit, White House officials say raising the issue during the summit would be “too politically divisive.”

That's right, Obama is wisely choosing to focus on the important issues and the dangerous countries like Canada and Ukraine rather than dealing with the minor Pakistani-India issue. Moreover, Malaysia, a regional powerhouse with massive pull in Iran has joined with the USA in condemning Iran in the strongest possible language. This reversal has the potential to break the deadlock over the Iranian issue.

The White House said in a statement that he had also discussed Iran with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

"The two leaders agreed on the need for the international community to send a clear signal to Iran that while it has the right to develop peaceful uses of nuclear energy, Iran should not use this right to develop nuclear weapons capability," said the statement.

Sorry if I have trouble restraining my sarcasm over this political stunt by Obama. Although, considering how low my expectations are for Obama now, I really don't expect much more. The Chinese are just playing Obama for time, promising to 'work' with them on sanctions but will insist on limits that make the sanctions useless when push comes to shove. Other countries such as Brazil will insist on the right to develop enrichment facilities and other nations needing reliable local sources of medical isotopes will continue to insist on the right to have highly enriched uranium for their science reactors.

Obama's advisors know this even if Obama doesn't. So they are choreographing some minor diplomatic 'victories' to give the image of success while avoiding the real challenging issues.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Earth Hour: An Exercise in Futility?

According to the IESO website, 560 MWh of electricity use was avoided as a result of Earth Hour and I'm going to tentatively accept that figure for the sake of argument. The real question I want answered is how much carbon dioxide was really avoided with this exercise.

The way not to answer this question is by taking a chart of total capacities and dividing the 'savings' out among all the generation sources weighting them by capacity. This is because for one thing, nuclear power was not affected by Earth Hour.

Using data from the IESO generator reports we can get a pretty good idea. For simplicity's sake, I'm going to combine gas and coal because the amount of coal used was not very significant. And I'm going to combine the non-carbon sources, nuclear and hydroelectric as well.

Figure 1: Electricity Generation by Source for March 27th (Earth Day) [1]

As you can see, there was a slight dip where typically there is an increase, by comparing this to the electricity production for the previous week this becomes even more clear.

Figure 2: Electricity Generation by Source for March 20th [1]

Comparing these two we can make no solid conclusions, and by comparing a hundred graphs we probably could make nothing conclusive either because of the large number of variables (weather, overall production, etc...) that need to be taken into account. But yes, we reduced our electricity production by some amount.

However, electricity from coal and gas sources is consistent with the previous week in terms of overall production and the changes hour-to-hour. If anything, it looks like hydroelectricity production took a dip at 8pm. So on that basis, I'm willing to say that I believe no statistically significant amount carbon dioxide was avoided as a result of Earth Hour.

So to all you who dutifully turned out your lights on March 27th, congratulations, you did absolutely no good whatsoever in terms of carbon dioxide output.

[1] All data is publicly available on the IESO website.

Weekly Wind Report

So the last week was an interesting one as far as wind power was concerned. Like a roller coaster, the amount of electricity produced by the wind farms increased and decreased before increasing again and decreasing again.

It didn't get as low as we've seen it before, but it didn't get as high either.

Capacity factor: 27.80%
Maximum Output: 808 MW
Minimum Output: 27 MW
Biggest change hour-to-hour: 157 MW increase

Figure 1: Actual Wind Farm Output (Source:

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Earth Hour: Why I Won't Be Participating

Earth Hour is coming, tonight in fact. An hour where millions of Canadians will shut off their lights and celebrate how environmentally conscious they are.

I won't be one of them.

Earth Hour in Ontario isn't about conservation. Shutting off the lights in your home one hour a day is not going to have any long term effect on the environment, as your 40Weq fluorescent light bulb is not the significant contributor to your electricity bill. The computer you're reading this on, or the refridgerator from where you got that drink are far more important.

Nor will it dent the carbon dioxide emissions. This is primarily because today, as of 9:00am, the IESO records show 86% of our electricity comes from hydroelectric and nuclear power, neither of which produce carbon dioxide during production. A meagre 275 MW (out of 15800 MW produced) comes from coal, and 1356 MW comes from gas.

Earth Hour isn't even about 'raising awareness' as some would like to claim. Ask anyone on the street if they have heard about energy conservation, do you expect them to say 'no'?

What Earth Hour represents is a new environmentalist religion, complete with rituals, taboos, symbols and holidays and the shunning of blasphemers. Which brings me to the real reason I will not be joining in Earth Hour.

I am not anti-religious in any sense of the word. You're free to practice whatever faith you believe in so long as your faith does not interfere with my faith. But what environmentalists are doing is pushing their faith upon other people, or forcing them to pretend to care in order to avoid being harassed. They believe that unless everyone becomes a member of their religion, that the world will always be in peril, but once everyone believes that the world will be gumdrops and rainbows.

Earth Hour is meant to shun others into joining this new religion (or pretending to join) by creating a visible sign as to who believes and who does not. Which is why it is now being held late at night instead of at peak electricity consumption time (early in the morning). Do you think environmentalists wouldn't go so far as to publicly shame companies that leave their lights on during that hour or boycott restaurants that do not join in the 'celebration'?

