How to stay cool and save energy this summer

Any good Canadian will always know what they constantly repeat in Game of Thrones; winter is coming, but not before the arrival of summer’s scorching sun. During this season, people tend to beat the heat by blasting their air conditioning night and day. Unfortunately, this will only add to your already costly electricity bills, and if every household in Ontario were to do the same, our electricity demand would skyrocket. So to save you money and at the same time, decrease strain on our electricity grid, here are some simple, no-hassle tips that can save electricity and keep you cool at the same time.

1. Close your blinds during the day

blindsWhile the sun is shining bright, a clear, unobstructed window will let in sunlight, which will in turn heat up your house. Closing the blinds will help keep the sunlight out and your home shaded and cooler. If you need some light, venetian blinds can be adjusted so that a varying amount of light gets in while blocking the rest.

2. Use your ceiling fans

ceiling_fanAlthough they don’t actually cool the air, by keeping the otherwise stagnant air moving, it feels cooler and increases the level of comfort for occupants. Above all (no pun intended), a ceiling fan uses much less electricity than an air conditioning unit.

3. Refrain from using the oven

ovenIt’s really a no brainer that using the oven will introduce REALLY hot air into your already hot home, which means the air conditioner will have to work even harder to cool the air. Instead of baking and broiling, try using the microwave, or better yet, have a barbecue outside. If you need to use the oven, it may be better to do it in the early morning or later at night when it’s cooler.

4. Hang dry your clothing

Hang-dryTake advantage of the summer heat by drying your laundry the old-fashioned way. On scorching days, your clothing and linen will be dry in no time and you won’t have to use a clothes dryer, which tends to be the biggest electricity user of all household appliances.

5. Take short, cool showers

showerTaking a cooler shower can be refreshing in the hot summer heat. Above all, you’ll need to heat less hot water at a time when you really don’t need it.

6. Replace all incandescent and halogen light bulbs

Light-bulb-comparison-1Incandescent and halogen light bulbs emit a lot of heat as a by-product when turned on. LED lamps and compact fluorescent bulbs, on the other hand, do not emit nearly as much heat while typically using a quarter of the energy incandescent bulbs use. They also last a lot longer.

7. Adjust your thermostat before you leave your home

T-Stat_SetThere’s no need to keep blasting the air conditioner when no one’s at home. If you’re leaving your house for a prolonged period of time, raise the thermostat and give your air conditioner a break. When you come back, lower it to your desired comfort level.

Energy Security and Independence

In this world of ours, you’d be hard-pressed to find a country that is entirely independent when it comes to resources, trade, labour, and even energy. In the case of countries that rely on others to supply them with natural gas, oil or electricity, they are often at the mercy of changes in energy prices and policies that can drastically affect their own. As such, many countries are pursuing avenues in which to decrease their dependence on foreign oil and gas imports through energy reduction, becoming self-sufficient in terms of energy production, and by diversifying their energy generation with more clean and renewable sources. This is something in which all countries must pursue, not just for the sake of economic and political stability, but also for the sake of the planet.

The most recent example of energy dependence backfiring horribly is Ukraine. Russia is the Ukraine’s biggest natural gas supplier by far and has supplied Ukraine with natural gas since the latter’s independence. As a result of the ongoing crisis in Crimea, Russia has threatened to increase Ukraine’s gas prices by 44%. Such an increase could potentially cost Ukraine an additional $2.5 billion (US), which is the main reason why Ukraine is now looking westward to France and Germany to supply its natural gas.

Ukraine imports most of its natural gas from Russia and now finds itself in a very heated political standoff.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, 40% of Ukraine’s energy comes from natural gas and of that natural gas, around 60% was imported from Russia. It’s no wonder then that Ukraine’s energy fate is so closely tied with Russia’s foreign policy. In order to counter this, last August, the Ukrainian government approved an updated energy strategy through to 2030 shifting from natural gas to more nuclear, coal (of which Ukraine has a lot), and more renewable sources. Unfortunately, Crimea was supposed to play a large role in securing Ukraine’s domestic energy production, and with the ongoing crisis, those plans are now in jeopardy.

