Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ontario's Green Plan: Cut, Measure, Repeat

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ontario's Green Energy Bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it didn't have to be this bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 5, 2011

Ontario Green Energy Plan: Big Surprise Revealed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Acts of Sabotage

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

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

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

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

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

But that's just my opinion.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Canada Should Withdraw From Kyoto

The Kyoto treaty, even from an environmentalists’ point of view, is flawed and insufficient to stop global warming. It was always the intention of environmentalists that it was to be a stepping stone to something more. But practical experience is showing that environmentalists were wrong to expect that nations would be willing to sacrifice their own prosperity in exchange for something so intangible. The accepted flaws that I am aware of include the following;

1) Kyoto was always voluntary

While there is a punishment mechanism, compliance was always voluntary since there was no way to enforce the punishment mechanism. Moreover, the punishment mechanism doesn’t actually reduce greenhouse gases, it just means that wealthy nations can pay to have their sins absolved like some kind of middle age indulgence. The USA, which promised big greenhouse gas emission cuts, never even ratified the treaty.

2) Kyoto didn’t include all nations

Kyoto targeted the ‘wealthy’ first world nations but ignored any other nation entirely, not even providing them with proposed limits for their greenhouse gas emission increases. Today, with China’s greenhouse gas emissions exceeding those of the USA and increasing rapidly, I think we can safely say that was a mistake.

3) Kyoto targets were arbitrarily set

This is my biggest quarrel with the Kyoto treaty is that the targets were set without regard for the individual circumstances of the nation by politicians who knew that they wouldn’t be around to have to ensure that they met them. Nor were they consistent across nations. Some nations promised just to limit their greenhouse gas increases (ie Norway), some promised to merely hold the line (ie France), and others promised bigger cuts (ie Canada and Germany). If that wasn’t enough, the circumstances of the individual nations is not taken into consideration.

Eastern European nations who began the 1990s with Soviet-era factories that were hugely inefficient and big polluters were shut down or renovated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Is it any wonder then that Bulgaria and Romania nearly halved its greenhouse gas emissions since 1990? [1,2] Or that Hungary and Poland dropped by nearly a third? [3,4] Nations such as Italy, without such inefficiencies to start with could not achieve such dramatic reductions (until the economy's bottom fell out in 2008 leading to a 10% reduction in greenhouse gases in a single year) [5].

As a comparison Canadians would be familiar with, Saskatchewan gets most of its electricity from coal fired power plants, while BC gets most of its electricity from hydroelectric projects. Would it be fair then to expect BC and Saskatchewan to both reduce their greenhouse gas emissions equally? Of course not, Saskatchewan could close its coal fired power plants and open natural gas ones and achieve dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Whereas BC could not do so.

Also, no consideration was given to actual energy consumption. A nation that shutters all of its coal fired power plants only to import their electricity from a neighbouring country that didn’t promise dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions hasn’t really reduced greenhouse gases, they’ve just moved them around.

One would hope that the representatives of the nations involved would take this into account when making commitments but again, how can we hold these politicians accountable for the promises they made when even they don’t expect to be around when the piper comes calling? Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions rose every year (except for two; 1990-1991 and 2000-2001) from 1990 to 2004. [6] Meanwhile, France actually remained relatively stable all the way since 1990 [7] and is on track to meet their 0% increase target.

And what about the effect of circumstances beyond the control of the nation? Venezuela has been hit by numerous droughts in recent years that have crippled its hydroelectric capacity; if they switch to consuming more coal or natural gas to maintain their electric grid it would drive up their greenhouse gas emissions. Japan has had a number of earthquakes in the past which have shut down and/or damaged their nuclear reactors, forcing them to rely on fossil fuels more and more.

In short, Canada’s reported plan to withdraw from a flawed treaty should not come as a surprise to anyone and it doesn’t mean that Canada should be shunned from further climate change negotiations. If the world wants to make a true commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they need to bring every nation on board and set targets realistic and relevant to the nations themselves. Targets that are short term in nature so that the politicians who fail to meet them are around to shoulder the blame, and that adjustments can be made if circumstances make them unrealistic.