If Christians were to do the same to restaurants that do not proudly display the crucifix, there would nation-wide outcry.

In Ontario, Earth Hour will have no effect on carbon dioxide production, a minuscule effect on electricity demand on the long term and absolutely no effect on awareness. And yet it is still practiced religiously by many for the purpose of feeling self-righteous.

If you really want to help the environment, use your own coffee mug when ordering coffee instead of using the paper cups they always give you.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Weekly Wind Report

First the good news for wind advocates, this week, wind power broke 40% capacity factor for the first time since I began tracking it.

Bad news, wind power fluctuated wildly across the week, rising as high as 922 MW and sinking as low as 5 MW. If we were only using electricity when the wind blows this wouldn't be a problem, or if we had another way of 'smoothing' out wind power across a week. But we don't, so it is a problem. A problem that is currently addressed by keeping gas or coal fired turbines running ready to go if need be.

A counter-argument might be "but difference in hour to hour output of wind power are not significant enough to require all 1000MW of gas/coal running on standby". Which sounds reasonable on the face of it. So, I will be determining the largest change over an hour to hour period in wind power as well from now on to see how variable wind power is on an hour to hour basis.

Finally, I'm also going to try to include from here out the breakdown of wind power by generating station. (See Figure 1)

Also, to emphasize a point I had made earlier about wind power 'peaking' at low demand times and causing nuclear reactors to be derated or tripped, that 922 MW came in the 10-11pm time period. The lowest output period (5MW) occurred in the 10-11am period about 2 and a half days later.

Capacity factor: 46.48%
Maximum Output: 922 MW
Minimum Output: 5 MW
Biggest change hour-to-hour: 181 MW increase

Figure 1: Wind Production in Ontario, March 10-16 by Wind Farm [1]

[1] All data is publicly available on IESO website.

McGuinty Raises Your Bills (again)

McGuinty certainly has found a way to raise more money for his spending sprees. Rather than raising the PST.. err.. HST or raises income taxes, he's going to raise your electricity bills. And because that money is not going directly to the provincial government, he hopes to confuse Ontarians into believing that its those nasty electricity companies, and not his government which is taking more and more of your money.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Illinois Opens Up

In a nearly unanimous vote, the Illinois Senate has opened the path for the construction of nuclear power plants in that state.

That doesn't mean they'll start building nuclear plants, but removing an arbitrary ban on nuclear power based on groundless fearmongering in the wake of Chernobyl is a good first step.

Monday, March 15, 2010

More Windmills Won't Solve This Problem

I've been thinking increasingly about the problem of intermittent power from wind mills. Partly because I've been visiting the Spanish electricity website where they indicate a relatively more stable supply of electricity from wind power.

Which made me wonder if having more wind power somehow causes the output on average to be more stable. It probably would if you had multiple independent sources of wind which were not dependent on one another or were inversely dependent on one another. Which also led me to consider if Ontario's wind power was generated primarily from one part of the province, which would lend credence to the theory that Ontario need only build wind mills in more diverse parts of the province in order to generate a (more) consistent source of electricity relying solely on the wind.

Fortunately, the IESO website helpfully identifies the locations of all major wind farms in Ontario.

Out of 1085 MW of total capacity, 189 MW are located near Sault Ste. Marie, 198 MW are located in Wolfe Island (near Kingston), 200 MW are located on the shores of Lake Erie, 298 MW are located on the shores of Lake Huron, and another 199 MW are located north of Orangeville in the middle of Southern Ontario. So clearly, if the wind cannot provide more than 2 MW at one point in time with such a large number of turbines spread across Ontario, the problem isn't having too few windmills clustered together.

Building more windmills in Ontario will not solve this problem then.

Electricity Too Expensive? Blame McGuinty

Seems like someone has found out that their rates have increased recently and that all that effort they put into trying to 'game' the system has not brought the savings they wanted.

Now, I understand why she is upset. She was told that if she did as the government wanted that she would save money, now she is realizing that despite doing exactly what the government wanted, her rates have increased by 10%. She feels that she was lied to, and in a way she was. But really, if she hadn't changed her lifestyle, she would be paying a lot more than 6.2 cents per kWh on average. So in a way she 'saved' money over what she would have been paying.

But I find the Toronto Star's position on this laughable. While complaining bitterly about the increase of a meagre 10% in this poor lady's rates, they openly advocate for policies that would send that same lady's rates soaring. Increasing wind and solar power will increase electricity rates. Period. There is no discussion or debate on this point. Even the Ontario government realized that when they signed agreements for 13.5 cents per kWh for wind and 44 cents per kWh for solar voltaic electricity sources.

I've already shown mathematically that the Ontario Liberals' policies in this regard will increase your rates significantly (I seem to recall the number $500 million / year as a minimum).

What liberals in the Toronto Star don't seem to realize is that the policies they advocate have consequences. If you want more wind power, then accept that electricity rates will increase and that working class folks are going to suffer the most.

The saddest part of this whole story? Electricity rates this last year have been ridiculously low because of the recession. But when the recession ends and your electricity rates soar, you'll know who to thank for that.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Weekly Wind Report

So, I have one question for wind advocates. In Ontario, with a total installed 'theoretical' capacity of 1085 MW, for a one hour period, you couldn't scrap together more than 2 MW of output. That's pathetic.

