Monday, January 30, 2012

Whistler Ski Vacation! Car-free Holiday Number 5!

Our family loves skiing / boarding. Because we don't own a car, we don't do "day trips"; we prefer instead to take ski-weekends. We regularly do 3 of these a year for a total of about 10 days of skiing.

[Blackcomb Glacier]
For the car-free, Whistler is by far the most accessible of the resorts we visit. In fact it is so convienient that I wonder why anyone would even want to drive up there, given the price of gas, the exhaustion of early morning / apres-ski driving, and the parking fees in the town itself. It's not like you need a car once you are in Whistler, after all.

There are multiple bus lines operating service to and from Whistler. The Greyhound is one, but the Snowbus, Pacific Coach Lines (PCL), and now the new Whistler Direct Shuttle all offer very similar services. Prices and schedules vary; in general, the cheaper the fare, the less convienient the times.

The cheapest is the Greyhound - if you buy a "commuter" book of prepaid trips, you're looking at a mere $17 one way (you pay extra if you have more than one piece of luggage so make sure your boots are in your ski bag because they won't take them as carryon!). However, you are then on standby, and you have to wait for a free seat. As we discovered, this makes it difficult to get out of Whistler before 9pm on a Sunday! If you are travelling alone this might be an option, but with a family it is really not very suitable. However, it's something to consider for the way up, especially if you want to travel up there on a Thursday evening for Friday skiing. Greyhound has by far the most frequent service.

The Whistler Direct Shuttle is next at $28 one way, reserved seats. The schedule isn't as convienient as the more-expensive PCL as it leaves Whistler at 4pm, which is a bit of a rush if you, like my husband, insist taking the last run at 3:30. This service doesn't offer any evening departures from Vancouver to Whistler, only morning ones.

The reserved Greyhound seats are next in price; if you buy one you are guaranteed to travel. Greyhound adjusts the number of buses on the route for the demand. If you have a reserved seat you can have more luggage below. The bus usually makes stops at Squamish and at several points in Whistler as well as Vancouver.

Snowbus and PCL are the most expensive (about $34 one way), with no luggage restrictions and direct service from either Waterfront or Burrard Station to Whistler Village. There are 4:30 departures from the village.

We usually buy some take-away sushi right at the bus loop (there's also a grocery store right nearby) for a sushi dinner on the bus on the way home.

So much for getting there and back. The best place to arrange for accomodation is the main resort website; we usually go for one of those centrally-run time-share condo thingies so we get a kitchen. Finding both the check-in location and the actual condo you'll be assigned can be a problem though (in the dark, with crappy signage, acres of similar-looking condos, and piles of snow obscuring nameplates), so liberal use of Google Maps beforehand is highly advised.

[check out that powder!]

Get yourself an Edge Card for the best skiing deals. It gives you the cheapest tickets, and also discounts on lessons and rentals. I was renting this time; I tried out 3 different pairs of high-performance skis over the course of a 3-day weekend for $25/day. At this price, it is hard to justify buying them!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Bear Mountain Wind

There is, actually, a wind farm in BC. It's the only one. It was set up by a co-operative based in Dawson Creek, and is run by AltaGas. Here's an interesting history.

It feeds into the grid, so you if you live near Dawson Creek you're probably getting some of your electrons from it. You can buy shares in the co-op - investment shares as well as regular ones.

I found out about it through Bullfrog Power, which is an energy-reselling company that specializes in green energy. Their idea is that anyone across Canada can sign up and "buy green energy", even if they are not in a jurisdiction where, for instance, there are windmills. This is an interesting idea, but I am not sure how it's supposed to work. Surely Bear Mountain is selling all of it's energy through its BC Hydro contracts, no? Then how can they also sell green power through Bullfrog? Well, maybe Bear Mountain does have some spare capacity?
I'm thinking maybe Bear Mountain makes extra money through Bullfrog, who are basically fundraising across Canada from folks who want to support "green" energy. There's an audit trail available on Bullfrog's website, so presumably there is evidence that the electrons aren't being "double sold". Any money you give to the frog does end up with the bear, and results in more electrons into a Canadian grid.
In any case, if you click on the links you can see that going through Bullfrog will cost you $0.02 per kWh extra for wind, more than for regular BC Hydro power. While this doesn't sound like much, it actutally represents a 25% cost increase. This is of course far better than solar PV, but still not competitive with our current rates. I'm not sure that I'll be purchasing from Bullfrog anytime soon; I mean, Bear Mountain already provides BC with energy at standard BCHydro prices...

