Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Doing what's right vs. doing what looks to be right


The Alberta government just announced they are taking the cap off of the amount of wind power that can be produced and sold in Alberta.

Wind power = free electricity = Great idea, right?

Not so much.

The reason why there was a cap in the first place is that wind power is not a stable form of generation. You only get power when the wind is blowing. The same goes for solar - you only get power when it is sunny.

Now, don't forget that you can't store electricity very efficiently or cheaply (so not really at all).

Because of this, any extra power that is produced that isn't bought is made worthless because the company can't store it and sell it later.

Furthermore, because the wind doesn't blow all of the time or at the same time and pace every single day you have to have enough back-up power ready to go at the flip of a switch when the wind stops blowing. This is also where the problems lie.

Coal generation plants aren't that easy to start up and shut down, and as such are only used for baseline load (the electricity that is needed all of the time - freezers, refrigerators, computer servers, security cameras, etc.) And since coal is cheap, so is the electricity produced by it.

Natural gas generation plants can be turned on and off at the flip of a switch. And right now they are used for peak usage (breakfast, lunch, dinner time, early evening). But because natural gas is expensive, so is the electricity produced by it.

So, what happens when you throw an unstable form of electricity into the mix. Well, at times the power being produced by the big coal plants isn't needed, but since they can't turn them off, they end up just not getting paid for the power they are producing.

If enough wind power comes on-line, and by chance it only happens to blow during the middle of the night or during the middle of the day (when we're using a lot of coal generated electricity), those cheap coal plants are eventually going to lose money and go out of business.

Leaving expensive natural gas plants to pick up more slack when randomly the wind isn't blowing.

Also, if by chance the wind happens to blow more often during peak periods, natural gas plants are going to shut themselves off and lose money too.

Alternatively, if it blows randomly during both peak and non-peak times, both lose money.

The result is we kill off one cheap form of electricity and one form of electricity that is completely reactive to our usage patterns for a very cheap form of electricity that is completely unreliable. Less forms of stable electricity leads to blackouts.

It's sort of like choosing between driving your reliable car to work or taking a bus that only sometimes shows up. Most of us would take the reliable car over an unreliable bus.

Or, both coal-fired electricity producers and natural gas-fired electricity producers charge more to compensate for their losses.

More Wind Power = blackouts and/or higher prices = bad idea

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