Island nations are also particularly vulnerable to sudden changes in fuel prices. Many countries in the Caribbean import diesel for electricity so when the price of fuel increases, they have few alternatives but to increase the price of electricity. As such, electricity prices in many Caribbean islands are often more than $0.42/kWh (nearly triple the amount most Europeans and Americans pay). In Anguilla, they pay an astronomically high $0.63/kWh!

Anguilla_2614585b

Anguilla, blessed with beautiful beaches, and incredibly high electricity prices.

Such energy inflexibility is the main reason why the Caribbean region is now getting more than $1 billion in loans to fund renewable energy, particularly wind and solar. Spearheaded by billionaire philanthropist Richard Branson, these loans are to help reduce electricity bills amongst some of the more impoverished people in North America, and at the same time, help the region become more sustainable and less vulnerable to sudden shifts in fuel prices.

Photographer: Robert R Gigliotti

Wind farm at Vader Piet, Aruba. There is a lot of wind power potential in many Caribbean islands.

Some countries (such as Canada) are rather fortunate to have a plethora of natural resources in its own backyard. Other countries, not so much, and there will always be countries that need to rely on neighbours to provide what they cannot create themselves, but even so, that shouldn’t stop countries that have fewer options from exploring potential options.

It is absolutely paramount that countries around the world begin to shift from energy importers to energy producers. And so long as they are relying on non-renewable sources like oil and natural gas, their fate will be tied to fuel prices. The more we rely on finite resources to spur our economic growth, the more vulnerable our economic prosperity becomes. Along with a shift from importer to producer, we must also rely on clean and renewable sources like wind and solar. The sun and wind aren’t subject to market variability, only natural fluctuations, which are much easier to predict. If we start to depend more on dependable resources, energy independence becomes much easier.

Clean energy; anywhere but here… or there

It seems like when it comes to energy we all want it to be the same things; cheap, reliable, and plentiful, clean would be nice, but it’s not mandatory, and since clean energy tends to be more expensive in this market, it’s often overlooked. Furthermore, if these clean energy alternatives happen to be aesthetically unpleasant, then it’s definitely avoided. But in the cases where renewable energy (such as wind or solar) does make sense, often times, it is opposed for a number of reasons by local residents, much to the dismay of green-minded individuals. But why are so many local residents opposed to clean energy projects? Do they really find solar panels and wind turbines that ugly? Are they paranoid? Or are they just misinformed? The answer is rather complex, but in reality, it is all of the above.

Here in Ontario, there has been a significant amount of opposition to new renewable energy projects (wind turbines in particular). Many residents in Bruce County fuel the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY for short) sentiments that seem to be gaining traction. Local residents claim that the noise and vibrations from turbines can cause a number of different sicknesses, leaving many sleepless, disgruntled, depressed and above all, disgusted from the sight of wind turbines. This phenomenon isn’t just confined to Canada. In the United States, some 45% of all clean energy projects are delayed or scrapped altogether due to some form of local opposition.

1341416603126_ORIGINAL

Bruce County has become a hotbed of wind turbine resistance.

It seems strange that though there are opponents to clean energy projects citing health and safety concerns, they seem to remain silent in regards to other controversial projects. Residents of Bruce County have been quite vocal in their opposition to wind farms, but they don’t seem to be at all concerned about having the world’s second largest nuclear facility in their own backyard. Although, Bruce Nuclear Generating Station has never had any serious issue, surely the potential for one should have the entire county up in arms. In the Southern Ontario counties of Haldimand and Norfolk, opposition to wind turbines has been quite strong as well, but did local residents forget that up until the end of 2013, the nearby, coal-fired Nanticoke Generating Station had been consistently spewing pollutants into their air for over 30 years?

wind protest

Anti-wind groups have been voicing their displeasure for years and are still quite vocal about the subject.

It is said that familiarity breeds contempt, well if that’s true, unfamiliarity seems to breed downright hostility. Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney, has surmised that perceived ill-effects of things like wind turbines and solar panels can be explained by the nocebo effect. The nocebo effect (opposite of placebo) is a term to describe general feelings of malaise when a harmless substance (or in this case, object) is introduced to a subject who perceives it as harmful. So essentially, those who look at wind turbines with disgust may end up feeling sick simply because they dislike the wind turbine, not because the turbine is actually making them sick.

