A pragmatic environmentalist blue-skies a renewable energy project

I have written a lot in this blog about renewable energy. Most of my blogging on the topic has involved looking with a pragmatic eye at various potential renewable energy technologies including geothermal (Part I and Part II), biofuels  and wind. Because I have written a lot of critical prose about renewable energy technologies some have suggested that I must be some sort of “shill” for conventional energy interests. As a scientist I don’t view reviewing a technology from a technical/pragmatic perspective as being an attack but it takes all kinds. I will simply point out that I am strongly in favour of regionally-appropriate renewable energy and have pushed for BC to move even more deeply into renewable energy especially geothermal. As for being a shill, as I have written before, I accept no compensation for my blogging and thus think of myself as an unpaid shill for good science and intelligent evidence-based environmental decision making.

Now, I will admit that sometimes being a pragmatist can be a bit tiring. Sometimes it is fun to be the dreamer, suggesting ideas unencumbered by considerations of the political consequences or financial viability of a plan. Well today it is my turn to be the dreamer as I am going to suggest an idea that has been bouncing around in my mind for quite a while. The plan makes use of the physical geography and characteristics of Vancouver Island to generate and store energy by combining wind energy and pumped-hydro projects. My blue-sky plan, as imagined, would work equally well along much of the North Coast of BC. The reason I am emphasizing Vancouver Island in this post, however; is because that is where I lived for much of my life and Vancouver Island has a problem. Vancouver Island is energy poor. It does not generate enough local power to supply its needs. Instead, Vancouver Island is supplied with the majority of its power via transmission lines from the mainland. Even though BC Hydro is working to reinforce the system the island is subject to outages in storms or when the lines go down.  Having a reliable local power supply would be welcomed by citizens and industries alike.

Now anyone who is taking time to read this blog must already be aware of the potential of wind energy. As I have discussed elsewhere, wind is a diffuse energy source (with low energy density). As such, there are large parts of the globe where wind would not be a regionally appropriate way to generate power. That being said, there are parts of the world where harnessing the wind makes a lot of sense, with the West Coast of British Columbia being one such place. Nothing I have written so far should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the energy sector. The Cape Scott wind farm , located 35 km west of Port Hardy, is only one of the projects either on the books or in construction designed to take advantage of the windy nature of our west coast. This document from the BC government presents a map showing more than 300 potential wind energy sites being investigated for project development.

The downside of wind is that it is an intermittent energy source. When the wind is blowing a wind farm can generate a lot of power but when the winds are still so are the generators. What many may not realize is that the wind’s intermittency actually hurts it from an economic perspective. In some places, like Germany and Denmark with high amounts of renewable in their mix, when the wind blows it actually drives the price of the energy it produces down. In extreme cases this can actually result in over-supply and negative energy prices. The problem is that, due to intermittency, power producers have to keep a certain amount of base capacity online. If the wind supplies too much energy the utilities have to dump the power. In BC we have rapidly-dispatchable power in the form of large reservoir hydro, but addressing intermittency is still a big issue in power circles.

While wind energy represents a potential future energy source for BC, British Columbia’s primary energy bounty is in hydroelectricity. While virtually every British Columbian knows about large reservoir hydroelectric power and most have heard of run-of-the-river hydro there is a third type of hydro we seldom hear discussed: pumped-hydro storage. In pumped hydro storage (image) a reservoir at a lower elevation is linked with a similar reservoir at a higher elevation via a tunnel with turbines. When power supplies are low, the water from the upper reservoir is used to run the turbines producing power. When excess power is available the process is reversed and water is pumped back up from the lower to the upper reservoir to be used another day. There are a number of different ways to operate a pumped-hydro system, there are reservoir-to-reservoir (fresh and seawater), open versus closed loops and even pumped hydro to underground storage. A pretty decent overview can be gleaned from this presentation.

