By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on April 7, 2020.
The recent column by the Southern Alberta Group for the Environment (SAGE) promoted wind and solar technologies, based on a series of half truths and omissions. SAGE stated that renewable technologies generate more energy per energy input, ignoring the energy needed to build, operate, maintain and decommission all “backup” electricity generation facilities that renewables need. In addition, it claimed that renewables make fossil fuels more productive. Unfortunately, nothing can be further from the truth.
Relative to the energy needed to build them, wind and solar produce the least amount of electrical energy compared to any other technology. This is called Energy Return On Energy Invested, (EROEI). Wind and solar lifetime production is only 3.9 times the energy that went to build them (EROEI = 3.9). By comparison, gas turbines have EROEI = 28, coal EROEI = 30, hydro EROEI = 35, and nuclear EROEI =75. Professor Michael Kelly of Cambridge University considers renewables below the threshold to support a modern economy.
This poor energy return of wind and solar is the result of converting low grade energies, exacerbated by the short, 20-year lifetime for windmills and solar panels. EROEI for the other power supplies range up to 75 because they have a lifespan of between 40 to 100 years. Also, these long-life facilities can produce electricity between 85 to 95 per cent of the time and are available on demand, whereas wind and solar produce on average of 30 per cent and 17 per cent of the time respectively, and don’t respond to demand.
Thermodynamically speaking, the purpose of the wind is to remove heat from the Earth’s surface. In the dead of the winter when it is bitterly cold and demand is high, wind facilities tend to produce little power because there isn’t much spare heat to remove. So, they can often go days with low or no production. Output from large solar arrays in Alberta is far worse at only about 17 per cent of capacity on an annual basis. This output varies from 30 per cent in the summer to under four per cent in the winter. Such variation is also exacerbated by the reduction of daylight hours, from 18 during the summer to eight in the winter for Alberta latitudes.
Adding more and more solar capacity in Alberta is nothing more than a green dream. From last November to February, Alberta’s one $30-million solar facility produced total electricity of 5.5 per cent of its capacity which is essentially zero power compared to the demand. (2.3 GWh/30,000 GWh). So we get little power when needed most from either one of wind or solar technologies.
The low, intermittent output from wind and solar necessitates adequate backup from fossil-fuel power plants, for most of the time. Essentially, as more wind and solar enter our grid a similar amount of fossil-fuelled plants must be built to support renewables. The duplication of power plants and the lengthy operation of back up fossil fueled plants, works against SAGE’s goal to reduce pollution. In fact, when a backup gas turbine operates for 83 per cent of the year and a renewable operates for only 17 per cent, the renewable could be called “redundant.”
The switch to renewables is not as inevitable as SAGE claims. In Alberta our electricity production accounts for only 17 per cent of our energy needs. The remaining 83 per cent includes heating, manufacturing, transportation of people and goods, services, etc. It has not been appreciated that cities provide an artificial environment for humanity; it is made possible only by the supply of massive consumption of uninterrupted electricity, gas, water, manufactured goods, food and transportation, all of which require energy. Try to imagine what a city would look like if we stopped the flow of all these forms of energy.
It is inevitable that one day Alberta and the rest of the world will stop using fossil fuels. However, before that happens, we will have to replace all cars, trucks, ships, trains, planes, gas stations, most industrial processes, all engines, manufacturing, construction, farming and mining equipment, and all energy production processes. This unimaginable undertaking will require mining, refining, processing, manufacturing and transporting millions of tonnes of materials. The transition will require trillions of dollars in annual financing, millions of re-trained people and a significant increase in our energy consumption. The limitations of our resources will delay completion for more than a century.
At present, our world gets 85 per cent of its energy from fossil fuels. If we drive away investors in the oilsands, where we will get the energy and the money needed for the transition here in Alberta? Irresponsible actions are leading us to collapse into energy poverty exactly at a time when we need to increase fossil-fuel production in order to decarbonize, especially while oil prices are low.
Most of the emissions from hydrocarbons take place when we consume fuel, not when we produce it. Yet, Quebec, B.C. and the rest of Canada consume fossil fuels like drunken sailors and are concerned for our globe only when it comes to Alberta’s production.
As J. Constable recently wrote: “In a world of renewable energy nothing is what it seems.” “Environmentally friendly” turns out to be devastating to the natural wold. “Cheap” is expensive. “Local support” is found at a distance. “Sustainable” is strange to say, short lived and unaffordable. A “contract” is not binding, “secure” is actually unreliable. “Love” is hate, “black” is white, and “green” is a murky shade of brown.
Perhaps it is time for SAGE to meet with other groups, including non-dreamers, such as the Energy Collegium and Friends of Science, and start working productively, together. During the CONVI-19 isolation period, let’s start a communication process to organize a friendly discussion in a future conference meeting, where each participant group will be called on to explain and defend their ideas with rational debate and clarify the opposing ideas with sound science. In the end there will not be any losers, we will all be winners, especially our youth. Yes, we can do it.
Cosmos Voutsinos is a Lethbridge-based professional engineer whose career included work ranging from system designs in the Canadian nuclear industry to construction management of U.S. power plants in Taiwan.