The production of coal energy is coming to an end with the last Ontario plant scheduled for closure in 2014. Now Canadians are looking to other sources of fuel for electricity production to make up the base and demand loads necessary to guarantee an uninterrupted supply to homes and industry. With nuclear energy proving too expensive and potentially dangerous, many countries are turning to natural gas as a viable alternative. Now some environmentalists are questioning claims that natural gas is a clean, green source of energy.
“The large GHG footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over the coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming,” says Professor Robert Howarth, Cornell University. The objection to natural gas is twofold: there are substantial carbon emissions during energy production and the process of fracking (which is used when mining natural gas) contributes just as much to global warming as coal-fired plants do.
Natural gas originally won its green-energy status because its carbon emissions are about half those of coal-fired energy plants. Natural gas is a non-renewable resource that is extracted, cleaned and then burned in turbines and boilers to create steam, power turbines and produce electricity. Plants powered by gas do output reduced nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide emissions when compared to coal-burning plants. However, methane released when gas is not completely burned, as well as during the production of natural gas negate the positive aspect gas plants enjoy.
Fracking is the process of extracting natural gas that is trapped deep beneath shale beds. Long wells are drilled to the gas reserves (usually about 1km or deeper). A mixture of chemicals, water and sand is then pumped into the ground to force the gas up through fissures in the shale where it is collected. We are not entirely sure what impact fracking has on the environment as the cocktail of chemicals used in the process has been deemed a ‘trade secret’. We are, however, able to measure the emissions from plants that produce natural gas. A February 2012 study discovered that the production, transportation and burning of natural gas caused the release of considerable amounts of methane into the atmosphere.
Fracking has also been linked to water pollution, earthquakes and the destruction of pristine environments. New studies show that the chemical cocktail used in fracking will leach into groundwater aquifers sooner than expected. France and Bulgaria have banned fracking in reaction to environmental concerns, but the practice is still enjoying unprecedented growth in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, China and other countries. In the US, shale gas accounts for about a quarter of the nation’s gas production. 70% of gas wells in Canada utilize fracking in the extraction processes.
The EPA sets the average leakage of gas production plants at 3.3% and that number increases to 9.7% where fracking is employed to extract gas. Natural gas consists of 85% methane and is a whopping 105 times worse for global warming than other greenhouse gas emissions. Methane on its own is 25 times better at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. When methane reacts with aerosols in the atmosphere, this global warming effect is compounded.
The idea that natural gas may provide a panacea to our energy needs is being challenged. This has not had a discernible impact on the growth of gas plants according to Sheamus MacLean of Economic Performance Architects. Cheap gas prices have led to the adoption of this form of energy production over renewable energy sources like wind or solar. Reliance on natural gas energy may prove to be a leap from the frying pan into the fire due to the global warming and environmental impacts of gas extraction and energy production.
Posted on: May 18th, 2012 by Nikki Fotheringham
The last of Japan’s 54 nuclear energy reactors was turned off for routine maintenance on May 5th; it is unlikely to resume operations. When the third reactor at the Tomari plant in Hokkaido prefecture closed for maintenance, the country was left with no electricity generated by a nuclear plant for the first time since 1970. The disaster at the Fukushima plant has resulted in nuclear reactors in Japan being turned off one by one. As each reactor is shut down for routine maintenance, the plant supervisors have refused to give permission to turn them back on under pressure from local governments and residents. This is an understandable reaction to a disaster of epic proportions, but with no alternative energy sources in place, Japan’s energy future hangs in the balance.
Rolling summer blackouts
About a third of Japan’s energy was supplied by nuclear plants prior to the Fukushima disaster, the threat of rolling blackouts in the summer months looms. The Japanese government has been plugging the holes in the energy dyke with liquid natural gas. The price of importing this fossil fuel is high. Not only is the reliance on fossil fuels detrimental to the environment, but the local residents will have to bear the increased costs of electricity. A 15% reduction in usage will have to be improved upon to deal with the increased summer energy requirements.
