Ontario’s Alternate Power Reality

Just yesterday there was a news item that here in Ontario our power rates are going up again effective the first of May. In one of the discussions there was a link to an interview with Premier Wynne in the Ottawa Citizen where she mentioned that the government was dedicated to pushing power rates up and up, referencing the Long Term Energy Plan of 2013, released mid 2014.

So I located it online and started reading it — and a couple of items really attracted my attention, shock really:

1. The document shows power rates climbing steadily for years, leveling off likely after I will no longer care. This levels off somewhere around 50% higher than we are seeing now. And we already have the most expensive power in Canada and racing parts of the US for the most expensive in North America. And unlike many places I have lived, the cost to get power to my door is ‘distribution’ and is effectively a multiplier on this number. In our current bill the ‘cost’ of electricity is less than 50% of the total. So the numbers they toss around are somewhat egregious. The Premier feels we need to pay the ‘real’ cost of power and are not yet close. More on this later.

2. Their graphs show a plan to expand wind turbines until they account for 1/3 of Ontario’s power. Explains why every bit of prime farmland and vacation land is being covered with these things over the objections of the locals and one suspects their own environmental laws and treaties. The odd part of this is the Province cannot absorb the current amount of wind generation due to a simple fact of weather-tied power generation that seems to have slipped by. The wind blows when the wind blows… a detail that was observed in the early GE analysis. And in Ontario that is typically NOT when the peak power demands are. So the surplus is exported to the US at a deep loss and the difference added to the cost of power we pay — the wind guys get 0.18/kw but the power is sold for 0.03/kw. Solar is even worse… don’t ask.

Recently IESO got a reprieve on the requirement that wind have guaranteed access to the grid. So rather than compromise stability with these barely predictable surges of wind power, IESO is allowed to pay them to NOT generate power. Our Energy Minister states that power exports are profitable — but he neglects to mention for whom. My bet it is not the Ontario power consumer.

This brings us back to the question of the true cost of power. I suspect the real number independent of these ‘green’ power initiatives, the ‘smart’ grid (read central control is good for you) and the various science projects (like inertial storage of utility power) is probably still modest. Let us not forget that to accommodate the build out of these pinwheels both nuclear and hydro are being deliberately wasted. Much of the soaring cost is forcing the users to eat the losses resulting from the overproduction of wind power. What is curious is that a justification for the breakup of Hydro was their off the ranch experimentation wasting taxpayer money — and yet here we are again, even worse.

3. In a number of places the Minister refers to energy conservation as a new, clean power source. There are a number of graphs that show this power source as being added to more tangible forms of power like hydro or nuclear. To be fair, there is a footnote that suggests in some places this is recognized as generation construction avoidance. But from various statements in the LTEP and associated documents it is not at all clear that the Minister really understands it as such. The term is thrown about in a manner similar to suggestion that famine were a new food source. The parallel is apt — just as healthy bodies need adequate nutrition, a healthy economy needs affordable power. Just not here, it seems.

4. Despite the assertion that the government is pushing for more renewable power, there is nothing renewable about the explosion in gas turbines all over the place. We can see the Napanee plant from our window — being built right next to the existing idle Lennox generating station, also gas/oil. And by locating these things far from the point of use, they are really maximizing the transmission losses on the generated power.

5. And there is an odd thing to about the comment about the true cost of power — the LTEP has a couple of cost graphs that show nuclear refurb is about the cheapest power and wind sits smack in the middle of new nuclear. But to build a nuclear plant requires long term political stability. Not a characteristic of politics here — the weather is more stable and predictable than a politicians promise. Even this year.

6. But wait, there is more. The one thing we don’t really know and are definitely NOT looking at is what the long term impact will be on the Province. Remember that it is the prime farmland and recreation areas of Ontario that are being covered. Wind farms interfere with global circulation in a number of ways — they add turbulence that enhances heat transfer, so downwind it is both hotter and drier. There have been some studies that suggest the low level vibrations drive out earthworms. Will this impact agriculture? And do we care? There is always California… (no, wait!)

