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?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Canada's Cobalt Connundrum

It appears that other nuclear reactors are getting into the Cobalt production game. But I'm not sure how much to trust the details of this news report. They are wrong about a number of details quite frankly. Canada's Chalk River reactor does not (to my knowledge) produce 80% of the world's supply of Cobalt-60. It, together with the three other major isotope production reactors does produce 85% percent of the world's Cobalt-60.

The first thing to understand about Cobalt-60 production is that there are not the same problems as with Molybdenum-99 production. Cobalt-60 can be easily stockpiled and stored so that during outages there are no medical crises, because its half-life is about 5 years. That means that its radioactivity only decreases by about 50% after 5 years.

Molybdenum-99 has a half-life of 3 days. That means that after a week its radioactivity is 25% of what it initially was. After a month, it is down to about 0.1%.

So Molybdenum-99 has to be produced and shipped on an almost daily basis in order to ensure a constant supply. Whereas Cobalt-60 can be shipped far, far less often and still maintain an adequate supply.

Cobalt-60 is produced by neutron absorption of Cobalt-59 (see figure below). This can be done a number of ways, the manner I'm most familiar with is how Gentilly-2, Pickering B, Bruce B and Qinshan 1 and 2 do it, where they replace stainless steel adjuster rods with Cobalt-59 rods. This allows the absorber rods to both help control the reactor and produce a useful (and valuable) by-product.

Does it really matter then that an American reactor is getting into the game? Not really, Canada's CANDU reactors will always easily be able to convert to produce Cobalt-60, but for PWRs there has to be a significant modification done that will always cause some pause for concern. Perhaps if that modification can be done cheap enough it will threaten the CANDU dominance of the field.

Is Obama Ignoring the Message?

Obama's White House seems intent upon ignoring the message that Massachusetts voters sent to him last night.

Press secretary Robert Gibbs said on MSNBC's "Daily Rundown" that the message from the Democratic defeat in Massachusetts was "not that we somehow abandon our pursuit on things that are important to the middle class."

The message that the voters sent Obama last night was that they don't think they are in pursuit of things that are important to the middle class. Maybe the electorate doesn't like having health care rammed down their throats after they've made it abundantly clear they don't like it. Gibbs then tries to frame the loss as a purely economic issue.

"The main thing that we saw in Massachusetts was the same sense of concern on the part of middle class folks about the economic situation, about their wages being stagnant, about their jobs being lost," he said. "That's something that we have to pay a great deal of attention to."
Sure, the economy was a concern, but wasn't there another issue? One that featured prominently in ads from both sides? Something about being the 41st Senator opposed to something? Oh what could it be?

Gibbs tries to downplay the whole question of the election as a referendum on Obama, unknowingly creating a paradox for himself.

White House aides rejected the idea that the Massachusetts election was a referendum on Obama himself. The Democratic candidate was leading by double digits just weeks ago, an indication, they said, that the political environment set by the president was not dragging her down.

Of course, just weeks ago, the economy was doing great too. Right? It only suddenly plunged along with Coakley's poll numbers.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Are We Headed Towards a Technocracy?

There's a lot of talk about technology and innovation these days from all political parties and both north and south of the border. In the USA, Obama promised to 'listen to the science' and has embarked on numerous scientific endeavors. Before him, George W. Bush heavily backed NASA and spent millions on the development of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (setting a goal of 2015 for an affordable version).

North of the border, both the Liberals and Conservatives have tried to spur innovation and technology in the past decade. The Liberals doubled spending on basic sciences between 2000 and 2006. Chretien backed the production of ethanol fuels (then considered revolutionary) and offered billions in loans to help promote Canadian nuclear technology abroad. The Conservatives under Harper introduced tax exemptions for university scholarships and promoted partnerships between business and science students to bring new technology to market.

Increasingly, the topics being addressed by politicians have taken on a technical and highly specialized nature. Global warming, the isotope crisis, the electrical grid, nuclear power and flu vaccines have all come up recently as serious issues facing Canadian politicians within the last year. But few if any of them have any technical knowledge concerning these topics. While there may be a few doctors in the House, those that are there sometimes seem more concerned with playing political games than addressing the Canadian public's lack of basic understanding.

With the levels of misinformation out there its difficult to have a serious political discussion about solutions to things like the isotope crisis, and yet these politicians have enormous power available to them. The power to override a nuclear regulator and order the restart of a nuclear reactor for example.