So in this post we have discussed an intermittent energy source and a useful way to store intermittent energy for future use. Combining the two seems like an obvious fit. This is where British Columbia’s geography comes into play. As I mentioned previously, BC Hydro has a map of potential wind energy projects. BC Hydro has also produced an Evaluation of Pumped Storage Hydroelectric Potential which includes a map of potential pumped-hydro locations. Overlapping the two maps shows an amazing confluence. On Vancouver Island alone BC Hydro identifies sites with many thousands of megawatt/hours of pumped-hydro potential proximate to some of the windiest portions of our coast. Stepping away from Vancouver Island for a moment we see that the northern coast shows a similar confluence.

Okay, I can’t do it, every man has his limit and I have reached mine.  While my proposed plan is elegant it has a serious downside in that it would not be cheap. If one did the numbers the energy price, by the kilowatt hour, would be more expensive than what we can buy on the spot market. Unfortunately, as I describe in my post Starting a Dialogue – Can we really get to a “fossil fuel-free BC”?, we are likely to need that power to replace fossil fuels used in our automobiles and trucks. Canada’s INDC under the Paris Agreement calls for Canada to decarbonize our transportation sector. The numbers to carry out that task are frightening. In British Columbia alone we need on the order of 46,000 GWh of power to run our automobiles and trucks even when accounting for the efficiency gains associated with converting to electric power. In a relative sense, this represents thepower generated by the equivalent of 9 Site C dams. As for achieving a fossil fuel-free BC that number does not even consider replacing the natural gas we use to keep our homes warm and our water hot.

If we are to meet our obligations under the Paris Agreement, we are going to need to decarbonize our transportation sector and that, sad to say, is going to cost money. Money is needed in the form of capital investment in infrastructure and money in the form of higher power bills to pay for that new infrastructure. I keep reading that the Public Utilities Commission projects reduced future electricity needs in BC. This is used as an excuse by activists to fight the Site C project. My question to the BCUC is how does that plan square with our commitments under the Paris Agreement? I really wish someone would had the power to force them to answer would ask that question as I am baffled by how in a world fighting climate change they could ignore our future needs for electricity as we look to replace fossil fuels in the transportation and housing sectors?  Going back to my blue-sky project. In a fossil fuel-free BC the costs of combined wind energy/pumped-hydro projects look pretty reasonable, not that I expect to see any of them anytime soon.

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6 Responses to A pragmatic environmentalist blue-skies a renewable energy project

  1. Fred says:

    So in addition to the additional capital cost of the wind farm, now we need the extra extra capital cost of the pumping stations and the extra extra extra captal cost of building the dams & storage reservoir infrastructure.

    Should bring down the cost of electricity, make it affordable, less costly than alternatives.

    Your blue sky mileage may vary.


  2. Blair says:


    A couple misconceptions from your comment. The wind facilities are being built anyways so there is not any extra costs. As well, most of the pumped-hydro sites don’t have a need for dams. The sites have been identified where large bodies of water already exist at differing elevations. This saves at that end as well. To be clear it will cost, just not quite as much as you suggest.

    Now for another suggestion/comment: There is a major cost involved with intermittent renewables that is the elephant in the room. Our power grid is not well-designed to handle the spurts etc… Any attempt to make intermittent renewables a bigger part of the picture will require some relatively expensive upgrades to our grid system. One approach to address this, in the short term, would be to have the wind facilities send all their power directly to the pumped-hydro facilities and then dispatch power from the hydro like we do with large reservoir hydro. The pumps don’t care nearly as much about the intermittent nature of their power source and the pumped-hydro facility can then provide smooth power flow .


  3. I wouldn’t assume the wind power facilities are free. The total cost must include the wind power, the transportation of electricity to the water pumps, the pumps, the second storage site, and increasing the number of power generation turbines at the hydropower site.


  4. Pingback: A non-partisan look at British Columbia’s energy picture in light of the Paris Agreement | A Chemist in Langley

  5. Morley Sutter says:

    I do not understand your failure to apply your considerable talents and knowledge concerning science to the question(s) of what are the data which show that rising concentrations of CO2 are dangerously warming the atmosphere. Your analyses about energy, risk etc. are excellent but unless you consider and report on why one should be interested in these topics your talents are wasted.


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