A nuclear reactor or a coal fired power plant may shut off for repairs but its generally predictable when it will occur and for how long. When they are operating, they can operate consistently (if desired) until they need to be shut down for repairs again. A wind turbine also needs to be shut down for repairs sometimes, but in addition to that, it cannot provide electricity when you want it to.

Would increasing the number of wind turbines solve this problem? I doubt it. The problem is twofold, sure the wind might always be blowing somewhere in Ontario, but if it is blowing far up north in the James Bay area the transmission costs to get the electricity down to where it is useful are tremendous and reduce their usefulness (and increase the costs). Beyond that, just because it might be blowing, doesn't mean its blowing fast enough or slow enough to be used, there is a limited range of wind speeds in which windpower can be useful.

Capacity Factor: 20.29%
Minimum Output: 2 MW
Maximum Output: 489 MW

Figure 1: March 2nd - 9th, Actual Wind Power (source:

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Some Budget Critics Can't Get Their Stories Straight


You hear that sound? That's the sound of someone's writing style hitting rock bottom.

Perhaps I'm being harsh though, I disagree completely with his point of view. But that's not unusual, you have to deal with people everyday who you don't agree with. What I can't stand, however, is when someone's logic is internally inconsistent.

For example, he attacks the budget for giving money to AECL to finish repairs to Chalk River (to allow the resumption of radioisotope production) and finish refurbishment of the Point Lepreau reactor. Perhaps I can understand his disagreement with the fulfillment of legally binding contracts (with New Brunswick) and his dislike for the resumption of production of medical isotopes. He mocks the 'investment' that the federal government is making and says we won't see much of that money coming back.

Fair enough. I can understand if you feel that we as a country should neglect our health care and violate contracts because you feel its a poor investment.

But he then loudly whines about how the government is not renewing the 1 cent per kwh subsidy to 'renewable' energies that cost the government $1.5 billion. That was money literally thrown out the door that you'll never see again and will never be returning to the government coffers. Money that was being spent on windmills that only produce electricity 30% of the time on average at best at prices that are twice the current rates.

Is that a better 'investment'?

If you're looking at the money given out as an investment, then putting the money into AECL is the better bet of the two options. How many people buy run down homes, spend money to refurbish them and then sell them? Is it a poor investment? Maybe. But is it better to take that money and burn it and have no hope of ever seeing it again?

From a jobs perspective, he talks about the jobs that were created in the wind industry, but doesn't mention a thing about the jobs created by nuclear refurbishment projects.

If jobs are what matters, then lets compare how many jobs were created by that $1.5 billion subsidy and the money invested keeping AECL afloat. If AECL were to go bankrupt tomorrow how many people would lose their jobs? Hospitals would fire a lot of their technicians who deal with radioisotopes (and they already have) to deal with the reduced supply. Point Lepreau and Bruce Power refurbishments would halt and thousands of tradespeople and engineers would be thrown out of work almost instantly while the owners try to figure out a way to complete the refurbishment without AECL (good luck with that!). Sure maybe after some bankruptcy battle something could be worked out and work could resume, but in the meantime, those thousands of people are out of work. The thousands of jobs who depend on serving those people are out of work too. MDS Nordion, bereft of its biggest potential supplier of isotopes would probably go under, and all their jobs would disappear. No isotopes means no revenue means no jobs.

I disagree with Hamilton on plenty of policy issues that he talks about in his article. I could talk about how wind power costs three times that of nuclear power. Or how the subsidy was pointless and useless in the first place. But its impossible to have policy discussions with someone when their position is internally inconsistent. It means that the person is insistent on a specific policy regardless of the facts.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Science Policy and the Conservative Budget: Part I

One thing that should never be rushed, is political analysis of science policy. Better to delay judgment and make a good policy than to rush into a bad decision without thinking.

Some highlights from the budget that I like include:

Funding Councils

Considering that around the world, government agencies are strongly pushing to reduce science budgets [1,2], I think the fact that Harper isn't going to cut the deficit at the expense of scientific research is a plus. The fact that NSERC, CIHR and SSHRC are going to have their budget increased by $32 million is better, even if that only represents a ~1% increase in total budget.

Post-docs also come out winners with an additional $45 million earmarked for a new post-doc fellowship program to support them financially.

Radioisotopes and TRIUMF

TRIUMF is a big winner this budget, and I'm curious to know if the $126 million over 5 years is meant primarily to improve their production of radioisotopes. Reading the blurb in the budget describing TRIUMF and "its successful relationship with MDS Nordion in the production of
radioisotopes and radiation-related technologies used to diagnose, prevent
and treat disease" makes me strongly suspect that it is.

About $35 million will also be provided to Natural Resources Canada to investigate the development of new technologies for radioisotope production. If my suspicions about TRIUMF are correct, some of this money will end up there too.

Nuclear Energy

AECL gets a cash infusion and the government is reviewing proposals made by companies concerning its future. This cash infusion seems necessary in order to keep things going. I haven't seen anything publicly reported concerning proposals so I'm not going to comment further on this except to say that the government shouldn't waste time. Take the time to make a good decision, but don't drag this out needlessly.