And from a weather perspective, Ontario is a small place with insufficient geographical diversity to have a variety of wind regimes — watch the Sygration reports, more often than not the wind farms all get idled at the same time. The Germans found that this was true even on a very small scale — pulsations in wind occurred across large areas and made for surges in output that were, shall we say, problematic. So the argument that the wind is always blowing somewhere is still valid — only on a far larger scale than their imagination.

All of this reminds me of that scene in Alice where the Red Queen is going on about all the impossible things she does before breakfast. Any of this seeming familiar? We seem to be swirling down that rabbit hole — and I am looking for the White Rabbit. Or perhaps it really should be the blue pill.

Forward Into the Past

Thought crossed my mind today, somewhere between the news flier touting propane appliances as the latest ‘green’ technology and the ‘science’ article questioning why people persist in the controversial strategy of even considering nuclear power — that perhaps we should simply declare that the 19th century was really the best of all times and that we are rolling everything back to then. Finish the job of dismantling the grid, stop commercial airplanes and cars, continue to do nothing to hold back the return of highways to the dirt, no more vaccinations — disease is good and culls the population, and so on. Just think… Steam Punk as prescience.

After all, the 19th century robber barons appear to be the model of the ideal contemporary citizen. Social services? A wasteful excess — besides, no one worth taking care of does not have the means to hire their own doctors. Who cares about the others. Not worth mentioning anyhow. Climate change? A myth — besides, there are those ski resorts in Antarctica to consider now that Whistler is getting rain. And if we cut wages enough then maybe our suits and gowns can be tailored here rather than in Hong Kong. And it will be easier to get domestics.

And look at how much money can be made by keeping the world in a perpetual state of regional wars. And provides a sink for the surplus lower classes. The security services will keep the rabble away from the estates anyhow.

And I am sure there will always be some aviation — got to have some way of getting the produce in from South America now that California is going back to desert. Too bad we were so successful in killing off local agriculture. But we can sell all that abandoned land around the wind plants to folks from away and they will bring in their own coolies to till it. As for the huge pile of people in the cities? Heck, they will find ways to cope. After all, ‘Soylent Green’ provided a model.

The kernel of truth in all this is that the strength of the 19th century, as practised in the industrial US anyhow, was that it was as locally self-sufficient as possible. Bringing stuff from away was difficult and expensive so people made due with what was available. Houses used local materials and were designed to suit local conditions, not fashion statements from somewhere else. The local machine shop and pottery made what you needed as did the local woodwright. And most food was local too. Self-reliance, a traditional virtue I think we have largely forgotten.

Nice fantasy. But tough to do when there are sooooo many people and even more to come. Problem is that coping with the world we are making will just not work by rolling back the clock. 21st century problems require 21st century solutions. After all, at one time gasoline was considered too dangerous to use, but we learned. Supporting huge piles of people simply requires huge amounts of power — and there are very few choices available to produce it. We need to stop whining and do some engineering — or the road back to the 19th century will not be pretty.

Fire Good

The New York Times had an interesting article about biofuels this morning. The suggestion was that this approach was a losing proposition over the long haul with a growing population. So to move away from carbon different approaches were advised. The comments, for the most part, were typical as well — most were still stuck in the reality of a fire-based society and were more prepared to argue the different forms of fuel that step back and look at the big picture.

But I see it a bit differently and am perhaps a bit more pessimistic. My comment:

“‘Fire good…’ one of our ancestors must have acclaimed a long time ago. Yep, still doing it — just got a lot more creative about forming the fuel. Cut it down, dig it up, grow it and weave into baskets before burning… all pretty much the same. The rub is that there are more of us so using the atmosphere as an intermediary carbon store is not going to reduce levels. And the problem is that ‘biofuels’ are costly to produce — by substituting technology for time. Lets face it, fire is biological solar power releasing the energy captured by plants over time. Its virtue is energy storage in a stable form.

So sure, we can come up with technological equivalents for natural processes but the basic issue of more people makes this a losing proposition. And it diverts resources from other uses.

The challenge is how to live (or not) an energy-intensive lifestyle without burning stuff to do it. The key is storage and transmission of power and coming to terms with other forms of generation. Just changing the brand of what we put in the tank is not going to do it, regardless of how much their advocates claim.”