Rising energy costs and rolling blackouts will have a very negative impact on industry. This has trade minister, Yukio Edana, nervous about the economic future of Japanese businesses. He has been lobbying to have two reactors, taken offline at the Ohi nuclear plant, restarted in a bid to alleviate projected power shortages of 20% in the area. This controversial step has not won favor with the general populace. Activists argue that investing in renewable sources of energy will stimulate the economy and solve the energy crisis.
Profits before people?
Robert Jacobs, professor of Nuclear History at the Hiroshima Peace Institute, argues that the bid to restart the reactors is an economic choice and another example of the Japanese government putting profits before people: “The government of Japan and the power companies are dedicated to restarting the reactors. This is primarily for two reasons. First, they believe that the longer the nuclear plants remain offline, the harder it will be to eventually restart them. So they are determined to restart the reactors just to keep them viable. This is a political choice. The second reason is because the power companies have invested so much money into the nuclear power plants (half of their assets for some of them) that they do not want to see those investments become worthless.”
Proponents of the scheme argue that cuts in energy supplies will have a terrible effect on Japan’s already floundering economy. Massive government bailouts and industrial losses caused by the earthquake and tsunami could spell economic disaster for Japan. Last year saw Japan’s biggest trade deficit ever, with the country hemorrhaging an additional $100 million dollars a day.
A move to sustainability
Japan’s long term solution to the energy crisis relies heavily on renewables with a target of 25 to 30% of energy coming from renewable sources by 2030. The recent approval of a ‘feed-in tariff’ system will help to encourage reliance on solar energy. Hiroshi Hamasaki, a renewable energy expert at Fujitsu Research Institute, claims that the new “feed-in” tariffs are so popular that the number of solar installations could increase over 200 times over the next three years. To expedite proceedings, the government has eased restrictions on land use for solar and wind power and relaxed regulations on small hydropower projects and drilling for geothermal energy.
Renewable energy sources are popular with the Japanese people. The ‘feed-in tariff’ programs are backed by superb Japanese technology in the solar energy field. The incorporation of renewable energy into the Japanese electricity supply grid will take time, but it is ultimately the best possible direction in which they can go.
Posted on: May 7th, 2012 by Nikki Fotheringham
Utility bills in the province of Ontario have been steadily creeping upwards, placing a strain on households and increasing the production costs of industry. It’s bad for local residents and very bad for business. Worse still, many are predicting that bills could double in the next 15 to 20 years. Exactly who or what is to blame for this hydro mayhem remains a topic of hot debate. Several critics have leveled an accusing finger at the McGuinty government’s Feed-in-tariff programs, but are they really to blame?
The current state of affairs
As we move away from coal (the last plant will be closing in 2014), the province is relying heavily on nuclear power and, once extensive refurbishments have been completed, 80% of the province’s power will be provided by nuclear plants by 2030. Renewable energy constitutes a very small percentage of the energy pie (shared between wind, bio-energy and solar).
Currently underway is the refurbishment of two reactors at the Bruce A nuclear power plant. In addition, two new reactors are in the planning stages. The total investment into nuclear will be more than $33 billion which is said to fulfill the province’s energy needs until 2035. The project is already 2 years behind schedule. A 15% increase in consumption by 2030, as well as an aging nuclear fleet, has required the government to spend an enormous amount of money on refurbishments. It’s the cost of these refurbishments that must be borne by the long-suffering consumer.
Natural gas and nuclear facilities get large subsidies when market price falls below guaranteed price. This happens “almost all the time” according to the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario who goes on to say; “The latter subsidies involve 70% of the global adjustment monies paid out, simply because they pay for the delivery of much more power. In fact, the Ontario Power Authority paid out $1.35 billion in 2010 to meet gas and nuclear power purchase agreements.”