With something as political as AECL, I don't expect there to be a big buildup of knowledge concerning what will happen. It will probably occur suddenly and without much warning. One day the minister responsible will hold a press conference and announce that Company Y's proposal has been accepted and things will go from there.

There are a few items I particularly don't like in this budget, but I'll go over them later.

[1] "Cuts to science budget moderated in Japan" Physics Today, February 2010

[2] "UK slashes physics budget" Physics Today, February 2010

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Weekly Wind Power Report

So this week is probably exactly the nightmare that I keep referring to for wind power. The overall capacity factor was up slightly from last week but only because of a large peak that occurred between the second and third days.

The power output went from almost nothing to over 900 MW in the period of a day and then dropped rapidly back down under 200 MW. Then it bounced back up and down for a number of days before it finally dropped back down to almost zero again by the end of the week.

Imagine if you were relying on wind power for 900MW of electricity, it would only be able to provide anywhere near that amount of electricity for a short period of time this last week. The rest of the time, the difference would have to be made up by coal or natural gas. But you can't just turn coal and natural gas on and off whenever you want. While the wind power is running, the natural gas and coal furnaces have to be kept hot so they can resume operation as soon as the wind dies down.

So you're burning fossil fuels anyways. So sure, you could build enough windmills with the capacity to replace a nuclear reactor.. but really, what you are replacing that reactor with is coal or natural gas 70% of the time.

Capacity Factor: 25.60%
Minimum Output: 15 MW
Maximum Output: 947 MW

Figure 1: February 24th - March 2nd Actual Wind Power

Coal, China and the Crazies

And by crazies, I mean, anyone who would dare to praise the Chinese government for being 'ahead' in the 'clean energy race'.

Look at the facts for goodness sake, China produces 90% of their electricity from coal and oil. A meagre 0.06% comes from 'other' sources like windpower.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Weekly Wind Report

If there's one thing I don't mind, its facts. I've been open about my position on wind power and its usefulness (or lack thereof) in generating electricity for Ontario. So I don't mind looking and publicizing facts about wind power.

So in that trend, I'll be posting data taken from the IESO public reports concerning wind generation in Ontario every weekend.

For the week of February 16 - 23, there were 1085 MW of installed capacity of wind generation.

The maximum amount of electricity generated by wind at any point in time in that week was 565 MW.

The mimimum amount of electricity generated by wind at any point in time in that week was a meagre 22 MW.

The average capacity factor over the week was 20.84%.

The graph tells the rest of the story.

Figure 1: Electricity generation by wind power (February 16 - 23rd by hour). Data publicly available on IESO website.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

McGuinty Ignores Facts, Pushes Ahead

This is a very good article concerning green power and their potential in Ontario. I would just like to highlight one very important quote.

In a report two years ago, the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) told the government that "wind and solar power will never be more than a niche supplier of power in Ontario."
People in the system know that wind and solar power is a dead end for Ontario. People in the Obama administration know that wind and solar power are dead ends in the USA.

Why doe environmentalists and Premier Dalton McGuinty continue to insist that we throw good money after bad in the hopes that some day some magic bullet will appear that will solve all the problems. First it was the 'smart grid', then it was talk about strategically placing windmills all across Ontario and now some people are stuck on something called the 'nitrogen grid' finally making wind power a viable alternative.

Lets be honest with ourselves and with our money. Wind power is a waste of time and money in Ontario. Environmentally, it will lead to increased carbon dioxide emissions. Financially, they are extremely expensive.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Science Policy Follies

“Simply put, we're putting the science back into the rocket science at NASA,” White House science adviser John Holdren said at a budget briefing Monday.
So, Obama has decided to cut NASA's plans to return to the moon, redirecting that money to vague research plans for rockets.

The point of politicians in science policy is not, or should not be, to direct every step of the research that is going on. A leader/manager should however set clear goals and expectations and monitor the progress that is going on without poking their nose in too deeply. Redirecting money to a project without establishing clear goals as to what you want them to achieve is not sound policy, regardless of the field.

To give a simplistic analogy, if you are building a house, you may help design the house layout, but it is unlikely that you would actually assist in building the house unless you had some training. You would probably establish an expectation on cost and the time required and follow up on their progress in order to make sure that they are on track. You would also establish expectations as to the size of the house, the style the house is going to be, sizes of different rooms and so on, in advance of the beginning of construction.

If you simply told a builder, 'build me a home!' and left him to his own devices without any clear goals, time frame or price limitations, you probably would not elicit much sympathy if they built you a home that you do not like at a price that you can't afford.

Science policy is not much more complicated. Political leaders should establish a goal, a time frame and set a reasonable budget to complete these goals after consultation with the people who will be accomplishing it.

Mr. Crawley said the Bush moon plan was well thought out, but based on existing technologies and underfunded.

Bush's plan may have been well thought out, but probably could not be accomplished with the money that they were willing to pay and seems to have lacked appropriate monitoring. But at least he had a goal, a time frame and a budget that people could work towards, Obama hasn't seemed to offered any of this, but plenty of criticisms of his predecessor on this file.

Allocating money to vague 'research' without a goal or a time frame is a recipe for disaster. Not because of the inability of researchers to perform research, but because without a clear goal they may waste time pursuing one goal only to be told later that the rockets are actually to be used for a different purpose.