Still, however, there are those who are convinced that wind turbines do actually cause illnesses to those who live near them (aka Wind Turbine Syndrome), despite study after study confirming that wind turbines do not cause any harm to humans. To date, wind turbines have been blamed for the increase of more than 100 illnesses in areas where they are built. This list includes insomnia, migraines, nausea, anxiety, depression, and even epilepsy. Interestingly, some other illnesses supposedly caused by wind turbines include lung cancer, sudden weight gain, sudden weight loss, and most perplexingly of all; herpes. It often seems like the only people who live near wind turbines who aren’t getting sick are those making money through them. I guess the cure to Wind Turbine Syndrome is money.

wts

Wind turbine syndrome seems to be a rather odd concern given the health effects caused by other sources of energy.

Misinformation and hysteria seem to be the driving factors for many wind opponents, and unfortunately, these sentiments are behind moratoriums on further renewable energy projects in a number of jurisdictions. Where we put our wind turbines and solar panels is not a health question, but purely one on aesthetics. I agree that local residents do need to be consulted before large scale projects are undertaken near their doorstep, but if we don’t want to burn coal, oil or gas, enrich uranium, or capture the wind or sunlight, our energy options will become severely limited.

Cleantech is Alive and Well

Last month, CBS ran a piece on 60 Minutes called “The Cleantech Crash” about the wasteful decline of companies coined as Cleantech industries (a generic term for industries in alternative energy). In 2011, President Barack Obama funded approximately $100 billion into developing Cleantech industries hoping such an investment would spark innovation, development, and ultimately, jobs. According to 60 Minutes, this expensive project turned out to be a large mistake funded by taxpayer dollars. Several companies like Abound Power, Beacon Power, Range Fuels, ECOtality and a host of others went under, which begs the question whether clean, renewable technologies will ever become a viable alternative given what was seemingly a massive failure.

After CBS aired that segment, they received quite a lot of harsh criticism from many experts within the green industry, even the US Department of Energy called it “flat wrong”. Although there were a number of Cleantech companies that went under, the segment failed to mention the resounding success stories that emerged from Cleantech funding. The American solar industry (which had benefited from the $100 billion US government funding) has grown dramatically since 2008. According to Slate Magazine, there were more solar power installations in 2013 alone than in the previous 20 years combined. Employment in the solar industry grew 10 times faster than the US average; it now employs more people than the natural gas and coal industries combined.

Solar generation plant

Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California, the word’s largest solar thermal facility is now operational.

Clearly, such growth is not an indication of decline and decay, but rather, a sign of strength and stability, and it isn’t stopping there. According to Mercom Capital Group, an Austin based clean energy firm, US solar energy generation is projected to increase by another 6,000 MW in 2014 alone!

It isn’t just the solar industry that has benefited from Cleantech funding; wind power has also grown substantially in recent years. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), the cost of generating wind power has decreased by more than 40% in only 4 years, and at the end of 2013, there was an additional 12,000 MW of planned generation under construction. Furthermore, the vast majority of the additional wind power capacity will be coming from onshore wind turbines; the US has barely tapped the potential from offshore wind generation, where wind speeds are greater and more consistent.

Flat wind farm

Shepherds Flat Wind Farm in Oregon, the second largest of its kind in the US began operations in 2012.

During the 60 Minutes segment, reporter Leslie Stahl lists a whole group of companies that failed even though they received funding from the federal government. It is understandable that some would oppose the US government’s handling of Cleantech given that so many government subsidies were wasted on projects that never left the ground, but if that’s all it takes for collective outrage, the fossil fuel industries should never hear the end of it.

According to Businessweek, when it comes to government subsidies worldwide, coal, oil and gas have received more than $400 billion in 2010 alone. That same year, renewable energy industries received a comparatively small $60 billion. Additionally, every year, the US government subsidises coal, oil and gas by as much as $50 billion if the cost of securing oil reserves in the politically volatile Middle East are included and for what? A 2009 study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences reported that burning fossil fuels costs the US around $120 billion a year in health related costs and thousands of premature deaths. In essence, the American taxpayer is giving $50 billion to some of the wealthiest corporations only to have them contaminate the environment making them sick and slowly killing them. Additionally, the costs resulting from the effects of global warming have yet to be fully quantified with no realistic estimate available. Even so, I can’t imagine that it would be a small figure.

