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Jay Currie

One Damn Thing After Another



A while ago I began researching alternative energy sources. My reason is that I am convinced that in order to survive over the next forty years the West is going to have to entirely wean itself from the dependency on fossil fuels which has driven the last eighty years of economic development.

My conviction rests on a number of factors. First,regardless of price we are gradually running out of oil. Second, while I don't buy a lot of the so-called science behind Kyoto I do recognize that coal and oil contribute substantially to pollution, acid rain and a host of other enviornmental problems. And, hey, I may be wrong on the greenhouse effect. Third, it is critical for the West to wean itself from dependence on the Middle East.

This last is simply prudential. If it were possible to fuel Western economies using oil produced in the West I might be less interested in alternatives; but it clearly is not possible. The fact is that while the invasion of Iraq was not about oil it was symptomatic of the exagerated importance oil gives the entire Middle East. Similarily, bin Laden and Al Qaeda are not about oil; but they could not have raised the money for their operations without the bloody collision of petro-dollars and radical fundamentalist Islam in Saudi Arabia.

Unfortunately, a good deal of the discussion of alternative fuels and methods has been driven by idealists rather than engineers.

Smiling Jack Layton, leader of Canada's NDP arrived at the alternative energy party as part of his campaign. Layton proposed, if elected which is not going to happen, to spend up to 15 billion dollars building 10,000 wind turbines across Canada.

Now much of this is a blatent attempt to pander to the Green vote which is running 6% nationally and up to 12% in British Columbia; but it is also a remarkably expensive way of generating power which cannot actually meet the peak demands on the grid and which will do nothing to actually reduce those peaks. Effectively, Layton wants to spend 15 billion dollars to generate non-peak power which will, when the wind blows, cover 5% of Canada's aggregate electrical needs. Here's Sallie Baliunas' explaination (and read the whole thing.)

Wind blows too irregularly to be counted on for either base or variable power demands. With a significant amount of wind power erratically entering the grid, a dispatch system would carefully pair the capricious wind supply with traditional supplies in order to "balance" or "firm" the grid. Hydro capacity and location limit it as a balancing supply of wind power, which leaves fossil fuels, especially natural gas, to do the job. The fossil fuel standby sources must be operating or spinning in reserve to be able to make up for the unreliability of wind power.
Sadly Smilin' Jack's lack of engineering advice shows through. Here is the problem with wind - it comes and goes. This is not news. But it renders wind power largely useless when it comes to meeting peak deamand and, therefore, a remarkably expensive add on to an existing power grid.

Worse, wind power does nothing to actually address the real problem of energy use - rising demand. Bringing wind online would do nothing at all to reduce the peak load requirements which the grid has to meet.

The smarter long range solution, for electricity, home heating and cars is to reduce the demand for energy. The second part of this will address at least one rather practical way of doing just that.

You might also want to take a look at Dr. Eamonn Butler's "Time to Buy Candles" also at Tech Central Station