I'm sure everyone has had a personal experience where they were told to work on a project without clear direction, only to wind up being told halfway through that you will have to restart because you were not performing the job the way your supervisor wanted it done. Right?

Friday, February 12, 2010

An Interesting Way to Sell a Car

This is an interesting way to sell cars I guess. I'm not sure if I'd be more likely to buy an Audi based on this advertisement, but watching it makes me laugh.

Based on some comments on Youtube I think there is some worry that we may be headed down this path where ultimately people are arrested for such 'crimes' as using incandescent light bulbs, but I think these fears are ultimately overblown. This sort of thing couldn't happen without the support of the majority of the population, which I don't think they'll ever have.

So enjoy the commercial, and don't get too hung up on it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Could Wind Power Increase Carbon Dioxide Emissions?

The real problem with wind power is its unreliability, as I've stated time and time again. But in places like Canada, can wind power actually increase the reliance on fossil fuels? It seems counter-intuitive but the answer is 'yes'.

In countries like, Denmark, which relied almost exclusively on fossil fuels in order to provide electricity, the introduction of wind power, even as an unreliable source of electricity, can enable the country to reduce its fossil fuel reliance over what it would have been had wind power not been introduced. But this is because it is replacing fossil fuels exclusively.

In a province like Ontario, the situation is far different because we rely on nuclear electricity to produce electricity for what is known as the 'base load'. Nuclear power is extremely useful at providing a constant, consistent amount of electricity over an extended period of time and that is how it is applied in Ontario. In order to handle the vast majority of the fluctuations in electricity demand, Ontario uses coal, gasoline or hydro.

Figure 1: Nuclear power in Ontario over a 3 day period (January 9th -11th, 2010). Blue line represents the rated power, and the red represents the actual production. Data publicly available on the IESO website.

Ontario's demand fluctuates between 15000 MW and 21000 MW these days (see here), but nuclear electricity generally provides a constant 10000 MW of electricity regardless of what time it is during the day. When Bruce A restart is complete in a year or two (hopefully), this will increase to around 11500 MW. That means, at low demand, nuclear power currently are the source for 66% of the electricity. Hydroelectric projects provide an additional 3000-5000 MW of electricity.

So, ideally, at low demand, Ontario's electricity generation is practically emission free. However, because coal and gasoline are easy to 'tune', they are used in small amounts at low demand in order to match supply and demand better.

The problem with wind power really is its unpredictability. One day it might be working at 80% efficiency, the next, it might be producing at 5%. But because of McGuinty's laws, wind power always must be incorporated into the grid when it is available, no matter what.

Figure 2: Wind power in Ontario over a 3-day period (January 9th - 11th, 2010). The blue line represents the rated power, the pink represents the actual output. Data publicly available on the IESO website.

Figure 3: Wind power in Ontario over the month of January. The blue line represents the actual output from wind power sources. Maximum rated output is 1100 MW for all wind powered generators. Data publicly available on the IESO website.

McGuinty is planning on increasing wind power up to at least 3600 MW within the next few years thanks to his recently inked 'deal'. This means, that in a few years, if low demand remains where it is, it is possible that at low demand wind power will replace hydroelectricity and even some nuclear power plants.

Nuclear power in Ontario is not designed to be able to handle such fluctuations in power output. Moreover, once a reactor is off the grid for some hours, it must shut down and remain off for about a day and a half before it can restart at all. So in order to accommodate the potential for high wind power during low demand times, Ontario would have to instruct nuclear power plants turn off completely (derating is possible too but not generally preferable) and remain off during high demand periods.

Then, during high demand periods, Ontario will have to use additional gasoline and coal fired power plants in order to replace the nuclear power plants that are off. To make matters worse, the wind power may drop during high demand periods, requiring even more gasoline and coal fired power plants to operate.

Which then leads to an amusing situation. Producing more wind power may actually result in an increase in carbon dioxide emissions in addition to an increase in your electricity bills.

Still think wind power is an environmentalists best friend?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Why Energy Policy Matters

If you own an apartment or a home you know what how it feels to pay utility bills. As a student living with your parents or in a dorm where your utilities come as part of the package, you don't appreciate how much things like electricity really cost you.

Or how necessary it is.

Imagine if you had to live without electricity for one week and I don't mean that silly 'Earth Hour', where people turn off their lights for an hour. I mean, shut off your refridgerator, freezer, don't recharge your cell phone, don't turn on your computer, for a whole week. Could you reasonably survive?

With most of your bills, if you were cut off, it would not harm your standard of living much. If you can't pay your cable bills or satellite bills, its not a big deal. If you can't pay your internet bills, its an inconvenience. If you can't pay your phone bills, its extremely inconvenient.

But if you can't pay your water or electrical bills, your standard of living will suffer dramatically and will likely threaten your health.

So we are absolutely dependent on electricity, no matter what happens or how much it costs, we need to have it. More so than even gasoline. But cheap electricity can give people, especially the working and middle class the ability to provide a standard of living close to or equal to the upper class in many ways. Both the rich and the poor use electricity to preserve food, provide heating or cooling, enjoy entertainment, enable communication and access information in remarkably similar ways. For example, while a working class family may have a cheaper television than a richer family, both televisions require electricity (some more than others) to provide entertainment.