Think about it, really. Coal, oil, wood, gas are all carbon compounds produced at the end of some process that started with photosynthesis a long time ago. With the exception of wood, pretty much everything else requires heat and pressure over a very long time to transform the original biomatter into the present forms. But essentially it is just biological solar power. Sunlight transformed into a material that is burned to release the captured energy through a chemical reaction and return the bound carbon into the air — to be picked up by a photosynthetic organism someplace and recycled. The air is just an intermediate store in the whole process. Recycled… is that not the point of ‘renewable’ energy anyhow?

Problem is that the arc of our civilization is based on consuming more and more energy as we use technology to leverage our existence away from our primitive fore-bearers. Sitting here in the house writing on my computer, radio playing in the background, heating system keeping me warm, etc — probably using more energy every day than my distant ancestor in a cave used in his lifetime.

But with more people and each of them using more energy that is a lot of carbon that used to sit in the ground floating around and contributing to global climate change by absorbing heat directly. The problem is burning stuff to release energy, not so much IMHO the form of the carbon source being burned. So biofuels are really a diversion — we have been using biofuels all along, are just substituting technology (and consuming some of the released energy) to hasten the process. More people, more burning stuff, more crud in the air… not a good direction. (Take that, tar sands…)

The problem is really storage and transmission. A jug of gasoline or a pile of coal is a lot of stored energy sitting there. While it has been suggested (in the article for sure – a factor of 50) that solar panels were a far more efficient way to convert sunlight into power we don’t have a good way to save it for later. Even pushing it to the other side of the country is not without losses — and they do mount up. Losses upping the voltage, passing through the wires, dropping it to a safe level at the other end. There are a variety of views as to how much gets lost end to end — I have seen as low as 9% (how hydro grosses up our usage) to as high as 30% (Lawrence-Livermore Labs US energy flows). The reality is out there somewhere. One suspects that by making every larger and more interconnected grids we are making it worse [think one grid to rule them all…]. And like most things bigger is more brittle and harder to manage. Try telling that to politicians infatuated with ‘economies of scale’.

There is another problem to mention as an aside — our fire-based civilization (many of them, really) is a 24 hour beast. In the past life was driven by the sun unless you were very rich — the day started when the sun came up and wound down at the other end. Still, consider the lifecycle of someone using the sun for power, extended, most inefficiently, by energy storage into the night. Adding wind really doesn’t change much — the wind blows when it blows, not when you need the power it is producing. (And wind is driven by temperature differences globally — wonder how that will change as the planet continues to warm?) And backing all this ‘renewable’ power up with gas generators that have to run all the time to be ready and warm when needed isn’t as much a solution as a sort of slight of hand. We pretend the power is non-carbon but its an illusion, even ignoring the industrial processes and material needed to make huge swaths of solar panels and towering concrete, steel and fibreglass wind turbines. The natural gas keeps being burned day and night and the exhaust bubbles into the air.

What is the solution? Wish I knew — but it is probably electric in some form. Don’t think 9 billion people are going to go back to agrarian societies subsistence-farming their local patch of land. And neither will huge cities work well if the lights, heat and water all go off at sunset. To say nothing of the 1,000 mile oxcart run to bring in food. So there is still a need for large scale power storage and transmission. The later is less of a problem if generation and use are more localized — fewer extension cords and points of failure. Problem is some poor city-dweller is going to have to accept a power facility down the block. Sorry about that.

As I see it the big problem areas are mobile sources of power — cars, trucks and especially aviation. There are solutions for boats, mostly because they are almost small cities and adding tons is less of a problem. And rail has been electric for a long time in some places. Bullet trains are all electric, diesel locomotives are really electric with their own oil-fired dynamos (still burning stuff). Steam locomotives died out mostly because they had no way to recycle the water — a problem in many areas (and getting worse).

