Generac Grid Services Blog

This Missing Piece of the Energy Puzzle

Posted by Malcolm Metcalfe on Mar 27, 2019 8:25:11 AM
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There is no doubt that we are facing real problems with climate, fossil fuels and carbon emissions, but as we look to solve these problems, I think that we need to look carefully at the underlying facts, rather than focusing (as some do) on the short-term elimination of fossil fuel.

  1. The biggest sources of emissions in the US are the generation of electricity from coal and transportation-related emissions (60% of which is for personal transportation). These two sources are responsible for more than 2/3 of total emissions.  Canada is only slightly better, in that its electric system generates almost 60% of total energy with hydro, and nuclear is a large contributor to clean electricity as well.  Canada’s petroleum industry ranks second, behind transportation.
  2. Electricity provides less than 20% of total energy, and the remainder is almost all fossil fuel. The average person gets fuel in three forms: electricity, natural gas and transportation fuel (gasoline or diesel fuel).  Any major reduction in the direct delivery of fossil fuel will be expected to be replaced with electricity, and that may be a big challenge, given the fact that the electric grid at present delivers only about 20% of the total energy.
  3. Many people seem to think that if they can convert their current electricity use to solar energy, the problem will be solved. They tend to forget, however, about heating and transportation fuel. In most cases, the fossil fuel energy is far larger than the electrical energy delivered.
  4. I keep hearing that the problem is someone else’s fault – blame India, China, the oil industry or the government. We all need to look in the mirror – and recognize who the big users are.  The fact is that North Americans are among the largest users of energy per capita in the world.  As “Pogo” would have said, “We have seen the enemy, and it is us!”

There are two areas to look at: the supply of energy and the use of energy.

Quick Emission Hits

Perhaps it is time for some real rational thought and a list of priorities that are not aimed at immediate elimination of fossil fuel, but rather going for the “low-hanging fruit” and hitting emissions where they are worst – and where we can have the biggest immediate impact.

The generation of electricity from coal is a great example.  Coal-fired generating plants are about 30% efficient, largely because of the Rankine Cycle that they use to operate. But coal also produces double the emissions compared to the same energy generated from natural gas.  

shutterstock_164884604Technology exists to use natural gas to generate electricity at much higher efficiencies.  For example, a combined heat and power system (burns gas and delivers electricity, heating and cooling) may be more than 85% efficient – potentially reducing emissions by almost 90% if located in an urban area where the heating and cooling are used and where delivery losses are minimal.

Solar and wind are widely perceived as the perfect solution, but it’s important to remember that there are integration and intermittency issues that must be addressed.  California has found that it must keep conventional generation running to address needs after sunset, and solar generation during the daytime -- when demand is low -- is causing challenges. California is apparently PAYING other utilities that have capability for storage or more flexible generation, to TAKE their surplus, only to buy it back a few hours later after sunset when needed.

Wind also has its challenges. Ontario now has a surplus baseload generation issue, which has led to heavy restrictions on where and for how much it can be sold.  As a result, some of the surplus is discharged as steam into condensers at a nuclear plant and discharged into Lake Huron.

Tackling Demand

So, though we are being driven by some to totally eliminate all fossil fuel sources, it’s important to note that this will do little to reduce demand and may well result in higher taxes and higher prices for energy as it becomes scarce. The demand issue needs to be addressed immediately.

There is some good news that is taking place. The British Columbia government has implemented a ”Step Code” for new construction.  All new buildings will be much more efficient than old buildings.  But that is a slow process because the turnover of buildings may take many decades. We need to have a good look in the mirror and start making some lifestyle changes.

On a structured basis, I see several needs:

  • Eliminate or reduce coal use – and if needed, use high-efficiency natural gas for heating.
  • Take steps yourself to reduce energy use. There are lots of opportunities:
    1. Insulate your home well. There are almost always some things that may make a big difference. Get rid of the old lights and replace them with LED lights; install an HRV (Heat Recovery Ventilator); use curtains or blinds to contain heat at night etc. Install a heat pump – the current electric rate structure mandated by government makes heat pumps uneconomic, but that will have to change.  I have a dual system – heat pump/high efficiency natural gas.
    2. Get rid of the truck or SUV, and drive the smallest car you can justify. We used to have three cars and now have only one EV which we have had for more than one year.  In that time, we have driven 20,000 km, and the car has been in for service once – to change the tires (winter tires) and upgrade the software – maintenance is almost zero and fuel costs are about 1/5 of what I paid for gasoline.  In addition, many chargers are free.  The parking lot across from our favorite restaurant is equipped with two free chargers.  We get the equivalent of $10 in gasoline for free, while we enjoy the best Italian meal in town.
    3. Do not oppose natural gas exports. Much of this is destined to replace coal, and that is a very positive move.  It also helps to keep our taxes down.  Know the facts before standing up against anything.
    4. Listen to real experts on energy. There are plenty that really understand the options ahead and are not fixated on stopping all fossil fuel projects.

Full Speed Ahead

We need to move quickly to cleaner energy. This means a transition, not a step change.  It would be nice to survive this change and not be bankrupted by heavy taxes and higher cost energy, while leaving demand essentially untouched. We need to work together to reduce demand.

Everyone seems to like to blame the oil companies and the electric utilities for our energy problems. But these are the people that deliver the energy.  WE are the ones that use it.  Some of the utilities and oil companies have innovative, progressive initiatives. Here are a few examples:

  1. Shell has tied executive salaries to emissions – both inside their company and by the users of their products.
  2. FortisBC has funded an Energy Chair at the local university and is looking at using surplus electricity (that others sell at negative prices) to make hydrogen.
  3. Portland GE has implemented systems that control demand – with a very large number of behind the meter loads. This reduces peaker starts, reduces emissions and reduces system losses.
  4. Tesla, with their EVs and batteries have driven the sales of EVs far above most expectations and have brought the cost of batteries down to the point that they may be very cost effective in grid applications. They are involved in a large project, that my company is also working on, to provide similar savings, emission reductions, losses and integration of intermittent generation.

Changes in how we use electricity  both big and small – can have a large cumulative impact.  We need a little change of attitude here! (In my humble opinion)


Topics: renewable firming, demand management, wind energy, clean energy, energy curtailment, energy consumption management, energy conservation, climate change

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