On the other hand, expensive electricity affects the working and middle classes more than the upper class. The upper class will always be able to afford electricity in order to provide the comforts to which we all are accustomed, even if the prices were to soar to three or four times the current values. The upper class might cut back some, turn the heating on lower, set the A/C higher in the summer, buy more energy efficient televisions and so on. Generally, they would carry on their lives as they normally do, with only some minor adjustments. But the lower classes don't have that luxury since they are generally already extremely careful with their electricity use. For middle and lower class families, the choices become more serious as they must weigh what "luxuries" they can do without and whether they need to invest large sums of money that they might not even have replacing older energy-'inefficient' appliances. And even if the increase is not that drastic, any increase in electricity costs removes money that middle class or lower class families might have been able to spend on other items, like say, clothing or food.

That is why I strongly advocate for energy sources that provide cheap and reliable electricity. Its an effective means of assisting class mobility, its good for the economy and provides a standard of living that is unmatched in our history.

That's why energy policy matters so much to me.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Blowing in the Wind

There's a lot of talk about wind power being the 'future' of Ontario. Which gives us the opportunity, fortunately or unfortunately, to see wind power in action and gauge its true usefulness in generating electricity.

An extremely good resource is the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) website, which documents the price of electricity in Ontario, the spot prices, Provincial Benefit, and sources for the electricity. It also gives us the fact that there is almost 1100 MW of installed capacity of wind power and tells us at any point of time, what amount of electricity is actually generated by wind power.

I've been watching it for a few days and am relatively surprised by a couple of things on a broad overview. One thing is the remarkable predictability that I've seen in the wind power. Predictability is a very good thing when it comes to electricity generation. The other thing is the fact that it never exceeds about 30% of its maximum at any point in time. Which means that its true 'capacity factor' is lower than what I've been estimating and what is estimated by wind advocates.

If this is true, then things are likely to only get worse. I'd wager that cheapest and most reliable wind energy locations are already occupied and from here on out the locations will either cost more or be less reliable than the ones we already have.

So Dalton McGuinty has put us at the leading edge of wind technology, but unfortunately for him and for us, it looks like that edge is heading over a cliff.

UPDATE: I am doing some downloading and analyzing of the data and have found some times above 30% capacity factor believe it or not. I'm going to try to do a comprehensive look at the data later.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Death By a Thousand Papercuts

This is almost getting routine.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report is supposed to be the world's most authoritative scientific account of the scale of global warming.

But the Telegraph, of London, has discovered a series of new flaws in it including:

* the publication of inaccurate data on the potential of wave power to produce electricity around the world, which was wrongly attributed;

* examples of statements based on student dissertations, two of which were unpublished; and

* more claims that were based on reports produced by environmental pressure groups.

How did this thing get through peer review? The IPCC is supposed to be the pinnacle of science-based policy advocacy. Instead, these 'errors' are exposing it to be a policy driven document more interested in advocating a particular point of view than looking for 'truth'.

Each error may seem minor in isolation, but cumulatively, they can sink the IPCC. One thing I'm happy to see, is that journalists are beginning to take a serious look at the IPCC and its claims and are willing to criticize it. Regardless how you feel about climate change, greater scrutiny is better than less.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Wishing Death Upon Your Critics

Usually... not a smart idea.

But nothing about this guy surprises me anymore. His attempt to blame lobbyists after 'easy' money was a nice touch, except for the fact that he received millions of dollars to investigate the bogus claims he made.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Where is Dalton Sending Your Money?

After my previous arguments concerning the cost of nuclear power versus how much Dalton McGuinty is promising to pay the Korean consortium per kWh, I decided to do a little bit of my own analysis on how much wind power costs per kWh and came to a relatively surprising result which leads to some very disturbing questions.

It is estimated by wind energy proponents that, per MW of installed capacity, the cost for constructing and installing a wind turbine is $1-2 million per MW. Lets assume the upper limit and calculate the cost per kWh for a 50 MW turbine.


Like nuclear power plants, most of the cost is built into the initial construction. A 50 MW wind turbine costs roughly $100 million to build and install. Assume the life expectancy of the turbine is about 20 years. That means that the cost is about $5 million / year. Lets add an additional $2.5 million / year for maintenance, repairs and other costs.

Electricity Produced

Just as before, the calculation for the number of kWh is straightforward. Assuming a capacity factor of 30% then the wind turbine will generate 153 million kWh each year.

Total Costs

Using these numbers, the costs are $0.049 / kWh. Which is, a lot lower than the $0.135 / kWh that the Ontario government promised the Koreans for their electricity.

Either one of two things must have happened in order to account for this massive discrepancy. Either the cost of wind power is much higher than wind advocates are letting on, or the Ontario government has been duped into paying the Koreans over twice what the electricity should be worth. Which do you think is more likely?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Windmills Versus Nukes

After I mentioned in a previous post about the so-called 'deal' that Ontario signed with Samsung to provide electricity at 13.5 cents per kWh, I started to wonder, how much would it cost per kWh if Ontario went with the $26 billion plan for the new nuclear reactors at Darlington? Would it be more or less than the rate at which we will be paying for the windmills?

