Power Generation in Alberta: Changing the mix.

February 16, 2016
Solar Power plants in Spain

Solnova Solar Power Station, Spain/Abengoa Solar

Our new government here in the resource rich province of Alberta intends to diversify the energy sources used in the large scale generation of electricity. The primary reason is to attack the issue of climate change and associated global warming. While this is an admirable goal, it won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap.

The present energy mix is primarily coal with some natural gas. Hydro-electric contributes a small amount and wind is increasingly being used, but once again still contributes a small amount of the total energy requirements. Nuclear power is not in use in Alberta.

Alberta is rich in deposits of coal, so much so that it exports large amounts. Most of the coal found in Alberta is low in sulphur. Therefore it burns comparatively clean and doesn’t pollute to the same extent as other types of coal. The coal is found close to the plants so transportation cost is low and the mining technique is open-pit so extraction costs are low.

All newer coal-fired generating plants use what is referred to as “clean coal burning technology”. In this method the coal is pulverized into a dust before combustion which effectively increases the surface area of the fuel (coal). Combustion efficiency is increased so that close to 99% is burned making for much less pollution and green-house gases (GHG) leaving the stacks at the plants.

Coal in Alberta is the most cost-efficient fuel for the generation of electricity. The downside is that even with the cleaner technology it results in higher pollution and GHG release than other fuels.

Natural Gas
Alberta is rich in natural gas. We have an abundant supply, enough so that we export large amounts. A transportation infrastructure is in place already. Natural gas is one of the cleanest burning and most efficient fuels in the world. For example, converting a coal-fired plant to natural gas would immediately result in 50% less GHG being emitted and close to zero pollution from the combustion.

However, converting existing coal-fired plants to natural gas is difficult. In fact it will likely be necessary to build new plants and mothball or demolish the coal plants.

Alberta doesn’t have many more suitable sites to construct dams and associated generating plants. This is not an option to replace coal in my opinion. Even if sites could be found public opinion is against daming rivers and flooding land.

The sun, our star, has great promise and seemingly unlimited power for the taking. Definitely worth exploring, but it too has several downsides.

Although Alberta is know for its sunny days, the sun doesn’t shine anywhere near as often as other climates such as southern California or Africa for example. It obviously doesn’t shine at night, so the plants don’t produce power during these times. Energy has to be used when it is produced, it is difficult to store energy using present technologies. This is a problem for the grid which must furnish power on an as needed basis. The other problem is the vast tracts of land needed for a large scale solar power generating plant. I don’t see any areas here that the general population would be willing to cover with the large number of solar panels needed to replace coal or natural gas generating plants.

Once again great promise and as long as the wind blows power is generated. Downsides include the large number of wind turbines required to produce the required amounts of power for Albertans. The wind doesn’t always blow, so again power generation would be intermitant. The wind turbines we see in southern Alberta and in many places in the United States require regular and frequent maintenance. Large tracts of land are also needed to erect these wind farms. Environmentalists and others protest the appearance of these machines and also the land use required. I see wind as a viable source of power for Alberta, but only as part of the overall power production.

This is actually one of the  cleanest methods of producing large amounts of electricity. The downside is two-fold, one is the disposal of radioactive waste and two safety or the consequences of an accident. The nuclear plants of today are extremely safe to operate, but the consequences of an accident can be catastrophic. Accidents have occurred. Three-Mile Island in the States was almost of an unthinkable magnitude. The inquiry found human error and outdated equipment were the contributers. This was also true for Chernobyl in Russia which did result in a large number of fatalities and the sterilization of many square miles of the country. The nuclear plants that failed in Japan weren’t protected adequately from earthquakes and tsunamis. Nuclear power for Alberta? I think not, Too many safer alternatives and the entire issue of nuclear is just too emotional. Even the word gets some people thinking of mutants and glowing in the dark.

In summary I believe that alternative sources of energy should  developed. It’s not a bad thing to diversify the sources and methods of providing electrical power to individual Albertans and industry in the province. New technologies will be needed to perfect these methods and an orderly transition will be needed to keep up with power demand in Alberta. There is also opportunity for Alberta to be involved in the development of many of these new technologies. However, Albertans must realize this won’t happen overnight.

