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.

System scalability — a classic fail (again)

A very long time ago a firm I worked at decided to deploy a new, distributed application to the traders. And in keeping with all the latest ideas the application code was loaded from a common server connected to the trade floor. The idea was simple — code changes would be done to the one copy on the server so anytime anyone signed in they would get the latest and of course greatest…

There was, of course, a small catch in this idea. While loading an application like this from the server is fairly quick, 100 more or less simultaneous logons are a different matter. It took hours and there was serious talk of having some poor clerk come in at 4am to sign on all the workstations so by the time everyone got in their machine was ready to go. It was, I confess, fun to watch the very smart development team confront the fact (with some help) that their clever idea was actually pretty costly.

From talking to my brother-in-law over the weekend it sounds like the medical records system he is required to use for charting was designed by some of the same folk. Logon is 15-20 minutes (this is a doctor sitting there waiting for the system to respond, remember). Record changes takes minutes. The day starts early and ends late due to the ponderousness of the whole application and the multiple layers of signon security built in. Didn’t ask if a chart could be shared — I am almost afraid of the answer.

Problem is that computers are really poor at sharing anything but very good at faking it. Easy to forget, especially in these days of applications with little bits spread all over the landscape. And on local networks, no matter how fast, transfers happen one bit at a time.

The old and much maligned mainframe systems did one thing right — their design sacrificed pretty much everything that slowed down processing and allowed applications to shovel data through at great rates. But these systems required a real understanding of what was going on to design and operate. Not quite as light and fluffy as todays GUI (gooey?) development tools that emphasize simplicity and cute effects for down to the bone functionality.

So we save money on building the code, pat ourselves on the back for what a contemporary, glossy system we have built. And force the highly skilled and not inexpensive people who have to use it to fiddle while waiting for someone’s cleverness to work. Guess this is another case of cost cutting at the wrong end — somehow it seems to me that lifecycle costs for all those high priced users would have been a better optimization target than development. But then they did have a few massive fails getting it off the ground to begin with. Glad the sales folk and the well-connected consulting house management made their commissions. Looks like the rest of us will be paying for this for years.

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.

Update – Triumph of Terror

Posted an addendum to ‘Triumph of Terror’ published 4-aug-2013 as a result of the discussion in the press today about the new, broader legislation the Harper government is seeking to implement. More than ever it seems that the real triumph of groups like Al-Qaeda has been to outsource their fight to destroy our societies to the very governments we trust to keep us safe. On both sides of the border the security apparat that has grown up is far more effective in crushing our rights than a couple of planes loaded with explosives could have ever been. As in 1984 we have unending wars in distant places with intractable, ever-shifting enemies for unclear objectives. Meanwhile our cities crumble, disease is starting to spread that we thought was under control, and a decent life becomes illusory for a growing number of our people.

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.

Political Impunity and Corruption

Somewhere, lost in a desert waiting to be discovered, is a battered cuneiform tablet with an essay complaining about how corrupt the current leaders are compared with their predecessors. I think about this when reading about a politician resigning from the legislature after a series of remarkably self-serving abuses (there have been a few). Or while under investigation another blandly stating that entitlements are entitlements so there is nothing to apologize for to anyone. Or much closer to home, the continued obsession of Ontario to cover the rural landscape with wind turbines despite any evidence that their power can be utilized (last weekend was a $10 million/day loss to ratepayers) or even afforded. Or what I like to think of as the ‘X-files’ view of government as a front for a group quietly working on some other agenda that will someday be revealed to our collective detriment.

Problem is that laws and codes of conduct are what we agree they are — nothing more. If I hold a raw egg out the window over a sidewalk, say from the second or third story, and drop it… there will be a mess on the sidewalk a few seconds later pretty much every time. There are natural laws — acceleration due to gravity, material strength of the shell and so forth, that dictate the survival of the raw egg. Human behavior is subject to no such clear cut and easily testable laws. Instead, we have culture and laws. And courts to argue the difference.

There is a lot of titter in the press of late about G-20 movements to reduce and eliminate corruption globally. But I suspect that everyone involved all think that corrupt practices are what the other guys do — but what they do is ok. Canadians are sure, for example, that what the Russians or Chinese do is corrupt. That in China, for example, there are no real business contracts but things get done or not based on personal relationships and obligations. Reminds me of what it was like getting consulting work in the Toronto financial services community — without personal ties, forget it.