The cost of renewable energy
The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario released figures for what renewable energy costs the average household. “In 2010, the Ontario Power Authority paid electricity resource costs of $317 million for conservation programs, and $269 million for renewables. That is a lot of money – but you must realize that it is recovered over a total Ontario consumption in 2010 of 142 terawatt hours (that’s 142,000,000,000 kWh), which amounts to 0.4 cents per kWh (split roughly equally between conservation and renewable subsidies). So the cost of conservation and all the renewable subsidies in 2010 amounted to 0.4 cents of the 13 cents we paid for a kWh in our homes.”
In addition to the environmental benefits of renewable energy, the growth that these industries have created in Ontario has been invaluable. Private Sector Investment in Ontario will total over $21 Billion by 2018. There are over 60 manufacturers and over 1000 aboriginal community-based FIT projects are bringing much-needed revenues to Ontario communities. A recent study showed that the solar industry had been responsible for over $2 billion in investments in 2011 alone, creating an estimated 8,200 jobs. A number which will increase to 11,400 in 2012 with 25 jobs created for every megawatt of energy installed by 2018.
As the cost of resources increases, nuclear energy becomes more and more expensive as does natural gas. A recent review of the Feed-in-tariff program saw a 30% reduction of rates paid by the government. Most of this reduction was absorbed by the drop in prices for solar panels and other components. As renewable energy technology improves, solar power collection becomes increasingly efficient and cheaper. To blame our high hydro prices on renewable energy and specifically the feed-in-tariff programs is a fatuous representation of the true costs of electricity.
Feed-in Tariff rates change, but the program still offers investors an attractive ROI
As of March 15 2012, the Ontario Power Authority set new tariff rates for its FIT and microFIT programs. The solar installation industry breathed a collective sigh of relief as manufacturers and installers are finally able get back to work after months of delay caused by the tariff review process. With the first tariff review complete, the new rates see a reduction of 30%. Does this dramatic drop in revenue render Feet-in Tariff programs untenable?
New Feed-in Tariff rates for Ontario
A 30% decrease in tariffs may seem like a giant leap for some, but the incredible drop in panel prices helps to absorb most of this reduction. The reduction helps to create a renewable energy plan for the province that is sustainable and offers fair compensation for renewable energy. Rooftop mounted Feed-in Tariff systems of 10 kW or smaller will now receive 54.9 c/kWh and ground-mounted units of 10 kW will receive remuneration of 44.5 c/kWh. See a full table of pricing here. All applications submitted after September 1, 2011 will be subject to the new tariffs.
The 60% local content stipulation for those who wish to participate in the FIT and microFIT programs has meant that a growing local industry has been created. This industry of panel manufacturers and installers has floundered in the months it has taken the government to review the Feed-in Tariff programs. Thousands of jobs have been created and millions invested in the province to meet the demand created by these programs. The OPA has to price the programs fairly so that this burgeoning industry is able to survive. Tariff cuts may seem drastic, but they reflect the massive reductions in panel prices and the Feed-in Tariff programs remain viable for prospective applicants.
Prospective Feed-in Tariff applicants can still look forward to a 15% yearly ROI on both rooftop microFIT and FIT projects and 12.4% on a ground mounted tracking systems. If you are considering a unit, it may be pertinent to remember that the government will be reviewing tariffs every two years. It’s best to act now while tariffs are at a premium.
Feed-in Tariff in action
When SolarLine Power was asked to install a microFIT system on an apartment block, they met with some challenges. The 2.5 story building contained 6 apartments on three floors and the challenge was to maximize the total kW amount to the microFIT 10kW maximum. Other tenders were unable to design systems over 5kW due to weight limitations on the roof which could only safely sustain a total of no more than 5 pounds per square foot. The full quota of panels needed to be installed for the project to be financially viable.
SolarLine Power, a local Ontario solar panel installation company, designed a system for the flat roof that consisted of 36 solar roof panels (9kW) with non-penetrating ballast weighing approximately 3000 pounds over 855 square feet resulting in an average additional load of less than 3.6 pounds per square foot. Additional pales were mounted on a custom awning attached to the side of the building.
