Monday, July 16, 2012

22 July 2011 – Coal Comfort


Going outside yesterday felt a little like being burnt at the stake, what?

 Auto-da-fé ?  What’s an Auto-da-fé ? It’s what you oughtn’t to do, but you do anyway! (Mel Brooks)

Many of us probably recall enduring the infamous Great Northeast Blackout of 14 August 2003, which occurred on a particularly hot day when a 3500 MW power surge towards Ontario tripped automatic relief systems, causing five hundred or so generating units at more than 200 separate power stations to go off line across Eastern Ontario and the US Northeast.  The grid supply dropped from 29,000 MW to about 6,000 MW in a matter of minutes - about 2 Tj slamming to a halt, forcing the grid to absorb roughly the equivalent of a small nuclear bomb going off.  Given the scale of the outage, recovery was remarkably quick.
Recalling that event, I spent some time yesterday and this morning glancing every now and then at the real-time generation monitor on the Ontario Power Generation website (OPG produces about 2/3 of the power consumed in Ontario), and was relieved to see that it had peaked well below the maximal generating capacity of OPG’s combined generating facilities.  I was only slightly relieved, of course, given that the existence of excess capacity is due entirely to the interminably slow recovery from the recession, which has caused electricity consumption to decline throughout North America over the past couple of years; but I suppose we need to take good news wherever we can find it.
Clicking through the OPG site afterwards, I found various annual reports and statistics and what-not. Two bits of information that stood out to me were the following. First, OPG operates 3 nuclear sites, 5 thermal generating sites, and 65 hydroelectric stations. When you compare three sets of statistics - total generating capacity, total power generated in 2010, and the current power generation breakdown as of 0900 hrs this morning, you note some very interesting things:
Ontario Power Generation - Generating Capacity Comparison

In theory, the generating capacity of OPG’s three types of facilities is roughly equal - they’re each between 6000 and 7000 MW total capacity (the 2 MW produced by the two wind turbines OPG owns don’t produce enough power to show up on these charts against the roughly 20,000 MW capacity of conventional generating plants).  However, when we look at how much power was generated over the course of the 2010 calendar year, we find that nuclear plants accounted for more than half of production, and thermal plants for less than 1/6th.  This demonstrates, among other things, that the full-time availability and utility of nuclear plants is such that they are the best suited to providing base-load power, augmented as necessary by other means; and that all other things being equal, “carbon producing” electrical generation accounts for only a small proportion of OPG’s generated power.  Indeed, 2010 was an anomaly.  Hydro generation was lower than usual due to the dryness of the year; according to OPG’s annual report for 2010, low reservoir levels led to less power than usual being produced from its hydro stations.  This also, incidentally, caused a serious drop-off in revenues, since hydro-electric power has by far the lowest cost per MWh produced (because, amongst other reasons, the “fuel” is free).
Comparing these charts to the figures from 0900 hrs this morning shows yet another picture: most of the time, nuclear power meets most of the baseline load, with hydro largely held in reserve due to the need to conserve water in reservoirs, and -on days when a high load is anticipated - thermal plants operating and ready to increase production as demand picks up. Indeed, in the 30 minutes since I started writing this message, OPG’s total production went from 9260 MW to 10111 MW - 851 MW, a 9% increase, and roughly the equivalent of a couple of large nuclear reactors or a whole coal-fired generating station. If today is anything like yesterday, peak demand for Ontario is likely to reach about 24,000 MW, of which OPG will supply roughly 2/3, or about 16,000 MW. Supplying this much power will take all of OPG’s nuclear capacity (which it is already pumping out - 6156 MW as of this moment, which is 93% of its installed capacity), all of its thermal generating capacity (which has increased by 50% to 2396 MW since I last looked at it 20 minutes ago), and most of its hydro capacity.
Why detail all of this? Well, because of the second bit of data you find on the OPG site, which is the fascinating fact that the Ontario government still intends to prohibit using coal to produce electricity as of 2014.
The arithmetic is simple: OPG cannot meet the daily demand load without thermal generation. It is currently trying to convert thermal plants to alternate fuels (i.e., natural gas, which as the Yanks have found out is much more expensive than coal to burn for electricity, and which - being methane, or CH4, still produces a molecule of CO2 for every molecule of gas burnt), and it is both refurbishing reactors and building new hydro facilities, but these will not be on line by the time the coal plants are supposed to be shut down. According to Queen’s Park, the shortfall will be overcome through “efficiencies” and “green power”. On the “green power” front that massive 2 MW of “green” capacity from OPG’s two wind turbines doesn’t comfort me all that much; and if enough people suddenly start taking advantage of the program to install solar photovoltaic panels to sell power to OPG for 8 times what OPG can sell it to customers for, we’re all going to go broke that much sooner. You don’t need graduate courses in microeconomics to understand that government-subsidized solar power is a classic pyramid scheme; it’s awesome for the first few folks who manage to get in on the deal, but the last ones - in this case, the tax-paying consumers - end up taking it in the shorts.
As for efficiencies, I don’t see air conditioners (or any other major appliance, for that matter) becoming in the next three years so efficient as to use only 1/3 as much electricity to do the same job. Motors are pretty efficient already, and believe me, if somebody were to suddenly build a scroll compressor that provided 3 times the motive power for the same amount of electricity, he’d be able to buy and sell Bill Gates inside of a year.
Is this important? Well, according to the BBC, this week’s heat wave has resulted in 22 deaths in Canada and the US. Of course, during a similar heat wave in July 1936, according to an Oregon paper (the Bend Bulletin), more than 3300 more people died in 86 cities in the US than during the same period the previous year.  