The tendency for politicians is to be unable to react well to situations where they do not have a full understanding of the technical details behind what is going on. The Liberals have been eager to blame Harper for canceling the MAPLE reactors even though Harper's decision came only after the project was several years late and hundreds of millions over budget. And even then, only when some of the scientists involved began to openly wonder if they could ever fix the problems associated with it. After this, they seem content to blame Harper whenever there is a problem with the Chalk River isotope reactor, regardless of who's fault it really is and the fact that they helped him order the reactor restarted.

What this highlights though (beyond the political dysfunction) is our increased reliance on 'experts' to tell us what is or is not true.

But sometimes these experts are wrong. Experts told us that H1N1 could kill millions if we didn't all get flu shots and spread panic to that point that some conservative bloggers accused me of endangering their lives by not getting the flu vaccine. So far, nothing of the sort has happened, something I predicted based on Australia's experience with H1N1 (not that many people cared to listen).

The reason that the experts were wrong in the H1N1 case could be because of a fear of underestimating the situation. They were not being unbiased arbitrators of the facts but were trying to shield themselves from blame by overestimating how bad things could get. A more conspiratorial view would be that they had something to gain by spreading doom and gloom. Without oversight by people with a sufficient technical background their exaggerations of the potential problems couldn't be caught and addressed.

Which leads me to a conclusion of sorts. Politicians today are too busy politicking to be reliable sources of information for the public, nor can we educate the public on the whole range of issues, their nuances and details, to be able to have a decent public discussion. And the experts we do have either can't agree on the details or exaggerate the possible problems in order to manipulate the public.

One solution, which I worry may be coming, is the replacement of much of our democratic system with a form of 'technocracy' where experts are used to replace our elected representatives in order to make decisions regarding the many technical problems facing our country. In theory, it would be a more efficient form of government.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Nuclear Reactors and Evacuation Plans

Interesting article I noticed in the BBC got me thinking about nuclear power plants and evacuation plans in cases of emergencies. Mudslides in Brazil have damaged evacuation routes that would be used during a nuclear accident and so the local mayor is floating the idea that the nuclear reactors should be shut down as a precaution.

Nothing is operationally wrong with the nuclear reactors, but I suspect that as part of the licensing process the nuclear operators must provide proof to the Brazilian regulator that in the event of an accidental release of radiation, exposure of the public is limited to below key thresholds. If radiation escapes the facility, this means that members of the public must be evacuated to a safe distance within a given time frame. If they can't be evacuated within the expected amount of time then the impact on the public might be greater than is tolerated by the regulator.

A similar discussion surrounds the nuclear reactors sited in Pickering. When the reactors were first constructed the area around the nuclear reactor was far less developed than it is today, which means that the evacuation estimates may no longer be sufficient. Some anti-nuclear groups and persons have used this as fodder for their attacks, but in this case, they may actually have a point.

In all likelihood, the Brazilian regulator will make a judgment call regarding how long the road is slated to be closed and if the nuclear reactors should be shut down as a result. The utilities and local governments on the other hand, would be well advised to review their estimates on the how long an evacuation will require and to take actions (ie building new roads, 'safeguarding' old roads, etc...) to make sure that this sort of thing doesn't reoccur.

Tweaking Obama's Nose

Iran has finally come out with a response to the Obama offer concerning their enriched uranium supplies. While the details are important of course, what is also important is the timing of the response, two days AFTER Obama's self-imposed 'deadline'. Nothing says "I don't care what you think" like waiting 48 hours after someone's deadline to make a response, and indeed, an ultimatum.

Iran must be feeling fairly self-confident to tweak Obama's nose in this way, which leads me to suspect that either Russia or China (or both) have given them some moral support encouraging them to do this. The reasoning for Russia and/or China is simple, undermine Obama and the USA by deliberately breaking their deadline and then make an unacceptable counter-offer that is barely sufficient for Russia and China to be able to wave around as a 'viable' dialogue. It would force the USA to either back down or come hat in hand to China and Russia to beg for diplomatic support, which they won't provide. The final alternative, military action, has all but been written off.

All in all, the USA comes out appearing to be a paper tiger, all bark and no bite.

The alternative floated in the article that Iran is looking to provoke a crisis to shore up domestic support seems possible but if we follow that logic then the 'best' response the USA can make is to back down completely and welcome Iran to the nuclear club.

Fundamentally, there is no reason for Iran to enrich its uranium up to 20%. At that enrichment level it is useless for power generation and could only be used (after further enrichment) in either a research reactor (but Iran can't fabricate the fuel bundles required) or for nuclear weapons. If Iran begins enrichment to that level it would be a clear sign that they intend to fabricate a nuclear weapon. It would also, likely be far too late in the game to do anything but watch.