Ah, the wonderful world of decentralized energy. Suddenly there's room for middlemen, packagers, and marketing. And, of course, consumer choice.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Greenpeace Comes a-Knockin', part I

The other evening, a couple of Greenpeace folks came to my door. I thought we were having an interesting discussion when, behind my back, the phone rang and I overheard one of my sons tell his father, "Mom's lecturing Greenpeace"...

OK. Maybe I was a little overbearing...

Seriously though, I have a hard time with Greenpeace. Yeah, they're sincere, young and naive, really. I have never joined this group because I have some serious reservations about some of their positions. Most importantly, I disagree strongly with their staunch anti-nuclear-power campaigns, even in places like India - a poor country where the lack of clean energy causes a lot of suffering in the form of serious respiratory disease.

They handed me a leaflet detailing Greenpeace's energy plan for Canada, and the young man told me that, really, the way forward was solar photovoltaics and geothermal (by this he meant ground-based heat pumps, not boring 2km down to tap mantle heat).


For starters, most of our fossil fuel use is for transportation. I can't drive a car on either technology above. So how this energy plan would alleviate our dependence on oil is not clear to me. And it wouldn't help with the battle over the tarsands and natural gas extraction, most of which we sell to foreign markets, either. But anyways...let's have a look at the suggestion that solar PV can work in BC. Some later post will cover the geothermal part.

For those who don't want to read the full post:

Solar PV is completely uneconomic in Canada. It doesn't cut it in Germany and won't do it here either.

Let me cost it out:

You blanket your entire roof (25m2) with 15 solar panels at a cost of about $15,000, plus installation (let's say, another $5k). This is a 3kW system, tied into the grid (a standalone system with batteries is much more expensive). Such a system will provide about 3000kWh in a year, in Vancouver (that's assuming no shading). Over the 25 year life, you'll therefore be paying (very roughly - I'm not including financing or anything here) $800 per year for those 3000kWh. That is a cost of $0.25 per kWh for the electrons. This is three times what BC Hydro charges me today for water-generated electrons. The 3000kWh, by the way, won't run your entire house. It will cover your lighting and hot water needs only. It won't refrigerate your food, or cool your house, or run your computer. You'd need to cover your back and front yards with solar panels to get those powered as well.  If you're heating with baseboards, then you'll need your neighbour's roof and both yards too.

So I guess the message here is, yes, we could (maybe*) stop Site C if we instead started blanketing suburbia with solar panels. But doing so would increase electricity rates considerably; if we installed enough solar panels to cover 30% of our electricty needs, it'd result in a 60% increase on everyone's bill. And while panel prices have decreased (about 45% over the last 10 years) it will be a long while before solar PV is competitive with hydro here in BC. And the kicker: installing solar PV here in BC won't stop our natural gas and coal exports, and won't stop the tar sands either. It just makes our electricity more expensive. So why should I support this?

I support renewable energy, as long as it demonstrably displaces fossil fuel use. But putting solar panels on every roof in BC would not. In fact it would likely do the opposite, because solar panels require fossil fuels for their manufacture and installation.

We live in an energy-hungry world. Because we have a source of transportable fossil fuels (coal, bitumen-laden sand, and natural gas), we can make a lot of money selling these to overseas customers. The problem is, the profit from these sales doesn't go into creating any forward-looking infrastructure. It just goes into building highways and further entrenching a doomed auto-culture.

*stopping site C is hard, because it's likely that most of the electricity generated by this dam will be used by natural-gas-compression plants in Kitimat. In other words, residential demand is not what is driving site C, and any residential reductions would be sold to industrial users.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

That Pipeline Thing...