Personally, I would love to have an electric car. A lot simpler than the beast parked in the driveway [a small truck]. But I use that thing at most two or three times a week — ok because the gas just sits there and the starting energy in the lead-acid battery persists long enough. If it were much longer even that would be problematic. Most electric storage doesn’t work anywhere near as well and its heavy so the amount that can be carried is reduced [think amount of energy and the weight of the storage to hold it]. So even the best have a far shorter range than the beast with a full tank of gas and take a lot longer to recharge. Industry has used electric trucks in plants for a long time — but I don’t know anyone who is even trying to do a delivery van with batteries. Its all the same problem — energy storage.

So meanwhile, once again in my humble opinion, all this work at carbon capture and alternate biofuels is just a waste. Even if we succeed in some of these processes the growing population dooms us. Getting out of this mess without making an unlikely societal transform is only going to happen if we find new ways of producing and storing energy that don’t require burning things — its not a contest that burning chunks is bad but liquids are good [or somesuch]. May even have to face our fears about nuclear and perhaps admit that the first generation plants were not so good (although statistically enormously better than the alternatives — the fear is not based on what did happen, only what could have).

In a sense it is a far bigger challenge than going to the moon. And it will be hard. But like that latter effort the real benefit will be what we learn along the way. Would be encouraging to see more movement in that direction and less on making burning stuff even more inefficient. But so far, not so much.

Making change from climate change — or not.

Of late there has been a flurry of opinions thrown about regarding different capitalistic models to profit from climate change. Ostensibly, if we pick the right model, we can both make money and save the planet. Right…

Similarly, in Ontario, we have a government announcing that they were intent on having 20,000 megawatts of the provincial power supply provided by ‘renewables’ — which is interesting considering that currently the published generation capability is 27,000 megawatts — 12,000 is nuclear and 8,000 is hydroelectric. Today the Province was using 17,000 megawatts and there was very little wind. But rural areas are going to be carpet-bombed with these huge pinwheels over their strenuous objections. And so far the bulk of the power produced has to be dumped at fire sale prices. And to protect the grid, the power authority has been granted the ability to pay the wind folks for not generating power based on what they could have produced if we could have used it. No, I am not making this up…

Guess the problem of saving the planet has gotten tangled up with the need for the ‘right’ people to make money off it. Reducing emissions has become entangled with pricing ‘carbon’ and produced trade-able certificates that can be bought and sold for a profit. Similarly, Enron introduced a model for electricity markets where one speculated on future power prices to protect ones’ costs — interesting that Ontario is still very quietly trying to pursue that model. May have something to do with having Enron as advisers on how to make the Ontario power system ‘modern’…

The climate has been changing since the Earth first coalesced from the dust of the solar system. Change is perhaps the only constant. Every week one reads about some new relationship being discovered that influences climate. It ranges from shifts in the orbit and planetary orientation to the sun, through variations in solar cycles, to emission of gasses that trap infrared and conspire to produce a greenhouse effect — Venus is an extreme case. These gasses include carbon dioxide — the result of human respiration and combustion processes and methane — the result of animal flatulence, permafrost decomposition and clathrate decomposition. The latter is due to methane seeps on the ocean floor that crystallize as vast field of solids under deep sea pressures and temperatures. Problem is that as the seas warm this stuff is turning to gas and joining the party. Human emissions from fires, transportation and industry are part of the problem — but only part.

Now I am reasonably sure that industrial civilization, striving to burn anything they could get their hands on, have been big contributors to this mess. But since we are not the largest contributor it is only hubris that would lead us to suggest that any one series of actions would ‘save the planet’. We fuss about not having made accurate predictions about ISIS and yet they used the internet to spread their propaganda and had lots of folks watching them. How accurate do we really think our ideas of how the climate is changing and what, specifically, we can do to influence this — given that the atmosphere is a complex product of the actions of a very complicated global system [of which I think we have at best a few guesses but no real grasp] and the action of a large pile of people who do things for their own reasons.

