In “Act on Climate Change” – a McGill Trottier report issued in spring of 2015, there was a proposal for a Canadian national wind-hydro grid and the authors claimed it could be implemented by 2035. Friends of Science Society asked the Alberta power generation experts for a discussion of whether or not that would be possible and at what cost. One of the papers cited in support of the proposal by Harvey et al. focused on Alberta as a significant wind resource. Here follows the technical discussion.
Even if we take it as a given that there is enough wind potential, there are major technical issues with using a national wind/hydro hybrid system to supply all of Canada’s power. The biggest problem with wind is that it doesn’t respond to demand. In fact, in Alberta it is negatively correlated to peak demand. Our winter peak occurs when there is extreme cold and in these situations, there is ALWAYS an absence of wind. Ontario may be similar but no research on this area has been included in this commentary.
The AESO publishes Long Term Adequacy Metrics to monitor the long term supply of electricity in Alberta. In the adequacy calculations, wind is excluded for the reason mentioned above. See ww.aeso.ca/downloads/Division_202_-_Section_202-6_Adequacy_of_Supply_(Oct_1_2014).pdf section
4(2)(b)(v) and 4(2)(c)(v) on page 3 for the detail. The methodology “excludes wind” from the calculations.
Currently in Alberta, we consume about 80,000 GWh of electricity per year and wind generation in the province has a capacity factor of around 30%. See pages 19 and 10 here
http://www.aeso.ca/downloads/2014_Annual_Market_Stats_WEB.pdf. In theory, if Alberta were to be self-sufficient on an energy basis, we would need to install over 30 GW of wind turbines. Even with 30 GW of wind capacity, there would be times when wind contributes ZERO to the supply. In these cases we would need to import 100% of our power from other provinces. When the wind is blowing, we would be producing over 3 times as much power as we’re consuming. This would mean that we would need to export or spill up to 20 GW of power. “Spill” (lack of use) is a definite possibility as there is no guarantee there would be demand for that much power.
In the Harvey paper, they talk about installing between 18.4 and 25.8 GW of wind in Alberta. This is 31% and 28% respectively of total wind capacity in their plan. This shows how heavily they on our province.
Ontario is the other major contributor to their plan with between 45% and 48% of total wind capacity. They also use a capacity factor of 40% for Alberta when in reality it is only 30%. This paper does not review other regions in Canada but they quote higher capacity factors than Alberta, above 50% in some provinces. A few internet searches show that these values may be overly optimistic by at least 10%.
The Harvey paper relies mainly on wind from Alberta and Ontario. Although, as they mentioned, it is true that there are benefits of diversification for wind sources, both provinces experience similar patterns. Higher wind in the winter months and lower in the summer. This can be seen in the AESO Market Statistics above and here for Ontario http://coldaircurrents.luftonline.net/2013/01/monthly-capacity-factor-of-wind.html. It is a certainty that there will be periods when both Alberta and Ontario simultaneously have low or no wind output. In these situations, the vast majority of the country would be entirely dependent on Hydro. Hydro has some flexibility but would not be adequate. A large portion of hydro is run of river and it can’t be turned on/off at will. Major blackouts would occur and the consequences would be severe at times of extreme hot or cold temperatures.
In the paper, Section 4.1 Future Research Steps, they talk about looking into wind correlations and hourly demand. The fact that they didn’t do this before writing this paper is the fatal flaw. Perhaps if/when they finish their research, reality will set in.
Given the low capacity factor for wind, two to three times as much transmission is needed when compared to conventional generation. In the Harvey paper, they plan on transmitting wind energy across the country using HVDC lines to nodes in major demand centres. They consider only the “HVDC portion of the transmission and distribution system.” They ignore the integration of these HVDC lines into existing grids and they also don’t consider any transmission reliability issues. Even if we assume that their math for the HVDC lines is correct, they are severely understating the true cost of transmission and distribution.
In Alberta, we spend around $1 million to integrate 1 MW of wind generation. See pages 61 and 62 of Review of the Cost Status of Major Transmission Projects in Alberta
background and costs of “SOUTHERN ALBERTA TRANSMISSION REINFORCEMENT (SATR); PROJECT 787 – To accommodate wind generation in southern Alberta.”
In summary, Alberta would need to integrate the 18.4 to 25.8 GW of wind generation in the Harvey paper. HVDC lines would also need to be built across the country and the provinces receiving the power would also need to reinforce their grids. Alberta would also need to reinforce the grid to receive power and get it to load centres when the local wind isn’t blowing. The bottom line is Harvey considerably understated the transmission requirements.
Above it is mentioned how the whole plan is technically infeasible. But if we ignore that fact and pretend it could actually work, we can look at the economics.
The Harvey paper estimates their hybrid wind/hydro plan would be able to supply the entire country at a price of between 4.5 and 6.39 cents per kWh including transmission costs. This is less than the majority of the country pays just for electricity right now and begs the question, if wind energy is so inexpensive, why hasn’t this plan already been implemented?
First, Harvey states that power from wind costs between 3.75 and 4.97 cents per kWh. This requires “government-backed utility financing” at 3%. Then he states that private financing is closer to 12% and would essentially double the delivered cost of wind power. The reality is there is no “government-backed utility financing” in Alberta and even Ontario wind is being developed by private investors.
Again, these are the two provinces where he expects most of the wind power to be developed. Also, as discussed above, the transmission costs are likely two to three times higher than he states. The bottom line here is that wind energy in his plan would cost at least double what he is claiming.
If we assume his cost of $2k per kW of wind and that transmission costs are around 35% of wind costs (estimated from Table 1) this would require a capital investment of around $160 to $200 billion. Then, if we actually use realistic transmission assumptions it would likely be around $240 to $380 billion. This is in addition to the existing perfectly good infrastructure that we already have. Where would this money come from?
Canadian society is generally based on free markets, voluntary transactions between people. Harvey’s paper is anathema to free markets and describes a philosophy that would obligate society to pay $100’s of billions for an energy plan that won’t even keep the lights on. There would also be $100’s of billions of stranded generating assets and potentially bankrupt utilities. This would result in a huge loss of wealth to Canada and we would never realize all the positive benefits if the money was invested in productive assets rather than wasted on wind turbines.
On wind versus conventional generation, the paper discusses how wind resources are vast and “a very small wind farm area in each sector would be sufficient to displace the entire current national fossil fuel-and nuclear-generated electricity.” This may be true but it would still be a much, much larger area than conventional generation. Also, large corridors across the entire country would need to be draped in transmission lines. You don’t have to read too far in to this website to understand how people really feel about transmission lines https://retasite.wordpress.com/.