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.

Coal
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.

Hydro-Electric
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.

Solar
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.

Wind
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.

Nuclear
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.


Alternatives to Fossil Fuels: An overview

June 24, 2015
Wind farm in central Montana. Photo SB Davis

Wind farm in central Montana. Photo SB Davis

Recently I discussed the G-7 pledge to decarbonize our economies by 2100. As a follow up let’s talk about energy sources and fuels able to take the place of carbon-based ones like coal, crude oil, and natural gas. Remember we have to find something that will power our automobiles and trucks, heat our homes and power our cities. Whatever it is must be non-polluting, not produce greenhouse gases, be abundant, cheap and easy to produce, transport and store.

Hydrogen:

The best candidate is hydrogen the most abundant element in the universe. Hydrogen fuel cells are already in use powering vehicles, cars, trucks and buses. There are rumours in the automotive world BMW is planning to introduce a hydrogen powered car in the near future.

The challenge is the ability to produce, transport and store hydrogen safely and cheaply. In the United States the Department of Energy (DOE) has been conducting feasibility studies for many years into the use of hydrogen as a fuel and energy source that could replace fossil fuels. In Canada, and British Columbia in particular, there are buses and cars being operated using hydrogen fuel cells as the power source.

The biggest drawback right now is the lack of infrastructure. There are only a few filling stations dispensing hydrogen for vehicles. Best of all vehicles powered by hydrogen are 100% non-polluting. The by-product is water. However it does take energy to obtain hydrogen.

Nuclear Energy:

Nuclear power generation supplies roughly 20% of the energy needs of the United States today. Energy produced by nuclear means is clean and non-polluting. The major disadvantage is the need for safe, secure long-term storage of the radioactive waste produced.

Solar Power:

Power from our sun has great potential, but technology needs to be developed further to make it a viable source as a replacement. Solar is being used to generate power at many locations around the world. Solar panels are used to heat water and supply power to remote locations.

If all the solar energy the sun bombards our Earth with could be captured it would exceed the world’s energy needs 10,000 times over. It is an inexhaustible supply of free energy, but it has to be captured and stored economically and efficiently.

Wind Power:

Power from the wind is at first glance a viable option, but it is restricted because it is intermittent. The number of wind turbines needed to generate massive amounts of energy is prohibitive. It’s definitely a power source that should be in the mix, but realistically not a great alternative to fossil fuel by itself. The wind turbines are considered unsightly by many and the blades kill many birds.

Others:

Hydro-electric, Tidal and Geo-thermal power are all site-specific meaning they can’t be generated everywhere. Also the sources of these types of power are limited. So although good clean, economic sources of energy their use is restricted to local areas.

I believe over the long-term fossil fuels can be largely replaced, but much work remains to be done. These research and feasibility studies must be continued. In parallel with the use of fossil fuels. Society must prepare for the day when we can decarbonize our economies. Our long term future depends on it. Meanwhile fossil fuels are here to stay. We need to use them wisely and reduce their footprint.


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