Troy Media - By Joanne Elves
As the nuclear crisis in Japan illustrates, even proven alternatives to fossil fuels are fraught with potential cost escalations and shocking risks. Butwhat about renewable and clean energy sources, like wind and solar?
While advocates assert these alternatives are likely to provide an increasing contribution to our future energy needs, in the short term they remain highly dependent upon weather conditions, expensive and based on technology that has only begun to mature.
Big wind farms in southern Alberta are an impressive sight (to some, although not everyone), but their contribution to the grid remains modest indeed. In fact, energy from all alternatives is still less than 10 per cent of the total in Alberta: large scale hydro dams contribute 871 MW, wind adds 806 MW and others, including biomass, solar and run-of-river hydro combined provide 264 MW, according to Alberta Energy.
Drops in the bucket
These are mere drops in the bucket, compared to electricity generated at large coal- and natural gas-burning power plants (5946 MW and 5071 MW respectively), according to Alberta Energy.
The reasons are obvious: Alternatives are rendered uneconomic by large upfront costs, supply is inconsistent and reliant upon both weather and time of day (with generating capacity often completely at odds with peak demand times, these sources have little flexibility to scale up and down, as needed. Coal and natural gas, meanwhile, have defied predictions of price escalations. In Alberta alone, the natural gas industry estimates 77 trillion cubic feet of recoverable, conventional gas is waiting, along with a potential 500 trillion cubic feet of coal-bed methane.
At current growth rates, the natural gas waiting in the basement of Alberta could produce 100 years of comfort.
Vaclav Smil, a noted energy professor at the University of Manitoba, writes that alternative technologies have limited energy density (defined as the amount of energy stored in a given system or region of space per unit volume) compared to fossil fuels – in fact, 10 to 100 times less power-dense. Among the variables are weather conditions that affect the predictability of energy generation and the lifespan of equipment.
In the U.S., wind supplies just 1.8 per cent of the overall total power delivered to all sectors of consumption and operates at 22.5 per cent of capacity on average, according to the Energy Information Administration. Solar, meanwhile, supplied 0.02 per cent of total power – the same amount of power being delivered from one large coal-fired plant every 18 days.
At the same time, rapid expansion of hydraulic fracturing techniques to harvest gas from shale beds in the U.S. has glutted the market and depressed gas prices. In fact, the Henry Hub price of natural gas sits at just $3.80 S/MMBtu U.S. (It is expected to rise to $10/MMBtu US by 2025.)
Even so, governments – even fossil fuel-friendly Alberta – continue to encourage alternative energy source development, with an eye to the long view. Alberta’s micro-generation regulation came into effect in January 2009 with hopes of offsetting some of Alberta’s heavy reliance on large, centralized electricity generators. The program encourages Albertans to generate their own energy using small-scale generators of less than one megawatt from such sources as solar, wind, biomass, small-scale hydro, micro-cogeneration and fuel cells.
Through this program, if customers produce more electricity than they consume, the excess will be sent to the distribution network and the owner is given a credit.
But participants still face a huge up-front capital investment, and the technologies are primarily suited for rural uses in southern Alberta. In suburbs, backyard wind turbines that look to some like glorified lawn ornaments have yet to prove sturdy, and turbidity caused by surrounding structures diminishes the ability to generate.
Solar is more urban-friendly. When Edmonton offered $300,000 in incentives to install residential and commercial solar-electric systems, applications flooded the office. ENMAX in Calgary has offered the program, with installations starting this year. Even so, without incentives, it takes consumers who are committed to “green” philosophy to pay significant upfront costs.
Wind turbines en masse in places like southern Alberta, however, do contribute to the overall picture. Robert Hornung, president of CanWEA (Canadian Wind Energy Association) predicts that by 2025, 20 per cent of Canada’s electricity demand will be met by wind energy. Achieving that goal will require $80 billion in new investments across the country.
The base load for Alberta electricity consumption is supplied by coal-fired power plants that do not ramp up or down quickly. Hydro and gas generation can quickly adjust as demanded, but wind generation is at the mercy of the fluctuating breezes. To help smooth out the unpredictability of wind, the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) procured a wind forecasting service that predicts the wind generation as far out as six days.