I am inclined to think that the best thing we can do is worry about how to help all those people who are being affected by climate change. And develop strategies for how to adapt to a warmer and drier/wetter world (depending upon where you live). And leave the ‘who’s fault is it’ and who will pay discussions for the lawyers in a later and hopefully smarter time. Burning less is always a good idea. Those petrochemicals are likely far more valuable as feedstocks for chemical synthesis. And ethanol… give me a break. Putting ethanol in gasoline was an idea from the 1930s to improve farm income in the Depression. That we do it now to save the planet is ludicrous — infernal combustion engines run more poorly on it than without. If the goal was to reduce GHG than this really is not a solution.

My concern is that with climate change we are on the brink of the largest forced migrations in human history. And putting up the concertina wire to discourage immigration simply magnifies the eventual problems. So we will chase the ghost of emission credits, alternate technologies and so forth. But one suspects that the climate will continue to change regardless.

Meanwhile, the real elephant in the room is there are just too many people. We are the ultimate invasive species. Look at where we have been — we cut down all the trees, drink all the water and dig up everything that might be profitable. And when we have wrecked that place we move on. I have seen sober analysis that suggests if there were 1 billion people the Earth could absorb whatever we do. But 7 billion or 9 billion or more? We are rapidly over-running the carrying capacity of spaceship Earth. The real climate change problem is that this invasive species (us) is consuming the planet — we need to control our numbers or go elsewhere or both. Personally, I would vote for going elsewhere — just basic monkey curiosity if nothing else. I want to see our species go to the stars — nothing else will be enough.

Green Lies

Was reading the latest expression of dismay by the IPCC regarding Canada’s climate change un-policy. And the excellent columns by Parker Gallant in Wind Concerns about the Ontario curriculum changes and educational indoctrinations to support the current ‘green’ viewpoints. Reminds me of something attributed to the Jesuits about getting a young mind and owning them for life… a pity that education here about is more about job training and ideology than clear thinking. Part of what convinces me that climate change in the catastrophic mode is inevitable.

Entropy increases — unstable systems oscillate back and forth until a stable, but chaotic equilibrium is reached. The planets’ climate has been swinging back and forth for a long time — if people have influenced it then most likely we have just hurried it up. Rolling it back to some historic ‘golden’ age is likely impossible even if we were gods, rather than just thinking we are. The sun adds heat to the system continually and global circulation distributes it. Some energy is used to drive our ecosystem and some radiates off into space, more when the globe is covered in glaciers, right now not so much. But as I understand it, warming is essential to get the conditions we need to increase precipitation and start the glacier cycle again. Your climate models may be different — and reality, as usual, has the only correct model.

Making technical and cultural changes to ‘roll back’ or ‘slow down’ climate change means going against basic human greed. As long as making money and being environmentally callous has the enthusiastic support of governments (Canada on tar sands, pipelines and occasionally asbestos) doing the environmentally responsible thing is unlikely. And lets face it, conservation and higher prices for less are just not popular ideas. And from reading the tripe being passed out by Ontario to children, it really seems that rather than saving the planet the real goal is to roll back the clock to some sort of 19th or 18th century status, the last time we tried to run a society on entirely ‘renewable’ energy — wind, sun (and lots of manure).

Well, we have part of it — people working for less and less money, rollback of voter and worker rights, environmental rules, journalism. Politicians who break laws and lie to the electorate (who increasingly work for the government rather than the other way around). More one man rule, less freedom in many directions justified by ‘i want’ rather than provable evidence.  More corruption in public office rather than less. It goes on and on.

As I have mentioned before, all energy sources are renewable — but some on much longer timescales than others. Solar comes up every day unless there are clouds. Wind blows as long as there are temperature and pressure differentials — these shift daily and seasonally. (And as a result of climate change.) Burnable materials — biofuels, wood, coal, oil and gas, all come from carbon reactions of living things but require various geological processes to transform into the familiar forms over time (sometimes a lot). Fissionable materials, like just about every other part of the material world, come from supernova explosions — so if we ‘blow’ through what we have there may be a bit of a delay ’till the next lot comes through. But we can be a lot smarter with what we have — unlike coal or oil, nuclear ‘burning’ is a transformation that produces other ‘burnable’ materials that we currently ignore. Or we could master fusion — the only real generative process that takes hydrogen and squeezes it into everything else, even black holes. Neat trick if we ever figure that one out. And is the universe as a whole renewable or recyclable?