Coal Generation Plant

Fossil fuel industries receive far more in government subsidies than Cleantech.

It seems rather blind and contradictory to condemn the US government for subsidising Cleantech while remaining silent over the subsidies given to oil, coal and natural gas. In the worst case scenario, subsidising a renewable energy project could result in wasted money; subsidising oil, coal or natural gas could result in an environmental disaster and wasted money. Since there is a fixed amount of things we can burn, it seems rather obvious that some kind of an investment into Cleantech industries will be necessary now and in the future.

It is very clear then that calling Cleantech a failure is far too premature, and from the projections and potential for growth, it seems as though Cleantech has a great future ahead. Although there were some bumps along the way, the journey is far from over, and the experiment continues. Just because the first attempt wasn’t a resounding success, it doesn’t mean that any future attempt is doomed to fail. Like many industries, those behind Cleantech are still learning and adapting with the best yet to come. The present has already proven Leslie Stahl a little premature in her judgments, I’m certain time will prove her completely wrong.

The Rising Cost of Energy

A few weeks ago, Ontario released its 2013 Long Term Energy Plan promising a new set of reforms and policies, among the more important points were:

  • Shut down of all coal-fired generators
  • Implementing conservation programs to offset growing electricity demand in the next 20 years
  • Refurbishing Darlington and Bruce Nuclear Generating Stations beginning in 2016; shutting down Pickering by 2020
  • Expanding renewable energy generation to 50% of total capacity by 2021

Critics of the government, however, were quick to point out that under this new plan, energy rates were almost guaranteed to increase by as much as 43% in the next 3 years, which has businesses and home owners worried. However, is an increase in electricity rates such a horrible thing? It is true that governments can and have mishandled energy issues (e.g. Oakville natural gas cancellation), but in this case, increasing electricity rates is hardly a reason to get angry especially when we have it so well compared to other countries around the world.

The average weekday price of electricity in Ontario is about 9.55 cents/kWh and under the government’s plan, that rate is expected to increase. But according to data gathered by Shrink That Footprint, electricity rates in Western Europe and Asia are typically more than double the Canadian average of 10 US cents/kWh (refer to Figure 1), giving Ontarians very little reason to complain.

How Much Does Energy Cost

Figure 1

The United Kingdom pays twice as much per kWh than we do, in Spain their rate is three times ours, and in Denmark, they pay, on average, a whopping four times what we pay per kWh! Furthermore, this study doesn’t even consider the different economic disparities between countries. For example, $ 1 US can buy considerably more in India than it can in a relatively more expensive country like the United States; therefore adjusting the price per kWh using the purchasing power parity makes electricity rates in Canada the cheapest out of the surveyed countries at a paltry 8 cents/kWh.

Electricity Prices relevant to purchasing power

Figure 2

Our electricity prices here in Ontario are the envy of the rest of the developed world; however, other provinces do have it better than us. Manitoba, British Columbia and Quebec, in particular, have electricity rates that are considerably less than Ontario’s. However, this is because Ontario has the distinction of being the only province that uses nuclear to generate more than half of its demand. Evidently, nuclear energy has proven to be very expensive not just to build, but to maintain and keep.

The actual market price for electricity in Ontario is only about 2.5 cents/kWh; however, this is before the Global Adjustment (GA) fee is added to the price, with it, electricity rates are more than tripled. The GA charge was added to provide electricity producers with added revenue. Unfortunately, the vast majority of it was used to subsidize nuclear, natural gas and coal generation. According to the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, from 2006-2011, 45% of all GA revenue was used to subsidize nuclear power, 6.7% was used to subsidize coal and an additional 34% was given to natural gas generation.

Global Adjustment Payments

Only 6% of all GA revenue was used to subsidize new renewable energy projects and 8% was used for energy efficiency programs. Simply put, nuclear and natural gas subsidies are the reason why Ontario’s electricity rates are higher than other provinces’ and increasing. If Ontario weren’t so dependent on nuclear for its electricity, there wouldn’t be such a great need to subsidize it.