Solar System Size
11.4kWh DC – 8.78kWh AC (77% derate factor)
AC Output Average Over 1 year
Daily: 36 kWh
Monthly: 1,098 kWh
Yearly: 13,148 kWh
1 Month: $879
1 Year: $10,545
5 Years: $55,383
20 Years: $221,439
With a 15% ROI, the solar installation pays for itself in no time at all and then goes on to make the property owners a tidy sum. If you are considering a Feed-in Tariff install, it’s still well worth it. With the nest OPA review scheduled in two year’s time, its best to act soon.
New storage methods make renewable energy a more viable option
Even though renewable energy has been gaining traction in the world energy arena, progress has been slow. One of the main reasons for this is the one fatal flaw that renewable energy presents; it’s inconsistent. The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine and, even when they are producing energy, the amount and duration are not consistent. This means that to provide base load energy requirements, sources such as natural gas, coal and nuclear need to be utilized; sources that are consistent, that are cheap and that can be increased or decreased to meet demand. Now, thanks to an unlikely gooey brown liquor, all that is about to change.
Brown gets down
Brown liquor, like yellow cake, is an innocuous-sounding misnomer which deals with very scientifically advanced products. Brown liquor is the by-product of the sulfite process which is used when producing wood pulp. This process involves soaking wood chips in sulfurous acid in pressure vessels to break down the fibers in the wood and extract the lignan. The resultant brown goo is a mixture of lignan and hemicellulose. Traditionally, the brown liquor is burned to generate steam in paper mills, but scientists at Linköping University in Sweden have found a much more interesting use for it.
Grzegorz Milczarek, a researcher at the University of Poznan in Poland teamed up with Olle Inganas, a professor of biomolecular and organic electronics at the University of Linköping in Sweden to discover that brown liquor makes a pretty impressive cathode. What do cathodes have to do with renewable energy? If renewable energy is going to be a constant and reliable source of energy, we must be able to store it. Batteries, the storage devices of choice, are too expensive to make this proposition viable on a large scale. The element most responsible for the high price of batteries is the cathodes which are traditionally made from rare and expensive materials such as cobalt.
Answers from nature
When faced with the problem of creating cheap batteries, Inganas turned to nature for the answers, researching how the photosynthetic process stores the sun’s energy. Brown liquor consists mostly of the broken cell walls (lignin) resulting from the pulping process. If these cell walls can be broken down even further to form quizones, or molecules that can transport electrons. Combine the quizones with a polymer known as polypyrrole, and voilà – you have the first low-cost, environmentally friendly battery.
Still in the prototype phase, the batteries need further development to make their way into the commercial market. Using batteries to store renewable energy is becoming a more attractive prospect as battery technology improves. Silicone batteries have already exponentially improved the viability of solar panel installations. Aside from increased battery capacity, silicone batteries also boast longer life spans, double the number of recharges of lead acid batteries and they are recyclable.
Alternatives to batteries
There are other options too; pumped storage hydroelectricity is a system whereby water is pumped from a low elevation reservoir to one at a higher elevation during times when electricity is cheap and plentiful. When demand outstrips supply, the water is released and flows through turbines which produce electricity.
Another storage method is to use excess energy to produce hydrogen from water and utilize it for energy creation in times when renewable energy production is low. Researchers at MIT also copied processes that occur during photosynthesis to split water molecules and create hydrogen. Professor Ernst Chain had this to say about the creation of hydrogen as a way of storing energy: “The importance of their discovery cannot be overstated since it opens up the door for developing new technologies for energy production thus reducing our dependence for fossil fuels and addressing the global climate change problem.”
Each of these methods represents exiting developments that bring renewable energy into the next generation. With countries like Germany committing to 100% renewable energy by 2050, more is being invested into research and development. All of the answers have been supplied by Mother Nature herself, which is jolly decent of her, considering.