(from The Bend Bulletin, 15 July 1936)

Naturally, this kind of weather phenomenon represents an extreme, and it’s possible to adapt to it.  These days we have air conditioning - even 78.3% of those Americans classified as “poor” by the US Government have air conditioning.  To see what happens during a heat wave when you don’t have air conditioning, you only need to look back to 1936 - or to 2003, when 15,000 French citizens died during an August heat wave.  According to the New York Times, “The victims were generally found inside apartments, houses and hotels. In virtually every case, there was no air-conditioner.” (NYT, 22 Aug 03).  There are many reasons that North Americans consume roughly twice as much power per capita as Europeans.  One of them is that our weather is much worse, and we like living through it.

Meanwhile, as of 1130 hours today, here’s the OPG generation picture: 

Notice how thermal generation had to increase to meet the rising load?  What would happen if that thermal generating capacity wasn’t there?  Making up 2396 MW using wind power, at an assumed capacity factor of 25%, would take 4800 full-scale 2 MW turbines, each of which costs about $5M USD to install (total installed cost: $24B).  Except that, as CTV News reported earlier this week, when it’s really hot the wind doesn’t blow.  According to IESO, the Independent Electricity System Operator, three days ago, on 19 July 2011, when Ontario’s total electrical consumption peaked at more than 23,000 MW, Ontario’s 1200 MW of installed wind turbine capacity was producing a grand total of 10 W of power.  That’s “Watts”, not “Megawatts”.  That’s less than one-millionth of one percent of installed capacity.  It’s not quite enough power to light a single David Suzuki-endorsed compact fluorescent bulb.
In a heat wave, air conditioning can mean the difference between mild discomfort and mass death.  Air conditioning requires compressors.  Compressors are powered by electricity.*  So, are those coal plants likely to close on schedule?  Well, that depends on how much politicians enjoy hearing from constituents enduring blackouts when the humidex is 47.  If the plants do close and their generating capacity isn’t replaced by an equal amount of equally reliable generating capacity, then we’ll be buying power at a premium from whomever has excess power to sell - for example, the Americans, who get more than 50% of their generated electricity from coal-fired plants, something that isn’t going to change this century unless somebody manages to figure out fusion.  Thanks to the recession, the US also has some excess capacity.  Or maybe, just maybe, people will start to wonder whether saving the planet from global non-warming is worth crippling our civilization.
Or maybe they won’t.  Heck, at one time, the auto-da-fé must’ve seemed like a good idea.  Unless of course you were the one tied to the stake.

*Technically you can run a heat engine with just about any energy source - even by directly burning fuel.  Propane-burning refrigerators used to be quite common.  But burning fuel to run an a/c to cool your house would be somewhat counterproductive.