I could quote some studies that looked at the overall costs for nuclear reactors, but why quote a study when you can do a back of the envelope calculation yourself?

So, there were two reactors to be built, that would produce 1200 MW of electricity each, and are estimated to live for about 40 years, producing electricity 80-90% of the time.

Construction and Operation Costs

The estimated costs were $26 billion. That, I am assuming, includes wages for construction personnel and all materials.

I'm going to go out on a limb and estimate the number of direct employees as something like 1000 being paid at $100 000 / year. I think that is a fair estimate, and easy to work with. That means each year the cost of wages would be $100 million. Over 40 years, that means $4 billion.

The cost of uranium fuel I know is quite low and we'll assume that compared to the $4 billion it is irrelevant. But just to be conservative, lets include a generic 'other costs' as $10 billion over the 40 year period to include other costs such as replacement parts, analysis requests, updates to computer systems and the like as a filler. That means in addition to the $100 million a year the two stations will spend on its employees, it will spend $250 million on equipment every year for 40 years.

That makes the total costs over 40 years as $40 billion. Or $1 billion / year.

Electricity Generation

The two nuclear stations both generate 1200 MW of electricity, 90% of the time.

1200 MW x 2 stations x 24 hours/day x 365 days/year x 0.9

So that means that the amount of electricity generated in a year would be 18.9 billion kWh.

Cost Per kWh

This is easy, if the costs of the plant are $1 billion / year and it produces 18.9 billion kWh every year then dividing one by the other and you get...

5.3 cents per kWh

Even if we estimate that the nuclear power plants only operate 60% of the time, we still end up only costing 7.9 cents per kWh.

Which is still around half of what it is estimated that those windmills are costing you.


One might be tempted to say that my back of the envelope calculation is filled with assumptions, and you'd be right. But there's one reason that I'm reasonably sure my calculation is reasonable, and that is because it is similar to the prices that those other studies I mentioned quoted.

So which would you rather have, a windmill that may or may not be working depending on if the wind blows or not. Or a nuclear power plant that produces electricity consistently 80-90% of the time at half the cost.

I mean, we're just talking at least doubling your electricity bills.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

"Installed Capacity" vs "Electricity Produced"

One thing that I've noticed in reading news and reports is how easy it is to be confused by the terms "installed capacity" (measured in MW) and "electricity produced" (measured in kWh). So I felt that maybe I should explain the difference.

In layman's terms, when you build an electricity generating station there is a maximum amount of electricity that the station can produce at any given point in time. That is the "installed capacity". If the station operates at 100% capacity, producing the maximum amount of electricity every hour of every day over a year, then we can use the "installed capacity" in order to easily calculate the total electricity that the station has produced.

As an example:

In one day a 1MW station will generate (assuming a 100% capacity)
1 MW x 24 hours / 1 day = 24 000 kWh /day
In one year,
1 MW x 24 hours / 1 day x 365 days / year = 8 760 000 kWh / year

But lets use a real life example and go a little further. It was reported that in 2007, the Chinese had an installed capacity of 6.06 GW of wind power and produced 5.6 billion kWh in that year.

So, assuming a 100% capacity:
6 060 MW x 24 hours / day x 365 days / year = 53 085 600 000 kWh / year

Which can also be written as 53.1 billion kWh /year.

So, if Chinese wind farms are operating at 100% capacity every day for a year they would be able to produce 53.1 billion kWh. In reality, they only produced 5.6 billion kWh. That means that the actual capacity of the Chinese wind farms was around 10.5%.

Now, there are plenty of limitations with this simple analysis but the question this raises is why should we use "installed capacity" rather than "electricity produced" when talking about wind power? The answer is politics. Talking about larger numbers makes the 'achievements' sound more impressive than they really are.

If Ontario installs 2500 MW of wind power but only receives electricity as much as a 250 MW coal fired power plant then are we really getting our money's worth?

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

This is an interesting article, but it highlights perhaps the narrow-mindedness and stubborn focus of some environmentalists.

The article essentially states that we probably have enough oil to last 100 years and fuel the expanding economies of the developing world. And yet, the author insists that we must invest now in alternative energy technologies at great cost to ourselves. To encourage us, he uses the example of China, which is aiming to obtain 15% of its electricity from "alternative sources".

There is just one problem with this comparison. When the Chinese quote "alternative sources" they include hydropower and sometimes even nuclear power in the mix. How does Canada stack up when placed side by side then?

Canada (2003):
Hydro: 60.7%
Thermal (coal): 22.9%
Nuclear: 10.5%

China (2007):
Thermal (mostly coal): 83%
Hydro: 14%
Nuclear: ~1%
Wind: ~0.2% (5.6 Bkwh/ 3042 Bkwh)

Wow, the Chinese are sure ahead of us, I mean, in 2006 they were getting about 15% of their electricity from hydro + nuclear + solar + wind. Canada was only getting about 70% of our electricity from hydro + nuclear + solar + wind.

Pardon my sarcasm, but if the author's intent was to convince me that we should put as much focus on renewable energies as the Chinese do, then I'd say he's failed. Primarily because Canada is already so far ahead on that front. Moreover, most of the increase in the 'renewables' sector is coming from hydropower rather than wind or solar, which will ultimately end once every realistic dam location is used (just as it has in Ontario).