Even if you are skeptical of global warming and of the dire predictions that some global warming fearmongerers are making, reducing pollution can only be a good thing and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is a necessary activity over the long term.

Again though, that's just my opinion.


[1] "GHG trends and projections in Bulgaria" European Environmental Agency, 2011 [pdf]

[2] "GHG trends and projections in Romania" European Environmental Agency, 2011 [pdf]

[3] "GHG trends and projections in Hungary" European Environmental Agency, 2011 [pdf]

[4] "GHG trends and projections in Poland" European Environmental Agency, 2011 [pdf]

[5] "GHG trends and projections in Italy" European Environmental Agency, 2011 [pdf]

[6] "National Inventory Report 1990–2008: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada" Environment Canada, 2008 [pdf]

[7] "GHG trends and projections in France" European Environmental Agency, 2011 [pdf]

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Science For Thee, But Not For Me

A common refrain for some people who criticize Harper is that he ‘hates science’. They will usually list a few causes celebre (ie Insite, climate change, etc…) where Harper supposedly ignored or is ignoring scientific advice in a decision or a position. These accusations do an injustice to the issues under consideration by grossly simplifying them but more so I tend to think they are hypocritical.

To begin with, I believe policy decisions should be informed by facts and scientific research but that there are other factors that also must be considered in making a decision on public policy, including matters of principle and morality. And ultimately, the people who will be held responsible for the success or failures of public policy are the leaders who made the decisions and not necessarily the scientists who perform studies or advise them.

As an example, during the events at Fukushima the Japanese government came out with an evacuation order that extended up to 50km from the stricken reactors. The American government came out shortly afterwards telling its citizens to stay at least 80km away from the reactor, claiming that their decision was based on ‘science’. While Obama seemed to be implying that the Japanese government was wrong, the Japanese government received the exact same if not better scientific information. The differences are probably driven by matters of practicality (it’s easier to evacuate all the Americans within 80km of Fukushima than all the Japanese) and the need to continue rescue efforts (evacuating up to 80km will restrict the movement of rescuers and potentially cause more deaths among survivors) rather than political expediency (if you are going to evacuate up to 50km then it won’t be any worse politically to evacuate up to 80km).

In terms of criminal policy, some people point to certain jurisdictions with tough criminal laws and longer sentences as being models of what not to do since some social studies have implied that these are ineffective at deterring or reducing crime. But advocates of tougher criminal laws will essentially argue that the current system does not provide justice to victims who have suffered and reducing sentences to the point where they are nearly trivial undermines confidence in the justice system. (Ironically, that would probably reduce the number of reported) Is a few months house arrest for a rapist ‘justice’? Does murdering someone really merit only a few years in a pampered jail cell where you can earn a university degree? Is stealing millions from taxpayers adequately punished by forcing the person to go on a speaking tour?

Critics of Harper’s government should understand what I’m saying because often they will hold positions that go against the grain of scientific studies. Nuclear power has been shown to be more cost effective than many other ‘renewable’ sources of electricity, and repeated studies have shown the risks associated with radiation are manageable or negligible. But when a study comes out in Germany that contradicts studies in France and the UK, anti-nuclear advocates will cling to the German study and ignore the others. Animals dissections in high school classrooms are frowned upon even though it is known that hands on training and education is far more effective than reading from a book. The seal hunt is attacked even though it is needed to maintain fish stocks which would otherwise be depleted by the large seal population. Animal based testing of products is condemned even though it is one of the best methods for testing new products. Tungsten filament light bulbs are banned even though there is no scientific evidence that they are harmful or dangerous to use. Some people oppose genetically modified foods in absence of any scientific evidence that they are harmful, relying on anecdotes, unconfirmed reports or gut feelings. Studies showing that cell phones or high voltage electrical wires do not pose a health risk are downplayed by people who claim that they do. Evidence showing that limited, increased exposure to radiation is beneficial for your health is buried. Comparisons of health care systems showing that public-private mixes (like in France) provide better care than public only are viciously assaulted.