OMG, every time either Joe Oliver or Steve Harper starts talking about the tar sands pipeline, the rhetoric gets more retarded. I simply cannot believe the stupidity of their utterances, the obvious self-contradictions, the twisted facts. While I marvel that the likes of Peter Mansbridge and Anna-Maria Tremonti don't drill them into the ground (isn't this what reporters are supposed to do? Question??), I suspect that members of the general public are, like me, pretty amazed at the blatant bias on display here. But maybe it doesn't matter to The Harper Government, because they've got a majority, and there's no competition in sight. Kiss my ass!

I'm pretty sure that the Enbridge tar sands pipe is going to end up in the courts; First Nations vs. The Harper Government.

Anyways. While I strongly disagree with both tar sands development and new pipelines, I fear that resistance is futile. We might stop the "greenfield" Enbridge Northern Gateway, but this is but one fight. There are other pipeline expansions that are in the works, ones you may not be aware of because they are currently flying well under the radar.

1. Encana natural gas pipeline from NE BC to Kitimat. OK, this one doesn't transport tar sands oil, but it is not without environmental impact on the coast. Encana's also investing in a natural-gas-liquification plant in Kitimat, one of 2 or 3 to be going up there. This system will transport natural gas (obtained by "fracking") from the Ft. Nelson area, to Kitimat, where it'll be compressed (liquified) by huge plants, and then pumped into special tankers for shipment to Asia. The tanker traffic will increase. While these are not oil tankers, they are very large boats, and carry with them the same underwater noise pollution issue that oil tankers do. Spills are less of a risk because the LNG will just be released into the atmosphere (as methane...a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2). Liquification requires huge amounts of electricity, which BC Hydro currently doesn't have. The plant owners will likely also be building onsite thermal plants, burning natural gas to generate their own electricity. Or maybe buy from Site C?
2. Expansion of Kinder-Morgan's Trans Mountain Pipeline from Edmonton to Burnaby: (do check out the link, it's very informative) the company plans to more than double the capacity of this pipe, which takes tar sands oil from refineries in Edmonton to Burrard Inlet. There's another planned phase, a possible northern branch off to Kitimat, through Prince George. Both these pipes make use of existing rights-of-way. So "blocking it" is very difficult; I suspect we can't rely on First Nations to do the work. The oil tanker traffic in Burrard Inlet has been increasing, tripling over the last 5 years (from 22 to 70 boats per year - still only a tiny percentage of total freighter traffic). To ship out the increased amounts of oil, another 2 tanker berths would be added, and Burrard Inlet would be dredged to widen the shipping channel. Tanker traffic is expected to increase to an estimated 288 tankers by 2016. The northern branch leads to Kitimat and to oil tanker traffic next door to the Spirit Bears. So if Enbridge doesn't get their pipeline, Kinder Morgan's waiting in the wings to fill the breach.

The pipeline companies are not sitting still. They are exploring possible shipments east as well, and from there to the US. Enbridge has put in a request to reverse the direction of one of their Ontario pipelines for this purpose. Then there is the Keystone XL pipeline, which was in the news in the US today. It's not dead yet! The oil companies would, in fact, prefer not to have to ship to Texas refineries (the end destination of Keystone XL), because the price they get for the oil is lower there (there's a local glut).
Oil companies have invested billions in the tar sands over the years, and both provincial and federal governments have spent money too (though nowhere near the same scale), in the form of tax breaks and incentives. We all get royalties from the oil as well; this goes into the general pot to spend on health care, education, and other public goods. The problem is, of course, that the harm from this activity (in the form of environmental degradation) is starting to outweigh the good. Also, we're becoming more and more dependent on a single, by-definition-unsustainable-and-finite source of income, which diverts jobs away from longer-term, more diverse (and, in the short term, more risky and less profitable!) ventures. As our dollar becomes more and more tied to the price of oil (which is increasing), other manufactured goods become non-competitive, jobs disappear in other sectors, and the problem gets worse. It's a trap. But for those engaged in the sector, it's an excellent source of money while it lasts.

