Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Natural Gas vs Wind Energy

Last Friday was the (First Annual!) New West Doc Fest's opening night, which I attended (kids in tow). We had a good time, the boys really enjoyed the MeatHead short (film student production about reducing your meat consumption).

The main movie, Burning Water, is about natural gas extraction in Alberta, and the effects of new technology ("fracking", or hydraulic fracturing) on the environment (specifically, on nearby aquifers wells - thanks Dad!). A thought-provoking movie, it showed the very real conflicts between a community - indeed, an entire province - which relies extensively on the oil and gas company funding, and the individuals who are negatively impacted by activities of those companies. If you can't drink your water anymore thanks to that nearby gas well, do you rock the boat? Do you alienate your neighbours? Do you move out? What about if nobody cares, including the government? After watching this movie I can better appreciate Weibo Ludwig's situation. It seems it is not until a large group of people is impacted, that the community decides enough is enough, and acts. A few "canaries" in the coal mine isn't enough. We're not there yet in terms of fracking (or the Tar Sands, for that matter), that's clear. Especially since the decision makers we keep electing  prioritize short-term economic gain over longer-term environmental pain.

The discussion afterwards with Matt Horne from the Pembina Institute was enlightening as well. Not very encouraging, unfortunately - the economic drivers behind exploration and the regulatory framework that currently exists are heavily stacked in favour of expansion in drilling / fracking.

One of the questioners at the end commented that northeastern BC was a great resource for wind energy, with somehow the implication being that putting in wind farms would displace the need for natural gas extraction. I think this may be a common way of thinking...unfortunately it is wrong, and Mr. Horne didn't speak to this at all. So here are my thoughts:

1. electrical energy is not a substitute for natural gas, and cannot displace it.
2. wind power is locally uneconomic. Especially given BC's current electricity prices.
3. electricity is difficult to transport. The existing electricity "pipelines" from NE BC to SW BC, Alberta, and the US would need major upgrading if we were to expand the trade. Of course, electricity is not transportable at all to overseas locations.
4. wind farms have their own problems - industrialization of the landscape, noise issues, bat/bird impacts...there is large local opposition to them where they are put in.

Let's look at some of these points in detail.

Natural gas is basically methane. Like electricity, you can use it directly for heating, cooling, and cooking. You can also use it to generate electricity in thermal generating plants. And because thermal plants can be turned on and off at the drop of a hat, they will be required as part of our (national) energy mix even as we move towards including more and more intermittent sources of electricity like wind, tidal, and solar.

In addition, though, natural gas is a feedstock or basic ingredient for producing methanol, which has many, many industrial uses (it in itself a feedstock for many plastics and pharmaceuticals). It's also a major ingredient in the production of ammonia-based fertilizer (via the Haber-Bosch process).

So even if we were to base our lifestyles around renewable electricity, we would still need natural gas.

Wind farms are expensive and transmission lines even more so. So to envision turning NE BC into a giant wind farm for the use of the lower mainland is (currently) unrealistic; it is way too expensive. We would have to be collectively willing to pay way more than $0.07/kWh for our hydro. And with the current flap about smart meters and dual rates, this is a political non-starter. Don't get me wrong: I think our electricity costs are way too low. But our decision makers are not talking about this.

If you are planning to serve a local market and/or one that is hard for the current system to reach - like the Haida Gwaii - then you don't need long transmission lines, and you could displace the diesel generators currently rely used. Wind is likely still more expensive than said generators (until the price of diesel goes up), but at least this is a starting point. So putting up some wind farms in NE BC to serve the local area may be reasonable - and I believe this is what is already being planned/started. But the population there is quite small, and unlikely to be able to afford this, more expensive, form of electricity without subsidization (aside for discussion: who should pay the subsidies?) Then, because not many people live up there, you will not displace much fossil fuel use this way, and you certainly won't affect the demand for natural gas - that is driven globally, and not (all) by energy markets.

Wind turbines do not produce much electricity, because wind is such a diffuse energy source (like solar). It takes 1000 windmills (!!) to displace the average power plant. Are we collectively willing to industrialize the entire Fraser Valley (which is a crappy wind resource) with wind farms (and you won't fit 1000 windmills in there)? Keep in mind that unless you want to pay for transmission lines (0.75-1.5 million $/km through flat farmland, considerably more through mountains) your wind supply must be local!