Over the last weeks there has been mention in the press that some execs in OPG also sit on the boards of some of their suppliers. Or that the old head of the Ontario Liberal party was also the head of a wind turbine company. Is there a relationship between these connections and the obsessiveness by the Ontario government to landscape rural areas with unwanted wind farms? One wonders. But apparently it is not illegal for government execs to favor companies where they have personal financial interests. Is this corruption? Some might think so — others think its just business as usual.

As a taxpayer with little stomach for the long term manipulations of politics (learning what to kiss and when I’m sure) nor the massive personal resources and connections to play the game I can look at this with horror. But the problem with government and politics is that this is how it is played. A line from the play and movie ‘A Man for All Seasons’ comments on Sir Thomas Moore — ‘the first politician since Plato who did not grow wealthy from the bribes and benefits of office’. It is everywhere, not just Zimbabwe.

I suspect that as long as politicians are allowed to make rules that benefit themselves this problem will be with us. The US tries by making folks put their assets in blind trusts while in office to reduce this problem. But with lobbyists and the prospects of where they go after office makes arms length, impartial decisions a fond wish but dubious reality. And I may be wrong but I don’t think Canada even bothers to play this game of pretend.

What makes it worse is that everyone knows this so there is a corresponding culture of impunity — they can do what they want and no one can nay say them. At the worse a few bad days in the Globe and Mail, then back to the trough. Oh, occasionally someone will get tossed under the bus for appearances sake but jail is not a concern it would seem. And for someone with the right connections even that is not much of a factor.

The real miracle, one suspects, is that anything works at all.

Statistical Evidence

The other day there was another medical announcement which indicated that perhaps fat wasn’t so bad after all — seems it is essential for brain development. My wife and I have almost stopped reading these things — whatever is bad for you this week will likely be determined to be good for you next week. We are continually amused by the foods that fall in and out of favour, almost worse than skirt lengths and hairstyles.

And following the recent US elections there has been a spate of columns arguing for or against political campaigns that were based on ‘big data’ — statistical analysis of voters, their preferences, sensitivities and associated variables. Should the candidate part their hair on the right? How many votes will this pick up or loose? Ad nausea.

And medicine argues that by associating numbers with anecdotes about patient conditions and treatment responses they have become ‘evidence-based’. And treatments based on statistics are more valid than the old anecdotal approach — even though the underlying physiological mechanisms are no more understood than before.

There are, of course, the endless streams of meta-analysis where someone has collected the results of a whole population of studies and by suitable manipulation and data filtering declared that the real results of those studies were different than previously claimed.

Recently those of us on Amherst Island were treated to another example of this approach. Health Canada, assisted by a number of wind industry folks and fellow travellers (love that phrase from the 1950’s that loosely suggests unindited co-conspirators). No peer review, no involvement in the process of the protest groups or people who were not disbelievers. The media trumpeted that there were no health issues found. The report was a bit more nuanced — they did not talk to anyone who abandoned their homes. Those who were still there having problems (which were called ‘annoyances’) and found to have elevated stress hormones were told that this was due to being annoyed. So we had a case where ‘A’ (wind turbine noise) => ‘B’ (being annoyed by it) was somehow divorced from ‘C’ (biological markers of stress) but they did find that the people who were having problems did have the biological markers. My head hurts.

The global problem with all of this is that various attributes about the real world are sampled and subject to some analytical massaging. Then the proponent announces that the samples collected allow them to declare that the world works in a certain way and based on their study they could be sure that if certain things were done there would be specific desirable results. But no biological mechanism. I guess in a way what is happening is that various markers for a path through the unknown wilderness have been identified and marked on a map. These markers are connected to form a map — then the map is declared to be the territory. And confusion results.

I guess it is just very human to look for shorthand frameworks for explaining a large and complicated world. But it troubles me that there is so little humility about the extent of our knowlege. It is as though the classic phrase ‘only fools are absolutely certain of their facts’ were a broad and general statement about humanity as a whole. I hope not but it is hard to ignore.