This is not to say that I don’t have concerns about animal testing, private health care, the seal hunt, radiation exposure or the other items in my list. But my concerns are not always based on the best available ‘science’ but sometimes on morality or other principles. Animal based testing and the seal hunt can be cruel, tungsten filament light bulbs are inefficient and I’m suspicious that long term exposure to any amount of increased radiation can cause cancer in some people despite what the studies I have read say.

What I am not attempting to do is defend Harper from any specific accusation, nor to condemn anyone’s opinion unworthy of consideration because it runs contrary to the best available studies. On a large number of issues, ignoring scientific reality is extremely dangerous and should be condemned. But on a large range of other issues, someone may form their opinions on life experiences or moral principles, and just because their opinion is not fully supported by scientific studies doesn’t mean it is necessarily wrong. But it hopefully means they have weighed the evidence and made an informed decision that this other principle is more important.

That is how I see the role of science in public policy; to provide the best information possible and allow those with the responsibility to make informed decisions. If they decide that some moral principle is more important, that doesn’t mean they hate science and it does them a disservice to accuse them of doing so.

That's just my opinion though.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Toronto Condos Not Built to Last

There was an interesting article in the Huffington Post recently about the condo buildings that are sprouting up in Toronto. It covers a number of details about the estimated lifespan of these buildings and how the beauty of floor to ceiling windows comes at a cost.

But there is one issue that I felt they neglected to mention in their article. The windows have argon gas inside to provide insulation and while the argon gas may eventually leak out and ruin the insulating properties of the glass, I'll guarantee that you'll notice a cool draft in your condo long before the glass fails.

That's because of the frame. From what I've seen, its not uncommon for the window to be seated in a metal frame that extends on both sides of the glass. This means that when the temperatures drop, the metal frame itself will be a conduit for heat to flow from your apartment. Doesn't matter how good the insulation of the windows is.

Something to consider if you're looking at buying a condo.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Nuclear Waste: One Man’s Trash…

… is another man’s treasure.

In my mind, this adage is very applicable to the treatment of so-called ‘nuclear waste’. To be clear, nuclear ‘waste’ can come in many forms; from the steam generators that are being recycled by the Bruce A Restart project to the spent fuel bundles (or rods) ejected from the core. Not all these ‘wastes’ are created equal, but many if not all of them share one thing in common; they are still valuable resources.

The contaminated steam generators that Bruce Power planned on recycling to reduce the amount of waste are a good example to start with. To explain quickly, the steam generators are used in a CANDU reactor to transfer the heat from one water cycle to another. The two cycles are separated but heat is transferred from one cycle to the next by thermal contact across kilometres of piping. After decades of use, fixed material has built up on the interior of these pipes, some of it radioactive. [1]

At first, the plan was to safely store the entire steam generators for as long as is necessary, until it was proposed that the steam generators be shipped off to Sweden to have most of the metal recycled and the remaining radioactive material returned for long term storage. While seemingly a better proposal, it ran into immediate opposition by environmental groups, despite confirmation by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) that the plan was safe even if the boat sank [2].

Another good example is the treatment of tritium in Canada, which I’ve mentioned before. Long considered a waste, an unfortunate bi-product of using heavy water (water that contains deuterium), tritium was and continues to be released in a controlled manner into the Great Lakes. In accident situations, tritium can be released into the environment as well [3]. Since 1990 though, Darlington has hosted the “Tritium Removal Facility”, which removes tritium from the water and stores it as a gas on titanium [4]. This tritium can be used directly in nuclear fusion, or after decaying into Helium-3 can be used in low temperatures physics and even bomb detection devices. Helium-3 specifically continues to be in very high demand [5].