But on a more realistic note, since we discovered fire, leaps in civilization were driven in part by finding increasingly powerful sources of energy.  Fire gave us cooking, ceramics and metals. Steam gave us mechanical muscles to lift, shape and carry. Electricity brought the day to the night and enabled revolutions in countless other fields. High energy liquid fuels gave us mobility and flight, even beyond our atmosphere.  Nuclear fission, besides really big bombs, offered a reasonably clean and safe form of power generation — but fear mongering and a couple of really big screwups seems to have crashed that effort.  A pity, because it has real promise but needs a lot of engineering to work out the problems. And as for radiation, the fearmongers conveniently ignore the effects of the hundreds of nuclear bombs exploded world-wide on the general populace. The US war on Nevada and Utah dumped fallout all across the US over and over — Chicago, where I grew up, was right in the path. One head, two eyes, other parts in the usual numbers and places. The reality is that the epidemic of horrors they tell us a small leak would cause didn’t happen.

In my darker moments I think that the ‘greenies’,  some of whom have gotten really rich on this loose collection of ideas, long to take us back to a simpler time and assume that they will be the lords in the manor while the rest of us become serfs, ignorant and fearful.  The wind farm folk are getting rich on our money producing power when it is not needed and despoiling our landscapes. And without lots of gas turbines running in the background the lie of this ‘renewable’ power source would be clear.  We pour ethanol into our gasoline and burn more than ever. Imagine how much happier we would all be if it had been drunk rather than burned…

Meanwhile, the climate is changing. And we play games with ourselves to come up with ways to make money on ‘slowing’ or ‘reversing’ it and finding other people to push off the costs to.  While the real issue of identifying and preparing for the changes is simply ignored in most quarters. The military and insurance companies are worrying about it. Some cities like Chicago have actually started thinking about it. Too many just pretend it is happening to someone else.

But as the world warms the differentials that drive the winds will change as will the cloud cover.  Be interesting to see how the thousands of wind turbines and solar panels do then?  And how well our supplies of burnable materials are holding out.  But one thing seems clear, the ‘greenies’ are not doing any of this for us.

The alternate reality of wind power

A couple of days ago an article appeared in Slashdot and several other places suggesting that ‘wind turbine syndrome’ was a matter of mass hysteria — communicated by word of mouth rather than exposure. Following the entrails the source for this was a wind advocacy group. The discussion on Slashdot was the usual chain of viewpoints — offering opinions but few facts. And plenty of off-topic remarks about nuclear power and cell phones.

On the face of it this would appear to be a counter-strike to the rising rural opposition to the invasion of large scale wind power into unwilling communities. And a good study from last year where high levels of very low frequency sound were measured in the homes of people in a wind plant in Wisconsin. But part of the problem with this is the insistence that there is no evidence that harm is even possible. It is as though the wind advocates are telling people that noise and flicker from huge wind turbines obeys different physical laws than anything else in the world. In this alternate reality, low frequency sound from a wind plant will have different physiological effects than similar low frequency noise from a large industrial blower, military sonar or aircraft vibration. So if analysis shows that noise in the frequency ranges that the US military found made some pilots ill, or that weapons developers were using for crowd control — if the source is a wind turbine it will have a different effect… and we should believe them? And do any of the proponents (David Suzuki, for example) live anywhere near these things?

But there seems to be a lot of this willing suspension of disbelief going around. Our leaders and their propagandists are telling everyone we need more and more wind power — and soon rural areas (to say nothing about bird habitats and migration routes) will be covered with these things.  But the evidence is that much of this power is unusable as it is created when demand is low, so is sold off at a loss. And hydroelectric power is being spilled to make room for wind, as is nuclear. So with gas turbines on standby to step in when wind falters more greenhouse gases are being released than ever.  Why?