This is not a good thing, in my opinion. But money talks, and so far, Mr. Harper has made it pretty clear what he's listening to.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Cost of Renewable Energy

We signed up for Fortis' "renewable biogas" program a while back. When you sign up, you agree to pay a higher price for 10% of your gas supply, and this money goes to fund their biogas extraction program.

In this case, the biogas comes from a landfill up the Fraser Valley somewhere; the methane is trapped and cleaned and then piped into homes.

So I had a look at our bill the other day, just to see how much more this "clean, renewable" gas costs. Turns out....four times more. It is waaaay more expensive to extract methane from a landfill, than to stick a pipe in the ground and suck it out. So without willing, soft environmentalists like myself, with deep pockets, there is no way that this type of energy could be available.

The same cost issue is true for wind energy, solar PV, geothermal name it. They all cost appreciably more than fossil fuels. The exact numbers will vary regionally (solar energy is cheaper where it's sunnier!), but in all cases, subsidy is required to compete with fossil fuels in areas with modern infrastructure.

Yes, we can probably afford to subsidize these "green energy sources" more than we currently do, but this is a political discussion that has quite simply not happened. So far, we are subsidizing fossil fuel extraction instead, and have a huge vested interest in infrastructure (including a financial system, and, increasingly, a government apparatus) built around this.

But to what level can we afford the subsidies? Could we afford an increase in energy costs of a factor of 2?

This is a difficult question. Since I don't drive, it's easy for me to accept $2.50/l gas. My transit fares would probably go up but mostly I ride my bike to work anyways. If my hydro and gas bills went up by 2x, I don't think this would be a big deal - I live in a mild climate and pay a lot less than other Canadians to heat my home. So, speaking personally, I could probably live with a steep rise in energy costs. I suspect that other enviro-types think to themselves that they, too, could afford this. So it's a simple matter to extrapolate to the economy at large...

But really, can our economy function with this type of cost increase? This is much tougher to answer, and one that of course our government needs to think about before embarking on subsidy programs.

Industry that uses a lot of energy - like manufacturing, cement plants, pulp and paper mills, and sawmills - would probably shut down quickly in such a scenario, and set up in jurisdictions with lower costs. Some of the really big "heavy industries" are protected from rising energy costs because they have made deals with BCHydro, or actually own hydro dams / thermal plants of their own. The Teck smelter in Trail, for instance, owns 2/3 of the Waneta Dam. Government could make new deals to keep some industries in place (already happening, in fact). But mid-range outfits (ex. the Lafarge cement plant in Richmond) are not protected in this way. Any industry associated with transportation would likely take a big hit. It's hard to predict what would happen - the only sure thing is that the economy would shift, and there would be a lot of losers.

So you see, this is a risky thing for governments to do. Diddling with a small few percent is already politically difficult, and I sincerely applaud the Libs for implementing the carbon tax a few years ago. This is a mere beginning. We are at the single-digit stage, fighting about small BC Hydro rate increases (8% this year, 4% per year for the next 2 - and these are increases on practically the lowest electricity costs on the planet), and what's really required is a plan or ramp to 50% or more energy cost increases in order to stop wasting, and to allow renewables to compete. Only this way can we wean ourselves off of oil.

You know, I think this cost increase will happen, whether planned or not...

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Tramway to Hell, part 2

Translink has just published their consultants' report on the business case for the gondola they were musing about, joining Production Way Skytrain station with SFU at the top of Burnaby Mountain.

I'm interested in this project; I attended one of the open houses last year (ooo boy, there was a lot of screamin') and have been following this thing a bit.

So here is how Translink introduces the report:
1. this project is not funded
2. if it does ever get funded, there will be more community consultation.
3. it's more expensive than running buses.

So there.

But crack the cover on this baby, and really, the report is pretty positive. It confirms that the only technology that can
1. compete with bus transit times
2. have minimal impact on the environment
3. can handle the stiff constraints of the topology, and
4. still handle lots of passengers a gondola of some kind. They considered a pile of technologies including
an escalator and personal rapid transit (! These are things that I wouldn't've even started on myself, but...). The Whistler-type gondola comes out best due to its proven ability to handle lots of people in bad weather, and the fact that it can be built so high up, over the forest canopy. The point that it would function as a tourist / business draw is also noted.