Note: Constructive comments are always appreciated.

Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs: One Consumer’s Viewpoint

June 7, 2007

The incandescent light bulb, you know the regular household bulb, has been in use for roughly 125 years. It appears that its demise as the predominant source of lighting is imminent. Replacing it is the compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) which has been around for roughly 30 years. They were originally promoted as the solution to the energy crisis of the 1970s. Back then they were bulky, expensive and just plain ugly. Consumers just did not like them.

Compact Fluorescent Bulbs

Now in 2007 they are much smaller, reasonably attractive looking, and even more efficient. The reason for the renewed interest by governments and environmental groups is that very significant energy savings can be achieved with their use. A groundswell of support is gaining momentum in an effort to ban the regular (incandescent) light bulb and replace it with the CFL. Consumers need to assure themselves that these are safe and friendly to the environment. Governments must have thought this all through if they are implementing this compulsory change, or have they?The Government of Canada has decided to ban the common (incandescent) light bulb by the year 2012. Little thought has been given to the potential environmental and health risks associated with this change. Environmentalists are praising the step, but seem to have ignored a couple of key issues. With every change there is always a downside. Environmental groups tend to forget about the downside sometimes because it is convenient to do so, or because it doesn’t fit with their agenda.

I believe that there are definitely pros to this change, but also significant adverse impacts that cannot be ignored.

The big advantage of CFLs over incandescent bulbs is the major energy savings available. The basic difference between an incandescent bulb and a CFL is in the amount of light and heat generated. An incandescent bulb is not at all energy efficient. The good old everyday light bulb converts less than 10 percent of the energy it uses into light. The remaining 90 percent is wasted as heat. Where does most of the electricity come from to power these lights? Why usually from dirty, coal-fired generating plants that are one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. No wonder the environmentalists and government want to get rid of them.

On the other hand a CFL puts out 95 percent light with only 5 percent wasted as heat. The CFLs also last roughly ten times longer than an incandescent light bulb. This longer life is reduced though it the bulb is turned on and off too often. They are actually more efficient and last longer if left on.

According to EnergyStar, an organization that promotes energy efficiency, if every household in the United States made the switch in just one socket, it would be the global warming equivalent of taking 800,000 cars off the road . This adds up to an environmentalist’s dream. The result is an apparently easy way to put a dent in the release of greenhouse gas emissions, the primary “cause” of global warming.

CFLs contain mercury. Mercury is a toxic substance that is extremely hazardous to the environment and to health. Proper disposal is imperative. The danger occurs when a CFL breaks. The mercury is then released to the atmosphere. It is harmful if inhaled.

However, the amount of mercury in a CFL is very small, about 10 milligrams. To put this in perspective, it is roughly the amount needed to cover the head of a ballpoint pen ball. The amount of mercury in a household thermometer is about 500 milligrams.

Mercury is very difficult to cleanup and does not breakdown over time. The impact of the mercury from one bulb is not significant, but if millions of these come into everyday use, the potential impact increases dramatically.

Governments, environmental groups, and consumers need to satisfy themselves that an efficient and safe cleanup of a broken bulb is possible. The cumulative effect of the disposal of millions of CFLs into landfills must also be considered. The escape of mercury from landfills to our groundwater aquifers could be catastrophic. Larger corporate users are working on disposal solutions. Hopefully the solutions of the larger users will be transferable to the everyday consumer who only needs to dispose of a few of these bulbs a year.

Based on my research, I have decided that I will use the technology, but with certain conditions. First I do not intend to convert my entire house to CFLs. However I will use them in locations where the lights are on almost constantly. For example, I have some high locations above my kitchen away from window light. These seem to be on all the time. I have converted to CFLs here and have been very satisfied with the quality of light. I will not be putting them in any of the children’s bedrooms or in any spots where a breakage would be more likely to occur. I did try putting a 100 watt equivalent in a ceiling pod above my desk. The light intensity was not adequate so I changed back. I recommend trying them out at various places. For anyone who is interested I also have a list of articles available for suggested reading. Just email me directly (see my profile for address) and I will be glad to send it to you.

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