31 July 2007

Electricity Price Watch

Coal-fired electricity in Alberta is now up to C$0.09806 /kWh. My wind renewable energy credits are an additional C$0.02 / kWh. Of course, this is merely the incremental cost. In reality, my electrical bill is about 85 % administration and transmission fees. If I factor in the overhead, my actual price of electricity is about C$0.66 /kWh. The premium of paying for wind increases my actual electricity cost by 3 %.

It is my understanding that the deregulation of the Alberta power industry was supposed to reduce the cost to consumers.

25 July 2007

The Strawman Massacre

Prof. Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University apparently felt the need to lash out at renewable energy sources in a editorial titled "Renewable and nuclear heresies" in the journal International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology (hat tip to FuturePundit). This is such an egregious piece of work that I felt a simple comment would not provide a sufficient debunking.

I cannot view the article myself as the journal is evidently not old/relevant enough for the University of Alberta to subscribe to but a press release and an older presentation (.pdf) provide some fairly outrageous strawman arguments.

First the abstract:
Renewables are not green. To reach the scale at which they would contribute importantly to meeting global energy demand, renewable sources of energy, such as wind, water and biomass, cause serious environmental harm. Measuring renewables in watts per square metre that each source could produce smashes these environmental idols. Nuclear energy is green. However, in order to grow, the nuclear industry must extend out of its niche in baseload electric power generation, form alliances with the methane industry to introduce more hydrogen into energy markets, and start making hydrogen itself. Technologies succeed when economies of scale form part of their conditions of evolution. Like computers, to grow larger, the energy system must now shrink in size and cost. Considered in watts per square metre, nuclear has astronomical advantages over its competitors.
Ah yes, hydrogen, the system whereby energy demands increase by a factor of three (.pdf) As the man says, "to grow larger, the energy system must now shrink in size and cost."

First strawman, hydroelectric power:
Hypothetically flooding the entire province of Ontario, Canada, about 900,000 square km, with its entire 680,000 billion liters of rainfall, and storing it behind a 60 meter dam would only generate 80% of the total power output of Canada's 25 nuclear power stations, he explains. Put another way, each square kilometer of dammed land would provide the electricity for just 12 Canadians.
Hmmm, but Canada already produces 58 % of its electricity from hydro and only 15 % from nuclear (source). Given that Ontario is about 10 % of the total land mass of Canada, apparently 40 % of Canada is one big lake totally devoted to hydroelectric generation. Of course, in reality, we don't build dams with only a 60 m drop. Rather one uses the natural terrain to one's advantage to channel the rainfall into a deep reservoir where it can then fall several hundred meters. If he stuck to complaining about habitat destruction, his argument would be much stronger.

Next strawman, photovoltaics:
photovoltaic solar cell plant would require painting black about than 150 square kilometers plus land for storage and retrieval to equal a 1000 MWe nuclear plant. Moreover, every form of renewable energy involves vast infrastructure, such as concrete, steel, and access roads. "As a Green, one of my credos is 'no new structures' but renewables all involve ten times or more stuff per kilowatt as natural gas or nuclear," Ausubel says.
Let's see, solar insolation is about 1000 W/m2 and has a capacity factor of about 0.2. Solar cells are, on average, about 12.5 % efficient for polycrystalline Silicon. That means we get about 25 W/m2 of continuous power for PV. If we assume a 0.8 capacity factor for the reactor, I arrive at 32 km2. Prof. Ausubel's numbers seem somewhat inflated. I've previously estimated that we would need 3.5 - 7.0 m2 of panels per person to supply all of our energy needs via solar. Much of this can be done on existing (i.e. that's not 'new') urban environments.

And the wind strawman:
"Turning to wind Ausubel points out that while wind farms are between three to ten times more compact than a biomass farm, a 770 square kilometer area is needed to produce as much energy as one 1000 Megawatt electric (MWe) nuclear plant. To meet 2005 US electricity demand and assuming round-the-clock wind at the right speed, an area the size of Texas, approximately 780,000 square kilometers, would need to be covered with structures to extract, store, and transport the energy."
And again, we have the same issue as with the hydroelectric strawman. The area a wind farm occupies can be used for other purposes. These numbers are not really fact-checkable. The actual area occupied by the turbine base is nowhere near 770 km2, which is what we should compare by this silly 'power per square meter of infrastructure' metric that the entire area is somehow tainted. Frankly, this seems to be something from the Not In My BackYard (NIMBY) school of environmental thought rather than 'how can we improve our health and restore sustainability to the biosphere' school of environmentalism. I.e. get that wind turbine out of my million dollar view.

He also knocks down a biomass strawman, although in this case, I happen to agree with the conclusion. Probably the worst assertion however is that renewables cannot benefit from economies of scale:
"Nuclear energy is green," he claims, "Considered in Watts per square meter, nuclear has astronomical advantages over its competitors." On this basis, he argues that technologies succeed when economies of scale form part of their evolution. No economies of scale benefit renewables. More renewable kilowatts require more land in a constant or even worsening ratio, because land good for wind, hydropower, biomass, or solar power may get used first.
The argument can be made that there's only so much good hydropower and to a lesser extent wind, but this really does not apply in the case of solar. However the assertion that, "no economies of scale benefit renewables," is quite untrue. Renewables are, by in large, made up of small incremental additions to capacity. This allows them to be produced in an assembly-line fashion. While more modern nuclear designs are often 'modular', they are still essentially one-off builds. As a result, the learning rates for solar and wind are much higher (about 20 % per doubling in capacity) compared to about 6 % for nuclear. I refer to McDonald and Schrattenholzer, "Learning rates for energy technologies", Energy Policy 29(4): 255-261. Nuclear is not going to fall in price as safety controls become more and more sophisticated folks. As I've explained previously, the big ticket item nature of nuclear puts it at a huge disadvantage compared to its smaller and nimbler competition, in terms of design cycle, capital investment, etc.

In conclusion, Prof. Ausubel seems to have developed his very own metric for greenness (square meters of stuff devoted to the production of energy), applied it in a haphazard fashion, and is now drawing some questionable conclusions from it. While I favour nuclear over coal, I really can't see nuclear competing economically with either fossil fuels or renewables. Moreover, if he feels that we already cover too much of the Earth's surface with stuff, shouldn't he preach on the demand side rather than suggesting we build more supply?

23 July 2007

War on Pasta

Corn is not a product I consume regularly, except indirectly through tasty meat products. Corn flakes? Grits/polenta? Please. But the expanding use in Canada of durum wheat for the production of ethanol goes too far. This is an affront to pasta connoisseurs everywhere, and demands government action to protect our starchy goodness.