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.