No change in the routing has been suggested (the only real option here is from Production Way to the bus loop in a straight line - and yes, this does overfly some residential units).

To build this thing would require a capital investment of $114M and an annual operating budget of $3.4M.

How does this stack up against running diesel buses up the hill for 25 years?

The consultants retool the bus system and model how much ridership is expected to change with the growth (according to the official community plan). The most significant benefits they see are:
1. travel time reduction,
2. auto and bus use reduction, resulting in less collisions, and less parking.
3. reduction in bus operating / maintenance costs and the ability to redeploy the existing fleet (which means Translink doesn't have to buy as many buses for other routes)

They put a price on these benefits, and come up with a total of $560M over 25 years (they do calculate the GHG reduction benefit, but come up with a mere $2M over the 25 years, so you can ignore this). By far the largest share benefit ($355M) is in trip reduction time. Don't ask me how they come up with a dollar figure for the value of the time saved, but they do. I'd like too see some details here, but really, there is obviously a tangible benefit, so I'm willing to take this at face value. The report references some kind of government guidelines, so I'm sure these are conservative numbers generated by trained bean-counters.

Transit operating cost savings are estimated at about $60M. The report does not detail how they calculate these savings either, so I don't know what's included. I suspect they just calculate the difference in the extreme wear-and-tear these buses see on Burnaby Mountain, relative to what they'd expect if these vehicles were deployed elsewhere.  I'm pretty sure fuel costs are not included (the buses, after all, would be driving other routes). But, what happens, for instance, if in the next 25 years we get into a scenario of oil price spikes / shortages, which seems to me entirely possible? Such apocalyptic scenarios would blow all their cost/benefit modelling out of the water; they would have a large effect on people's ability to travel by fossil-fuel-powered means. These scenarios aren't part of the simulation, but they only increase the benefit of the gondola.
So the total benefits are very large, and from this perspective the proposal makes total sense. Putting up a gondola would result in benefits greatly exceeding the initial investment. But the benefits would not accrue directly to Translink. (Which, of course, is the reason why you don't turn the strategic management of public transit over to a private company.)

The report then compares the capital cost + operating budget of installing and running the gondola, to the dollar savings you'd see from not having to run those buses. All other benefits are now removed from the picture - only the transit operating cost savings are included. In this picture the project makes no sense; it is more expensive than business-as-usual with buses. It will cost 8% more over 25 years to install the gondola. After 28 years the prediction is you'll break even. (This is the type of analysis a private, for-profit company would do.) I emphasize though, that this is based purely on transit operating costs extrapolated over 25 years. Hm. 'nuff said.

So, my conclusion is that the gondola wins, hands-down!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Solar Power in Germany

We've all heard about Germany and how well they do solar power.

Well, here is a cool website that shows how well they do with their PV system.
You can see how widely deployed the installations are. But you also see how poorly it really does...Even on a sunny summer day, they get at most 10GW of peak power.

So how does this stack up to their electricity consumption?

According to Wikipedia, Germany used 500TWh of electricty in 2009 (their "needs", in other words). From the link above, we see that at most, their PV installations give 10GW peak, at noon on a sunny day. Assuming every day is a sunny day, I can integrate the area below the curve to get about 55 GWh per day, 365 days/year, for a total of 20TWh per year.

That's a mere 4% of the demand, assuming that every day is a sunny day.

Now, the feed-in tariff (ie. the guaranteed price for the producer) is about $0.16 per kWh for PV electricity in Germany. Pretty sweet deal for the producers, if you ask me. BC Hydro isn't giving deals like this; I pay about half of this for my electrons.

If 4% of my electricity comes from PV and costs 2x the regular price, and 96% is regular price, that results in an increase of about 4% on everyone's bill. This is what is going on in Germany.  So far, they can afford it. But it is hard to see how to scale this up to meet more than a cosmetic amount of their society's energy needs...

Here's what they are looking at now...