Spending tens of billions of dollars on new nuclear reactors and then several more to refurbish them years later, and have the taxpayers make up the difference is simply not fair nor does it make economic sense. Ontario is bracing for a future where renewable energy will provide the bulk of its demand, and one day it will negate the need for all of those subsidies for nuclear and natural gas generation. In the mean time, electricity rates are going to increase, and so long as renewable energy is continually opposed, there will be no end in sight for the Global Adjustment fee.

If empty promises and well wishes could power our homes, we would have solved our energy issues a long time ago. Unfortunately, reality can be cruel, and pragmatic solutions are necessary in order to ensure that our energy supply is clean, reliable and affordable in the long run even if that means increasing its price in the short term.

Top 10 Lessons for Aspiring Cleantech Entrepreneurs

top10lessonsChris Reid is president and CEO of Energent, an energy management company based out of Waterloo, Ontario incorporated only in 2007. The company works for a range of customers from industrial to institutional. They take real time data and generate analytical graphs to help provide customers with saving opportunities.

In November, Chris joined us at Ryerson’s Centre for Urban Energy as a guest lecturer. Speaking from firsthand experience, he presented some things budding clean tech entrepreneurs should consider for their businesses:

  1. Cash flow, cash flow, cash flow. How is the business going to make money to sustain itself?
  2. Your people are your most valuable asset. Get the best you can afford, keep them motivated and happy.
  3. Reference sites and clients are essential. Get the most and the best that you can, and keep them happy!
  4. Pay attention to and be ready for the politics to change, for the better or the worse.
  5. If you are selling to utilities, be ready for a long slow process, with pilot after pilot after… you get the point.
  6. Make sure you are sufficiently capitalized for the long haul, not living hand to mouth.
  7. Assemble (and leverage) the very best Board of Directors you can.
  8. Take full advantage of all the government funding, investment vehicles and such.
  9. Is the value proposition clear, distinct and measureable? This is the foundation of any successful business. It is extremely important for the entrepreneur to understand what value their business provides for people and know what success means to them. If it is not clear to the entrepreneurs themselves, then consumers and sponsors will not either.
  10. There are thousands, if not tens of thousands of companies just like you … what makes you unique to stand out from others out there?

Smart Meters: A Smart Idea

Despite pockets of resistance in various parts throughout North America, utilities are continuing to deploy smart meters as part of a greater vision to build a smart grid. Ontario began installing smart meters en masse in 2007. BC Hydro has been installing smart meters with the goal of having all of its customers with one by the end of 2012. SaskPower has also started installing smart meters to customers in October of this year.

Smart meters have also been deployed in many jurisdictions in the United States as well. According to Greentech Media, one third of all US households have had smart meters installed. Larger states like California, Texas, and Florida will have installed smart meters in more than half of all households by 2015.

 Expected smart meter deployments by state

The rationale for this is quite simple; a smart grid is a sound investment for the future with significant added benefits such as more efficient energy use, renewable energy accommodation, and decreased chance of a massive power outage.

Since smart meters are able to timestamp a customer’s electricity consumption, it is possible to implement time-of-use pricing, which will compel people to think twice about their energy usage. Now customers will be able to shift more energy intensive activities to less expensive times like early in the morning or late at night where demand is considerably less than in the middle of the day. Or they can save money by decreasing energy usage during higher demand periods. This will ease the strain on the grid, allowing for a more consistent daily demand without major spikes in the middle of the day. It will also help customers choose wisely when it comes to energy use resulting in an overall decrease in demand.

Ontario Hydro Time of Use Rates

Ontario Hydro Time of Use Rates

The future of our grid is looking greener. A previous Energent blog post indicated that wind power is going to make up a significant portion of Ontario’s grid in the coming years. Other regions around the world continue to increase renewable energy production as well. As more renewable and intermittent energy is added to the grid, utilities will need to balance demand with generation even more carefully. But with a vast network of smart meters consistently sending utilities energy consumption data, this balancing act becomes much simpler. Armed with this data, generators can scale down energy production from more polluting sources allowing renewables to supply the grid instead, which will reduce pollution and carbon emissions.

Solar Wind Farm

Solar Wind Farm

As a result of less strain on the grid brought about by consistent communication between utilities and smart meters, power outages are less likely to occur. As the complex balancing act between generation, distribution and consumption is more simplified by a smart grid, the chances of power lines coming into contact with branches causing surges is less likely to occur. In the event of a power outage, utilities will know much quicker as the smart meters will stop sending data altogether, allowing them to respond quicker.