Smil says because renewables are intermittent, you have to have either a backup way of generating the power or a large-scale storage solution which appears to be potentially decades from development. The race is on to come up with such a massive energy storage system. It is estimated that more than $10 billion U.S. worldwide will be invested in the search this year for such a system and spending is expected to escalate to about $225 billion US by 2020.
Highview Power Storage in the United Kingdom is testing a pilot project that uses surplus energy generated at off-peak times from wind turbines to transform air from a gas to a 196C liquid. When it is warmed, the expanding gas will run a turbine to create energy for the power grid. So far, however, efficiency sits at just 50 per cent. Other ideas include enormous lithium and rechargeable batteries, compressed air and hydrogen storage.
Still in Britain, the Energy Technologies Institute – a collaboration between governments, universities and big business – is calling on entrepreneurs to submit proposals for new storage technologies.
In Canada, the $1.48 billion ecoEnergy program, created in 2007, was delivering a subsidy to renewable energy developers of one cent per kWh. But the program terminated on March 31, 2011. At the same time, provincial governments have not renewed subsidy commitments beyond 2015. Under the Province of Alberta’s Climate Change Strategy, however, carbon emitters must either reduce their carbon footprint or buy the offsets from alternate energy sources.
$64 million in funding
On Feb. 27, Canada’s then-Natural Resources minister, Christian Paradis, announced nearly $64 million in funding to clean-energy technologies across the county. That will assist a few projects, including the Digby Neck Wind Farm in Nova Scotia, an ethanol plant in Quebec and a prototype energy storage project in Saskatchewan that uses a rechargeable battery system.
Of the 4155 MW of installed wind energy capacity nationally, 806 MW is from the winds in Alberta, according to AESO. Despite the lack of federal support, AESO states that over the next decade another 2700 MW of additional wind power is planned. Calgary-based Greengate Power just announced a 300 MW project near Carmangay, entering the grid in 2013. The project was possible because of a long-term commitment to sell the Renewable Energy Credits to the California Public Utilities Commission.
Large-scale biomass heat and electricity is obtained from incinerating wastes from organic and agricultural sources. As long as a continuous source of fuel is close to the incinerator, like a sawmill, supply isn’t an issue. What is a concern, however, is using non waste to fuel the fire or hazardous wastes that increase the potential for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
Even though Alberta is endowed with long hours of sunshine, large-scale solar power plants are still on the horizon. Medicine Hat just started work on a $9 million solar-powered steam generation system that will tie in with a natural gas power plant. The project was funded in 2010 by municipal, provincial and federal levels of government to assess the potential for using the technology throughout the province. It is expected to have test results by November 2013.
Alternates fall short of need
Proponents of alternate energies have faced a plethora of challenges, from price disadvantage, immature technology, on-again, off-again incentives and public skepticism. Globally, wind, solar, and biofuels industries could double within the next 10 years, according to a report released in March 2011 by energy research firm Clean Edge.
The report valuates the global biofuels industry at $56.4 billion for 2010 and predicts it will grow to $112.8 billion by 2020. The global wind industry is expected to grow from $60.5 billion in 2010 to $122.9 billion by 2020. Meanwhile, the global solar industry could grow by 80 per cent to $113.6 billion by 2020.
Future growth will depend on public support, says Nobuo Tanaka, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency.
“Renewable energy can play a central role in reducing carbon-dioxide emissions and diversifying energy supplies, but only if strong and sustained support is made available”, Tanaka said in a statement published on the IEA’s web site.
With a quadrupling of current investment, the share of modern renewable energy sources, including sustainable hydro, wind, solar, geothermal, modern biomass and marine energy, in global primary energy use could triple between 2008 and 2035, the IEA estimates.
Still the combined share would be just 14 per cent of the world’s needs.
The growth in alternates is expected to fall short of the mid-term need. Where alternatives can contribute, however, is helping to prolong the life of fossil fuel reserves and to help flatten out potential future prices spikes cause by supply variations.
And even with robust growth in renewables, natural gas will be a reliable, abundant relatively clean option to help meet the world’s growing energy needs.
Joanne Elves’ understanding of alternative energy comes in part from her financial interest in a small wind energy project.
Category: Oil & Gas
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