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Glaciergate Exposes IPCC

This, on the surface, might seem to be a relatively minor scandal.

Apparently, in the 2007 IPCC report they claim that because of global warming, the Himalayan glaciers will most likely have disappeared by 2035. Turns out that this claim has absolutely no scientific backing whatsoever.

But when a leading glaciologist had the gall to point out, through an official report, that this claim is bogus, the chairman of the IPCC decried the report as "voodoo science" before having to make an embarrassing admission that the 'voodoo science' was correct. Its an interesting window into the IPCC world, where anyone who dares to criticize their reports is obviously a peddler of junk science and lies.

Okay, so you have a scientific error compounded by a bunker mentality that leads IPCC scientists involved to make ad hominem attacks on anyone who criticizes their reports. Its disgusting behaviour, but perhaps understandable in the tense climate.

What makes this much more than a minor scandal is the fact that the group headed by the chairman of the IPCC recently received over $500 000 in grant money in order to study the Himalayan glaciers on the basis of the claims in the 2007 IPCC report. Even more, his organization was given part of a three million euro study on the Himalayan glaciers based on the same (erroneous) claim.

Its still possible that all of this is just a coincidence, but when the context of money is added in, it raises the possibility (rightly or wrongly) that the error was intentionally added in order to feed public alarmism and obtain more funding. Which would be unethical to say the least.

Whether by unfortunate accident, or unethical design, this incident has damaged the IPCC in ways unimaginable. Their 2007 report is suspect, having included a sensational factual error that led to key scientists involved receive massive funding grants. This report is one that is relied upon faithfully by thousands of scientists and groups as being factually correct and scientifically sound. For example, the American Physical Society (APS), in refusing to change their position on climate change, relied almost exclusively on the 2007 IPCC report. Their chairman is under a cloud having wrongly denigrated a scientist who pointed out their error.

This is not to say that there is any proven wrongdoing on anyone's part or that the entire IPCC 2007 report is junk based on a single error. But it raises questions that need to be addressed by the scientific community at large. For example, how we trust scientists who write these reports to be unbiased when they are simultaneously receiving funding based on how sensational their claims are?

UPDATE: The headaches continue for the IPCC. Apparently they included as fact the idea that global warming is associated with more disasters, which even the people they cited now acknowledge isn't proven.

What good are reviewers if the IPCC doesn't listen to them?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

How McGuinty's Plan Will Cost You Billions

Dalton McGuinty and Samsung have signed an agreement so that Samsung will provide 2500 MW of solar and wind electricity to Ontario for 20 years. The Globe and Mail points out that the Ontario government has offered Samsung a 'generous sweetener' of $400 million. But this is chump change compared to the truth, if anyone bothered to do basic math. The real cost is going to soar over $10 billion.

How can I be sure? Basic math and physics.

The Context:

The rates that Samsung will be paid for the electricity are 13.5 cents / kWh and 44 cents /kWh for wind and solar electricity respectively. Current rates are more like 6.5 cents /kWh

That means that the government will be paying an additional 7 cents and 37.5 cents / kWh than they normally do for the privilege of having wind and solar electricity.

The Assumption 1:

Suppose that Samsung decides to build 2500 MW of wind farms then (which would cost Ontario the least). And suppose that these farms produce 2500 MW consistently at a 100% capacity factor.

The Calculation 1:

Every hour then these wind farms would produce 2500 MWh.

Every year these wind farms would produce 21 900 000 MWh.

At an additional cost of 7 cents / kWh this then would mean that the Ontario government would be paying out $1.533 billion. (watch your units here kWh is not equal to MWh)

Over the 20 year life of the agreement, this amounts to $30 billion. (rounding down)

The Assumption 2:

Now assume that Sumsung builds 2500 MW of solar panels and has a similar 100% capacity factor.

The Calculation 2:

Same as before, only this time use 37.5 cents / kWh as the additional cost.

That's $8.2125 billion a year. Over the 20 year life of the agreement, this amounts to $164 billion (rounding down).

The Correction:

Some of you might have realized however, that solar and wind farms don't have a capacity factor of 100%. So, ironically, the one argument against solar and wind farms (that their electricity production is unreliable) is now the only argument limiting the costs that Ontario will pay. In reality wind and solar have capacity factors of about 33%, or a third. So that reduces the costs by a third as well.

This also reduces the electricity that is produced and requires the construction (and/or maintenance) of coal and gas fired power plants in order to act as 'backup' when the sun stops shining and the wind stops blowing. These 'backup' generators have to be kept warm and ready to connect back to the grid at a moment's notice in order to avoid brownouts, consuming gas and coal even if they are not producing electricity. But I won't account for those costs here.

YOUR Bottom Line:

You, the Ontario taxpayer, are going to be on the hook for between $10 billion and $54 billion over the next 20 years in order to buy windmills that won't generate electricity during the calm or during storms, and solar panels that won't generate electricity during the night. And will require additional capital investment in fossil fuel based power plants.

For those interested, per year, that works out to between $500 million and $2.7 billion in additional taxes.

Because government money comes from somewhere.

It comes from you.

Are you feeling lucky?