I won't go into detail about the impacts of windmills. Just use google to find out what's going on in southern Ontario and you'll understand the level of public opposition that we'd have to contend with if we were to start down this path here in BC.

In summary, turning NE BC into a giant windfarm for SW BC's benefit would be hugely expensive and would not stop the pressure to extract the natural gas. So what's the point? What do you want to achieve, and is there a better way to do it?

There is a lot of money to be made in exporting natural gas. The growth economy demands more and more energy every year. There is enormous pressure on BC to export every resource we've got. Because shipping it is difficult, the market tends to be local, and gas is currently cheap here. But it is very expensive elsewhere. Unlike oil, natural gas is not easily tradeable globally. But that is changing with new pipelines, trucks, and container ships. So companies are gearing up and investing in the ability to sell this resource to high-paying customers overseas. The BC government gets royalties from this. But, right now, those royalties are low, and not wisely invested, in my opinion. So most of the $ goes to the companies and we see little benefit. For a lesson in how to deal intelligently with natural gas royalties, consult Norway.

Of course, on the downside, natural gas is a fossil fuel, and when burned or processed releases sequestered carbon dioxide. Burn enough of it and we send ourselves back to the Eocene, when the poles were warm enough to support rainforests like we've now got here in coastal BC. Not only that, but methane (ie. natural gas leaks) is a far nastier greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

So you see this is not an easy problem, and there is no happy end. My druthers? Leave the stuff in the ground, and learn to do with what we already have. This means getting away from the growth economy. Looks like we are headed that way anyways, at least for the next few years...and it is not pretty.


  1. Excellent analysis.

    I would make a slight adjustment to your last paragraph: leave the stuff in the ground unless we are receiving appropriate value-added from it. Locked up in shale or coal, it isn’t going anywhere, and it will be there 100 years from now or 500 years from now when other hydrocarbons are depleted and we still need that feedstock for fertilizer, and for the other important trace elements we get from natural gas (you realize we are already well past “peak helium”?). What is the rush to pull it out and export it now when there is a glut on the market and prices are low? Why are we rushing to get the lowest price possible for our non-renewable resources?

  2. Might I add a few more downsides of wind power generation, and a vision of sorts ?

    First, the machine requires fossil fuels for the steel and other components during construction. In operation the blades require cleaning to maximize efficiency, which is a costly and dangerous work. Structures require periodic painting, gearboxes and generators require mechanical maintenance and suffer from breakdowns and a limited lifespan. The power generated is typically wild AC, the frequency changes with rotational speed. Furthermore the voltage must be stepped up into high voltage (KVs) to suite long distance transmission. The transmission of this energy attenuates over distance. The further the load, the greater the loss of energy to resistance. Wind generation is likely one of the most expensive and least efficient examples of so called green power per MW.

    Now great debate rages on the subject of releasing the fossil carbon from the Earth into the atmosphere. Many believe that if this carbon is released the earth is doomed to a greenhouse effect. Many believe this is simply conjecture based on recent atmospheric trends and an incomplete model of the planets carbon reservoirs. The atmosphere is the Earths smallest reservoir of carbon. The largest is the worlds oceans. In between we have fossil deposits, topsoil and the living biosphere.

    While data is still being collected worldwide with the advent of co2 monitoring stations, it has been detected that the atmospheric concentrations vary with the season as atmospheric carbon is the source for the plants cellular growth during photosynthesis. In the Fall when much of this growth dies a portion of this carbon returns back to the atmosphere during decomposition, however quantities of carbon are captured and stored in the topsoil produced during this process. Thus we find it is simply a matter of how we utilize our arable lands and agricultural practices that will ultimately have the greatest impact on the atmospheric carbon we release from fossil fuels.

    If you wish to study this phenomena further, might I suggest a little research into the growing of corn. It is an amazing fact that without the wind to stir the air, a field of meter high corns cellular growing stops after just 5 minutes. That is all the time it takes to absorb the trace co2 from still air !

    It is my hope that someone will bio-engineer a plant designed for maximum carbon absorption/fuel recovery. A combination of both solar and wind. With such a plant one need not worry about methods of transporting fossil fuels for energy, as that role could be handed back to mother nature, so she might carry the co2 with the breeze to wherever such fields would be planted and harvested.

    Enjoyed the discovery of your site,