Finally, even the spent fuel bundles can be ‘recycled’ through reprocessing. If you consider a cycle with the spent fuel rods from light water reactors (which are inefficient from a neutron standpoint) being reprocessed into fuel bundles for heavy water reactors (which are efficient from a neutron standpoint), one can see the benefits. [6] This is something I hope to cover in more depth later.

These are just the uses that we know of now, as has been proven time and again, our abilities to find uses for the things once thought of as waste is immeasurable. Perhaps then we should be hesitant to place so-called 'wastes' into permanent storage facilities the barriers to accessing them are unnecessarily prohibitive.


[1] "The Right Thing to Do" (A website created by Bruce Power concerning the recycling of the steam generators)

[2] CNSC assessment concerning the proposed transportation of the steam generators [pdf]

[3] "Report and Advice on the Ontario Drinking Water Quality Standard for Tritium" Ontario Drinking Water Advisory Council, May 21st, 2009 [pdf]

[4] "Evaluation of Facilities Handling Tritium", Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, February 2010 [pdf]

[5] Christina Reed, "The Fallout of a Helium-3 Crisis", Discovery News, February 19th, 2011. [link]

[6] "Processing of Used Nuclear Fuel", World Nuclear Association, November 7th, 2011. [link]

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Final Polling Prediction

While I was derelict in my duties updating this blog, I did update my poll tracker and am willing to try to make a prediction as to where the parties will end up tomorrow. The final polls have been incorporated into the graphic below.

Based on the polls performed throughout the campaign, I predict that the final results will be:

CPC 36.3%
LPC 21.9%
NDP 28.3%
BQ 7.0%
GRN 5.6%

This shows the CPC about where they have been throughout the campaign, but shows the NDP lower than the most recent polls. The model does not account for large movements during the campaign well, but we'll see if its conservative estimate ends up being more correct.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Told You So... Margins of Error

Hate to say I told you so, but I did. Today, in Nanos' 'Leadership Index' Harper is up a whopping 15%, more than making up for the amount he dropped. Since the attacks ads are still running, I guess those ads weren't as effective as some thought, eh?

Sure some will say it was turned around because of the CPC's job in highlighting the Liberals attributing something to Harper that he didn't say. But journalists were decrying the Conservatives as having blundered in doing so too.

So without any likely explanation for a sudden drop in people's views of Harper followed by a sudden jump, its more reasonable to believe that their support didn't change significantly and it was just a statistical movement about the true average.

Everyone appreciates that its journalists' job to analyze the latest data and try to present a good story to explain movements in polls during an election. But lets not get carried away by single day movements within the margins of error.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Margins of Error

Margins of error are additive.

If you were going on a trip, and were asked to measure the length, width and height of your bag to determine its length + width + height to ensure its appropriately sized. If you planned ahead you might have a tape measure with you, if not you can borrow one from someone else. Suppose your measurements are:

Length (L) = 65cm
Width (W) = 30cm
Height (H) = 120cm

To determine L+W+H you would just add the three together and say that the total L+W+H is 215cm. If one was to ask you then how accurate your measurement was, you might naively look at the smallest increment on your tape measure (for the sake of argument suppose it only measures cm), take half the smallest increment and declare that as your error. So you would report the bag as having a L+W+H as 215cm (+- 0.5cm).

Except that you would be wrong.

Each measurement you take carries with it an error of 0.5 cm because your ruler is incapable of telling you to a higher degree of accuracy than that what the that error could be compounded each time you take a measurement. If the bag was actually 120.3cm tall, you would still report it as 120cm. Likewise, if your width was actually 29.6cm, you'd only be able to see it as 30cm. So really what your measurements are is

L = 65 (+-0.5) cm
W = 30 (+- 0.5) cm
H = 120 (+- 0.5) cm

And since errors are additive you would have to say that your bag has a L+W+H of 215 (+-1.5) cm.