Toronto skyline during the 2003 blackout

Toronto skyline during the 2003 blackout

For utilities, the rationale is simple for smart meters; more information concerning the grid will improve service by preventing and responding quicker to power outages, and in the long run, help save energy through load shifting and decreased demand brought about by time-of-use pricing. The integration of renewable energy sources to the grid is an added bonus that can drastically reduce our carbon emissions. The fact that there is resistance to smart meters shouldn’t and won’t deter utilities from deploying them when the benefits are so obvious. The world is getting smarter; the grid needs to get smarter with it.

Smart Meters: Why should I care?

Picture this, an electrical grid perfectly balancing generation, demand and distribution. A grid that is capable of accommodating abundant wind, solar and other renewable sources of energy into its system without issue or complication. On the rare occasion that problems occur, they are quick to be resolved. Such a technological wonder is not only possible but is already under way and it has started with the mass deployment of smart meters, so why then is there so much opposition towards them?

Smart Meter

Smart meters like this one are being deployed across North America

For those that don’t know, a smart meter is a device that collects a building’s energy use along with the time it was used which is then sent to the utility companies via Wi-Fi network at set intervals per day. Utilities will then use this data to get a more accurate, up-to-date picture of demand and consumption, which will make the grid easier to manage.

Currently, many utility companies across North America are installing smart meters at peoples’ homes and businesses as part of a greater vision to build a smart grid. There has been, however, a significant amount of resistance to them in many areas. In British Columbia, many groups have sprung up vehemently opposing smart meters. In a more extreme example, some families in Texas have been threatening utility workers at gun point to prevent smart meter installations. Such resistance to a seemingly benign piece of hardware has raised concerns over privacy invasion and health risks. However, are these legitimate concerns? Are these groups just buying into their own paranoia? Looking into this subject, it seems like logic and science are being ignored at the expense of innovation and progress.

BC Residents Protest smart meters

British Columbia has become a hot bed of smart meter opposition

Much opposition towards smart meters is that fact that they monitor a building’s energy usage throughout the day. Some are concerned that this is an invasion of privacy and is akin to a form of surveillance. Although smart meters will give utilities a more accurate picture of how much energy you’re consuming throughout the day, utilities will not know how you’re using that energy. This is similar to how we already deal with our internet service providers (ISP). Most ISPs will know how much bandwidth you’ve used, but they won’t know whether your bandwidth was used for downloading, uploading, streaming, etc. Privacy hasn’t been violated; the ISP is merely collecting your bandwidth usage so that they can bill you for the services they provide. Utilities will work in the exact same manner (as they do now), the only real change brought about by smart meters is that utilities will now gather your energy data via Wi-Fi signals, which is the other main area of concern for smart meter opponents.

The radio frequency (RF) radiation emitted by a smart meter’s Wi-Fi component is often cited as a major health risk by smart meter opponents. However, given the common sources of RF radiation, it seems short-sighted to villainize smart meters. Any wireless device will emit RF radiation; this includes cell phones, wireless routers, radios, garage door openers, etc. According to the American Cancer Society, cell phones will emit significantly more RF radiation than a smart meter and at a closer distance as cell phones are often pressed against a person’s ear whereas a smart meter is usually located outside of a building. Furthermore, a smart meter doesn’t emit RF radiation continuously like a cell phone; it will only emit when sending data to the utility. This is all making the assumption that the amount of RF radiation emitted by cell phones even poses a health risk in the first place, which modern science has flatly refuted. Frankly, the Sun is a far more dangerous emitter of radiation (and a proven cause of cancer) than any cell phone or smart meter, but that doesn’t seem to stop smart meter opponents from stepping outside to protest.

Sun

Beware, it could actually kill you… unlike a smart meter

The proven benefits of smart meters outweigh any inconclusive (or downright false) claims surrounding them. As more and more buildings have them installed, the grid will become far more interconnected in terms of its ability to share energy data information with utilities. It will make our grid more efficient, more responsive, and could potentially save us billions of dollars in the long run. But all this could be delayed or even prevented if smart meters continue to be opposed for illogical reasons. Now is not the time to let stupidity impede progress.