We are assured by these same folks that the Smart Grid ™ will losslessly move power across the province and successfully juggle the hundreds of randomly varying generation sources to support our electrical workloads. In the final report on the 2003 blackout one observation was telling – the scale of the blackout was due in part to an inability to manage the interactions within the grid. The power industry (plural, really) has been interconnecting things without any real grasp of the  complex dynamics of the resultant structure. So a failure in one place propagated in seconds across the grid causing multiple failures and overloads. Somehow I doubt that the folks who run the politicized and balkanized power system in Ontario are that much smarter. Listening to them it sounds more like a big drug dream than the result of any sober engineering work.

But it goes even deeper. A few days ago I had a discussion at the ‘public’ meeting with one of the wind company people who are planning on carpet bombing Amherst Island with wind turbines.  Tightly packed lines of these immense monsters will cover the landscape — guess they had to have a certain number to make the project. So they did… Reading the alternate energy press one gets the idea that the engineering objective is to provide enough spacing to minimize noise and multi-turbine wake losses. Even the Wikipedia article on wind plant engineering talks about this. The measure is in multiples of the turbine blade diameter — so if the target spacing (per Wiki) is 10-15 rotor diameters, a 150m rotor would space these things 1.5km apart as a minimum. Doing a little ruler work on their map shows some as close as 3 diameters. But these folks said their ‘science’ says they can do this… really makes me wonder if they use pi as 3 for convenience as well. Glad its not my money at risk… a pity I will be paying for it through one of the highest power costs in North America.

An aside on power costs: There was a recent column in the New York Times about the negative impact of soaring power costs on economic activity in Europe. What was interesting was the mention that manufacturers were starting to talk about moving their facilities to the US because of lower power costs. I must wonder if anyone thought through what the costs of the Ontario Green Energy ™ program would do to Ontario businesses? After all, to pay for all this one must have positive economic activity — same goes for tax revenues to pay for all the government. One does not build a prosperous society by driving out employers. But once again these folks seem to inhabit a bubble untouched by the same realities the rest of us inhabit.

Back in the days of the Roman Empire, when an engineer designed a bridge or an arch, he was required to stand under it as the construction supports were removed.  That way, the engineer had a real, personal interest in getting it right.  But in the alternate reality of Ontario’s wind invasion — are any of the designers or advocates at risk? Somehow I doubt it. They all seem to be pretty enthusiastic that someone else should take one for the team — but I don’t see any of them doing it. How many of these folks even live near a wind farm? Perhaps after construction the team should be required to live in and amongst the things for a while — a year would be a good start.

But short of that unlikely measure, the only thing that might help would be to simply admit that wind farms were part of the same physical reality as everything else. And that factors found to be harmful to some people when generated by other sources could be harmful when generated by wind plants. To expect anything different is really insane.

Death of 10,000 Cuts

I was saddened to read in today’s Toronto Star that VIA, the Canadian ‘passenger’ rail service, is being cut again. So once again communities in southern Ontario will loose their rail service. I read the self-serving hand-wringing of the executives, that their dream of a profitable passenger service that is completely user-funded, just isn’t happening. So they just have to keep cutting and cutting — preserving their jobs to the last, of course. This was reinforced by the announcement recently that VIA has tripled its profits after allowing for the on-going government subsidy and is looking to further fine tune its profit model…

Over the years we have had many pleasant train experiences. From riding the Indiana and South Shore interurban from Chicago to South Bend. To the incredible JR Shinkansen, flying on the ground from Tokyo to Kyoto. And watching the sun set over the Rhine from a very comfortable DB compartment. In our experience, passenger rail is a wonderful experience — except Canada.

Several years ago my son was going to school in Thunder Bay. I was astonished to discover that to get there one either drove or flew, that all the communities along the lake shore have been cut off. Oh, one helpful guy at VIA allowed that one could get off at a whistle stop someplace out in the bush 100km north and west of Thunder Bay, but how to get closer he could not help me. No buses either.

Later on, we joined my wifes’ relatives in Vancouver, after a wonderful guided tour of the city from my oldest and his wife. Nice town, wish we could afford to live there… The plan was to take the VIA Canadian back to Toronto. And we did. Going through the Rockies was wonderful but when we got out to the Prairies things changed. The train was constantly being shunted to the side to allow long, slow freights to trundle past — usually on sidings that serviced a crumbling wreck of a former station.  And when the train was moving the condition of the roadbed was all too clear — shake, rattle and roll. By the time we got back to Toronto our semicircular canals were so frothed that it took almost a week before our balance normalized. Like being peas in a can — definitely shaken (but not stirred). Sleep was always a challenge under these conditions. Nice to read the VIA press about this trip but our experience was a bit different. I would not do it again – even if it was free.