Great you say, but I'm never going to report the measurement error on my luggage at an airport. True, but if you were say, analyzing some polling results, this knowledge might come in handy. Because the "Leadership Index" is calculated by adding three separate values determined through asking the same people three separate questions. Ignoring the obvious problem of dependency (a voter who doesn't trust Harper is more likely to also say he's not competent and that he lacks a vision for Canada), there's also the additive error problem.

The result for each question carries with it an error of +- 5%, so if you add "Trust" + "Competency" + "Vision" together then the final result would have an error of a whopping +-15%. So if Harper was to drop say 13% that would still be within the margin of error. Any analysis of the results should therefore be extremely cautious, especially when Layton dropped 10% over the same period for no obvious reason.

In the fast-paced media world today I can understand that some journalists might jump to conclusions so that they can make a nice headline. But lets not pretend that this is factual. Or good journalism.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Polling Trends - The Rise of Layton?

Once I again I am delinquent in posting an update, mostly because nothing has changed. The Tories are stuck around 39%, the Liberals around 27% and NDP around 19%. The debates had no significant effect, the mini-scandals have had no effect, nothing has had any effect. Or have they?

I like how some polling groups try to look at underlying perceptions of politicians (ie Nanos' leadership indicators; trust, competence, vision). It kind of gives an indication why voters might not be responding to particular attacks and why they might. Case in point is Ignatieff; who has made quite a big deal attacking Harper on the issue of 'trust' without luck. Yet, Nanos indicates that voters are nearly three times more likely to say the trust Harper the most than Ignatieff. Even if the polls are not completely accurate, on a macro scale they sho
w that Harper is considered more trustworthy than Ignatieff. That would explain why Ignatieff's attacks fall an deaf ears.

Ignoring polls that show Layton rising in support, which depends entirely one which pollster you are speaking with. Nanos' leadership indicators currently show him at his highest levels ever and rising steadily. Moreover, Nanos' three day tracking polls have shown the NDP rising in support for 7 out of the last 8 days. Comparatively, the Conservatives have risen 3 of the last 8 and the Liberals have risen in only 2 of the last 8. This doesn't mean we're going to end up with a Bob Rae type scenario where the NDP pulls a rabbit out of the hat, but this could be the real trend to watch.

Figure 1: Election polls since March 27th, including trending.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Polling Trends - April 12th

I didn't bother posting an update for the last number of days because there really was nothing interesting going on, although rest assured I was faithfully updating the spreadsheet with the latest polls. With the leadership debate tonight and the recent leak of a draft of the Auditor Generals report on G8 spending, there might be a change in the polls in the next few days. Or there might not.

My opinion, for what its worth, is that Liberal/NDP/Bloc partisans will take the leak as affirmation of their previously held views. Conservatives partisans will point out that its just a draft and that later drafts removed the infla
mmatory language replacing it with a relatively mild request for additional transparency. Non-partisans will shrug and won't generally care since we all already knew that the government had spent over $1 billion on the G8/G20 (think of all the press coverage on the fake lake).

We'll find out better tomorrow and the next day if this scandal has really affected the Tories. Looking at the Nanos tracking poll, when polling from April 9th was included, the Tories dropped from 40.5% to 39.5% in the three-day rolling average, indicating that the Tories polled lower on April 9th than usual. Tomorrow's poll will drop the April 9th result and add April 12th. So if the Tories' support is really unaffected, we should see their support increase slightly. If they decrease slightly, that'll mean that the issue really has affected the Tories negatively.

Although after that the effect of the debate and post-debate spin will take over, so I'm not sure if it will have a long term effect one way or another.