Winds of Change

Ontario’s power generation is changing rapidly. By 2014, there will be no more coal generation while renewable energy sources (particularly wind) will make up the difference. This goal has been lauded by a number of environmental groups as it will help lower Ontario’s carbon emissions, reduce air pollution, decrease our reliance on non-renewable sources of energy and at the same time, create jobs in a rapidly growing industry. However, no matter how positive these changes may be, there are certain concerns that need to be addressed about going green.

Wind Farm

Amaranth Wind Farm, the largest of its kind in Ontario

Wind power has made significant strides here in Ontario; the industry has seen an increase in the number of large scale turbines from 10 in 2003 to more than 700 today. You can also expect that number to increase in the coming years as well. According to the Ontario Ministry of Energy’s Long Term Plan, by 2030, wind power will generate 10% of the province’s energy needs (in 2010, it supplied only 2%).

Increasing our reliance on wind turbines, however, has its own set of challenges. Unlike other sources of energy such as nuclear, coal or natural gas, wind turbines can only generate energy if there is a sufficient breeze. As a result of this inherent flaw, wind power is not ideal for baseload capacity as it is not entirely reliable. Of course, when building wind turbines, energy planners look to build turbines in areas that are consistently windy, however, it’s possible that even the most notoriously windy areas can go without a breeze for prolonged periods of time.

With this in mind, the all-too-important balancing act between generation and consumption becomes slightly more complicated. Adding an increasing amount of intermittent wind power might cause generating capacity to fluctuate over shorter periods of time. Currently, whatever wind capacity is generated is used as there is no viable way to store energy in Ontario, and on days where demand is considerably higher and wind cannot make up the difference, more nuclear and natural gas generation fills the void. Although our current grid can adjust load to compensate for wind power, a greater understanding of what is happening to our grid at all times will be needed in the likely event that renewables will play an increasingly larger role. In the worst case scenario, excess wind generation will need to be sent to neighbouring grids that may need extra capacity (e.g. Quebec, New York, Michigan) so as to avoid potentially catastrophic overloads (refer to the August blog post).

Energy Grid Management Facility

Managing our grid will be paramount in future years

Another issue that should likely arise due to increased wind capacity is energy cost. Although several cost analysis have suggested that wind power is competitive with other sources of energy in terms of cost, as a result of massive subsidies given to nuclear power, wind is considerably more expensive per kWh. As such, more wind power will likely increase peoples’ utility bills in the near future.

With the rising cost of energy, a greater emphasis is placed on energy management and conservation. As mentioned in a previous blog post, energy management systems for large industrial and commercial operations can help reduce energy consumption and utility costs. Furthermore, an energy management system can pay for itself through energy savings within months of deployment.

Increasing wind generation capacity in Ontario will benefit the environment greatly. The challenges that come with it on the other hand, are not reasons to prevent more wind generation, but rather they should be seen as a warning that there is no perfect and certainly no free solution to our energy issues. Wind energy can play a very crucial role in our electricity system and although it may cost more and require additional technology and infrastructure to support it, if business and industry move forward intelligently, there should be no reason why we can’t have lower utility bills and an adequate supply of energy.

Link

The necessity of electricity is never more evident until you don’t have it. Exactly 10 years ago, such a thought was in the minds of over 50 million people across 8 North-eastern US states  and Ontario as they experienced, at the time, the second largest blackout in history.

The epic event was caused by sagging high-voltage power lines in Ohio coming in contact with overgrown trees that should have been trimmed and maintained properly. The power line then overloaded, shut down, and should have triggered an alarm to the grid operators. However, within an hour, 3 more lines overloaded and shut down, while grid operators remained in the dark (figuratively), completely unaware of what was happening. By 4:10 pm, millions were left in the dark (literally) as a massive blackout spread across the grid, lasting as long as 2 days in some places. It is estimated that the 2003 Northeast Blackout, cost around $6 billion and resulted in 11 deaths.

New York skyline

New York on August 14, 2003

 Since that fateful day in August, which remains a watershed moment for those who had to live through it, the power grid has changed. On this 10 year anniversary, it is important to highlight the problems of the grid then, and look at the progress that has been made, and what still needs to be done to ensure such events are a thing of the past.