Growing up in a big city I have always been a big believer in the power of public transportation in general and passenger rail specifically to reduce congestion and pollution. The economics of rail — the low cost, simple infrastructure (compared with air travel or highways) and the ease of going from city center to city center as demonstrated in the rest of the world, seemed clear. And as Canadian history shows, rail can be an effective means to bring people and goods to remote areas — tying a large and thinly populated country together.

But instead, VIA is following an opposite course. Service continually shrinks as more and more stations are abandoned. Ticket prices float in an inconceivable stratosphere where air travel now becomes a bargain, ignoring the hassles of security and just getting to and from the airport. There is nothing that we would love more than leave our car in Kingston and take the train into Toronto, Ottawa or Montreal. But with gas, parking and time on the road, driving is still faster and cheaper than taking the train. Be nice to sit in a comfortable seat, watch the Ontario landscape roll by, and arrive relaxed and refreshed for a day of sightseeing. Like we can do almost anyplace else in the world. But not here.

The one thing that really troubles me about this is that transportation is the glue that holds the country together.  After the canoe, Canada was built by the railroads — and there should be no mistake about the amount of subsidies poured into their construction. Highways are built by taxpayer dollars and maintained in the same way. The air system is also heavily funded by governments. So it is disengenious to expect passenger service to survive when cut off from the background funding that built it and sustains the other forms of transportation. But a car full of grain will complain a lot less if left stranded on a siding for a day or two — than a car full of passengers.

Recently I have been reading about the (many) ghost railways in Ontario — many were constructed to tap rapidly vanishing timber or mineral resources and folded when the supply ended. But others had more interesting demises. At one point Ontario had a huge network of electric light rail that linked communities together in a way folks in Toronto can only dream of today. Where I used to live in Toronto it was once possible to walk to the end of the block and get a train that ran to Guelph. Must have been nice, would have made my son’s life in University a tad less isolated. This network was destroyed by explicit Ontario government decisions forbidding municipalities from raising money for their rail service. Some were replaced by buses, many just vanished. Shipments of mail used to underwrite the costs of passenger service — until the federal government decided this was just too retro and cancelled the contracts en mass in favor of trucking it. Competing lobbyists? Really bad drug dreams? Who can tell? Look at Toronto now — worked well, didn’t it?

The real worry is what will happen over time to the widely dispersed communities? Rail is an effective link to remote locations, being cheaper to build track than to lay a decent highway. And enormously more fuel efficient. And over the last century there has been much practice in supporting remote locations with the train. And since bus lines have been allowed to drop rural service in several parts of the country — one is either well off enough to fly or drive to get anywhere. If you are poor, sick or infirmed — forget it. Live in the big city or die seems to be the message. A pity that large masses of people dependent on external services are more vulnerable than a dispersed, partially self-sufficient rural one.

The message appears to be that getting around is not for everyone — and that it no longer matters for one to be able to get someplace for economic reasons. Remote communities can be left to drift into oblivion while agencies wring their hands over how expensive it is to service them. Consolidate, consolidate, consolidate — pursuing economies of scale that simply don’t exist with human institutions. It is a shame, really — but from the policies at many levels to dismantle the transportation network, ugly cracks are starting to show in the country as a whole. One more step in dismantling the country  — will it break into warring principalities? (Quebec seems to be going that way…) Or collapse and be absorbed by the giant to the south? Or are some folks dreaming of a resurgence in feudalism? After all, in the good old days (if you were a hereditary lord) the peasants were tied to the land so they HAD to work for you and support YOUR lifestyle…

Meanwhile, if I want to take a train, I will have to go someplace else… passenger service in Canada, unlike the rest of the world, is heading for the museum and the history books. The real pity is that the country is likely to follow.