In my polling averaging system, the Tories sit at 38.7%, the Liberals at 27.9%, the NDP at 17.3%, the Bloc at 8.7% and the Greens at 6.5%.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Polling Trends - April 5th

Just a quick update, only three new polls to report on, the EKOS-iPolitics poll and two Nanos polls. No significant net change to the overall standings in my poll tracker... *yawn*

My poll compilation shows the Tories at 37.9%, the Liberals at 27.5%, the NDP at 17.2%, the Bloc at 8.7% and the Green trailing at 6.8%. Remember that this is not a straight average of the recent polls but rather is a trending of all the recent polls. Since the election call, the Liberals have slowly trended upwards and the Tories have remained stagnant at about 38%, which indicates to me that Ignatieff is making some headway in winning over some votes, but hasn't convinced the vast majority of the voters to take him serious enough to consider switching.

Either that, or most Canadians are completely tuned out.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Poll Tracker - April 3rd

Four polls to include in our poll tracker; two from Nanos, one from Leger and one from Harris Decima. All have very different results and trends; Leger and Decima show a narrowing race with the Tories looking at another minority government, Nanos shows the Tories pulling away with a majority easily within reach. The net effect is no real change day over day for the Tories in our poll tracker, while the Liberals have seen some minor improvement since the election was called.

Depending on what polls you follow, either the Liberals are closing the gap or the Liberals are losing Canadians, so I'm not even going to try to analyze the results. What I will do instead is offer another graph that shows the distribution of the polls over time. Polls that cover more than one day are shown repeated over every day that the poll was taken while Nanos' tracking polls only are shown the day they are taken.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Loan Guarantees and Subsidies

In my opinion, Stephen Harper has done the right thing proposing to grant a loan guarantee to Newfoundland so that it can develop the Lower Churchill hydroelectric project and an undersea transmission line to sell that electricity to the USA. From a political point of view though, he's walking into a minefield that pits Newfoundland (7 seats) against Quebec (75 seats).

Rex Murphy in the article links above talks about the need to redress what Newfoundlanders feel is a gross inequity that has emerged as a result of a poor deal negotiated in 1969, but only scratches the surface of a far different and more national issue. What place does the federal government have in promoting the development of certain energy sources?

The federal government has offered direct subsidies to so-called 'environmentally friendly' options through programs such as the late ecoEnergy program. It has also promoted the nuclear industry both domestically and abroad through the use of loan guarantees and by paying for the cost of maintaining AECL. But does it go too far?

One might be tempted to argue that the federal government should have no role at all in promoting any energy source, whether that be hydroelectric, nuclear or wind. As a provincial area of responsibility, the government should butt out completely. But since the electric grid does not end at a provincial boundary, and since electricity cannot be conveniently bottled, shipped and sold to buyers south of the border, it would be unfair and short-sighted to deny the federal government any role whatsoever. The question then is how much of a role should it have; should it be a referee, intervening only when provinces have grievances between themselves? Should it be a banker, providing loans to support the development of large projects such as nuclear power plants or hydroelectric projects or transmission lines?

Personally, I have no problem with the federal government acting as a referee and a banker so long as the banker anticipates receiving his money back, which in this case, they do. A loan guarantee is far less intrusive and costly than a subsidy, and will enable the development of larger projects that have higher risks but reap greater rewards. But where do we draw the line?

Poll Tracker - April 1st, 2011

There have been three new polls since I last updated the poll tracker. Two Nanos daily tracking polls and an Ekos poll. The biggest difference between the two polls is the level of support for the Green party, which tracks higher in the Ekos polls than it does in the Nanos polls. I suspect that this has something to do with the methodology used; Nanos polls do not prompt the poll takers for a party, whereas the Ekos polls do. I'm not sure which methodology is more accurate since not prompting would probably get a better idea of what parties are actually on voters' minds, but when it comes to the polling station they will be prompted when they see the ballot. Nevertheless, I won't make a judgment call on the accuracy of a polling method and will average the polls together equally (except that the Ekos poll had a larger sample size).