Now

The blackout spurred both the American and Canadian government to respond with sweeping changes and regulations to prevent such events from happening again. Before the 2003 blackout, the North American Electricity Reliability Council (NERC) compiled a list of voluntary standards for energy distributors. At the time, many power distributors could opt out of such recommendations. After the blackout, however, these standards became mandatory and are now enforced by overseeing agencies that have the authority to issue penalties to violating parties. One of these new regulations requires foliage to be adequately cleared from power lines (the cause of the blackout). Failure to comply with this regulation could result in a fine upwards of a $1 million per day depending on risk and severity.

In 2003, electricity data sharing was well behind today’s standards. In North America’s interconnected grid, a power outage in one area can cause a measurable change in demand within seconds in another area of the grid thousands of miles away. Back then, it would take a distributor 30 seconds or more to receive data measuring such a change in demand. Today, that delay has been reduced, largely as a result of the deployment of phasor measurement units (PMUs for short). These devices are connected to transmission lines, measuring any changes in voltage. If the fluctuations are severe, they can warn distributors of an imminent power failure in less than 10 seconds. In 2003, there were exactly zero PMUs deployed in North America, at the end of this year, there will be more than 1,000 in operation.

Phasor Unit

A phasor measurement unit, devices like these are helping us to understand what’s happening to our grid much faster

Although no electrical grid system is immune to blackouts (no matter how advanced or well maintained), as a result of many of these preventative changes, power distributors know more about what’s happening in their grid today than they did yesterday, and they will know if there’s a problem a lot sooner. Additionally, more oversight is ensuring that the grid doesn’t remain vulnerable to an outage like it did in the past. Experts like former NERC vice president, David Hilt, agree that blackouts of the magnitude experienced in 2003 are less likely to happen today.

Future

Although the grid has come a long way since the blackout, there are still daunting challenges ahead, among them is generating capacity. According to the US Department of Energy, by 2040 electricity usage is expected to increase by 28% from 2011 levels, and according to the Ontario Power Authority, by 2030, demand in Ontario will be 15% higher than 2010 levels. This scenario poses certain complications and no guaranteed solution. It will likely require an increase in generating capacity, more transmission lines or both in order to decrease the likelihood of power outages, and all of these options are very expensive.

transmissionlines

New transmission lines are needed in the future

The 2003 blackout proved that a centralized grid system is very vulnerable to a large scale outage, and 10 years after the fact, the grid is still a largely centralized operation. In a reverse trend, another viable option would be to have a more decentralized grid where power is generated in a number of different locations, and distributed over shorter distances. Although such a grid would not be immune to a blackout either, in the event of one it’s unlikely to affect all regions at once as each region would be able to generate power independently of the others.

As was mentioned in a previous blog post, decreasing energy consumption is a viable option as it requires no additional infrastructure and would result in a less strained grid. However, even if we managed to decrease per capita energy consumption drastically, the infrastructure itself would still pose a problem. Simply put, the grid’s infrastructure is old and it needs to be replaced. Much of our current grid remains unchanged since the 1960s. According to Massoud Amin, Professor in Computer and Electrical Engineering at the University of Minnesota, upgrading transmission lines throughout North America alone would cost about $80 billion over the next 10 years.

Grid Updates

Updating and refurbishing the grid will be an expensive but necessary project

The end goal that consumers and distributors alike want is a smart grid, which is capable of monitoring itself, and automatically adapting and compensating for any conflict involving generation, consumption and distribution. This dream, however, is a good 20 years away and is largely dependent upon investments in better data collection tools (such as PMUs). Concerning a smart grid, Amin estimates that it will cost, at the very least, $340 billion over the next 20 years. Such a figure seems like a crippling blow to any smart grid proponent, however, such an investment may pay for itself overtime as inefficiencies are eliminated and blackouts prevented, which are already expensive, economy crippling events.

In any case, the worst thing that can be done is nothing at all, and the steps that we are taking now seem to be bearing fruit as there hasn’t been a blackout of the magnitude 10 years ago. Given the daunting (and expensive) task to recreate and refurbish our grid, the future seems somewhat bleak, but making the right decisions today will, at the very least, guarantee that the future won’t be dark.