The Conservatives are holding steady around 38% in my averaging and have been for the entire past week, the Liberals has slowly tracked up a few percentage points but this is partly the result of that odd Nanos result three days ago that I mentioned. Tomorrow, that day's results will be factored out and the Liberal support will drop 2-4% while the NDP will rise 2-4%. I trust that the media will make a big fuss out of what essentially is just statistical noise.

A quick note on my averaging technique; in order to reduce the effect of statistical noise on the polling results I use a relatively (for lack of a better word) conservative averaging method. To determine the value for a new day, I determine the average of the polls for that day and all previous days and take a weighted average of them all, weighing the days depending on the number of respondents and how long ago those respondents were polled.

The net effect of this is to reduce the noise, but I'm not entirely comfortable with it because it assumes that the changes in political support from one day to the next will be small or non-existant. In most cases that may be true, but if there were a significant event which shifted support one way or another, my polling trending would miss it at first.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Poll Tracker - March 31, 2011

Once again today there was only a single new poll released today to be incorporated into our poll tracker and that was the Nanos poll that showed the Liberals up to 32.7% and the NDP down to 15.9% with the Conservatives steady at 39.1%. That boosted both the Tories and the Liberals in my poll tracker, but since the poll doesn't take a straight average the Liberal gains were moderated.

Not to be a party pooper, or let my personal bias interfere with my analysis, I do have some concerns about the validity of the Nanos poll. The increase in the Liberal support is indeed startling, more so because it is a three day polling average, which means the difference between the Liberal support on Sunday and on Wednesday must be at least 12% in order to account for an increase of 4% over a single day. Similarly, the NDP support must have dropped by approximately 12% over the same time period to explain their sudden drop in support.

Because of the low NDP support initially, this means that at least 1 in 2 NDP supporters on Sunday decided to switch their votes and go with the Liberals instead by Wednesday, dropping the NDP support to around 10%. Does that sound realistic to you?

Mathematically the problem is very interesting since there is no way I can see to determine for certain what the actual daily values that were used to calculate the averages; there are 8 variables and only 4 equations available.

We know that the average of A, B and C must be 28.7, the average of X, Y and Z must be 19.6 while the averages of B,C and D and Y, Z and W must be 32.7 and 15.9 respectively. By arbitrarily choosing a few values for A, B, X and Y we can figure out from there what the remaining values must be.

Choosing initial Liberal support of 27 and 28 would mean that the third and fourth days would have Liberal support of 31 and 39 respectively, a shockingly high number for the fourth day. If the NDP support was 20 and 20 for the first two days, then it must be 19 and 9 on the third and fourth days, a shockingly low number. I tried another more reasonable possibility that wound up with Liberal support at 35% and NDP support at 12% but it still requires an unbelievable drop in NDP support.

Try it out for yourself, see if you can find some more reasonable numbers than I did.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Poll Tracker - March 30, 2011

With the beginning of the election, I'll be tracking the polls and reporting here on a daily basis or whenever there is something interesting to report. I'll post more details how I am compiling the data later.

There has only been one poll released that contains data from after the election call and that is the recent Nanos poll that showed the Tories in the lead with 38% and the Liberals trailing at 29%, little change from the previous poll taken before the election call. It also lines up well with the Angus Reid poll, the latest Harris-Decima poll and the Abacus poll all taken before the election. Which is to say, with few exceptions, the polling is pretty consistent, and boring.

In the absence of any really interesting polling data, some journalists are making mountains out of molehills. They rightly point out that in the latest Nanos poll on leadership, on the items of "Trust", "Competence" and "Vision for Canada", Ignatieff has increased from 43.4 to 46.7, a total of 3.3, and suggest that Canadians are 'warming' to him. Meanwhile, Green Party leader Elizabeth May increased from 6.4 to 10.2, a total of 3.8 and Harper increased from 84.8 to 89.5, a total of 4.7. Both of which are greater than the increase that Ignatieff saw.

The real story is the decline that Layton saw, dropping 17.8 points from 61.4 to 43.6. A significant decline for the time period, but only time will tell if this trend continues.