OSPE and the SBG Submission

This is the first of two inter-related postings – William Palmer’s submission to the submission is part #2.

The Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE) has a membership of over 9,000 professional engineers working in Ontario.  It provides a number of services for its members (job searches, resumes, conferences and so on) and also serves as an advocate for the interests of its members before regulatory bodies  and the Ontario government.  In December of 2011 it released a draft of a document that it plans to submit to the Ontario MOE with recommendations on what the Ministry can do to lessen the problems the Ontario grid is having with something called Surplus Base load Generation (SBG).  Being an advocacy group, it is not doing this out of any charitable impulse.  Rather, the SBG problems are already significant and promise to become much larger, which “…negatively affects our member engineers who are dependent on the health of various industries that use large quantities of electricity.”  The OSPE does not consist of “anti-wind cranks” (in the famous words of lobbyist Gordon Edge, describing Civitas).  They have historically supported wind energy.  When engineers, especially those in a position to be fully informed on an issue, are worried about the consequences then I’m worried too.  Too bad the current Minister of Energy, Chris Bentley, doesn’t seem to be.

Before I get to the submission itself, what is SBG and why is it a problem? Base load generators (in Ontario largely nuclear and run-of-river hydro) are very effective at producing electricity on a continuous basis, compared to peaking generation which is more expensive but more flexible (in Ontario natural gas).  Unfortunately base load generators are not suited to be turned up or down to meet changing demand.  If the generation exceeds the demand you can’t turn the generation down and you’ve got to get rid of the excess.  In an ideal world you could store it for future use, but there exists no suitable means to do this – and it isn’t for lack of trying.  The current technique for getting rid of it is to sell it to neighboring grids through inter-ties.  Unfortunately, over the past few years SBG has gotten to be a larger problem for many grids and the prices you get for it are very low, much below the cost to produce it, and often turn negative – where you pay someone to take it.  From the submission: “In 2011 SBG reached [a peak of] almost 3,500 MW that needed to be exported at negative prices.”  Ontario has a total of 4,800 MW export capability, provided all the attached grids are willing to import Ontario’s excess at the same time.  In 2011 about $15,000,000 was spent by Ontario paying others to take its excess.

But, surely, you’d think, someone wouldn’t be dumb enough to spend a large amount of money (and nuclear reactors and dams are very expensive) to significantly over-build base load generation.  And historically, when engineers designed the grid, you’d be correct.  Enter the politicians.  Over the last few years building an effective grid, a grid that provides a large part of our standard of living, has given way to building a politically-correct grid, concentrating on adding wind turbines.  Along with having to accept the electricity from base load generators due to technical reasons, the grid now has to accept the electricity from wind turbines due to political reasons.  Wind generation has two very large undesirable characteristics: (1) it varies wildly and often unpredictably, and (2) it is generally strongest when demand is lowest.

To put some numbers behind this, Ontario’s base load demand is about 12,000 MW.  The nuclear generators are currently supplying 10,500 MW and are planned to increase this to 12,000 in 2012.  The run-of-river hydro adds about 2,000 MW.  There’s also some 1,000 MW of gas that has other uses than just generating electricity, and these other uses force this generation to stay online.  Most of the time the demand is above base load and there is some small flexibility in base load generation, so the cost of SBG is relatively small.  So far.  Now add wind, currently at 1,500 MW but increasing to 7,500 by 2018.

Let’s add this up.  Let’s say Ontario’s demand is 12,000 MW, typical of a night in the Spring or Fall.  Nuclear is running its 12,000, r-o-r hydro its 2,000 and gas its 1,000.  Even with a little backing off, these generators cannot get below 14,000 MW.  So Ontario exports the 2,000 MW excess, mostly at very low (even negative) prices.  So far so good.  But now, as is also typical, the wind begins to blow.  Currently, at a capacity of 1,500 MW, the excess 3,500 MW can still be exported.  As every rural Ontario resident knows, wind turbines continue to sprout like dandelions after a Spring shower.  By the OSPE’s estimate, by 2013 the combination will exceed Ontario’s 4,800 MW export capacity (actually, that has already happened – see part #2).

So much for the background, what about the draft submission itself? The main section is 23 pages long and is not badly written, albeit a general reader would probably be put off by it.   I’d urge everyone to read at least the 2-page executive summary.  Along with the 23 pages in the body there are 40 pages of appendices of details and graphs.  I found both the body and the appendices full of interesting details about the Ontario grid, along with a useful set of options and recommendations.  If you think I’m overstating their concerns you should read at least the first 3 sections.

What potential solutions does the OSPE come up with? Section 4, page 13 lists 3 of them on the supply side:

  • improve the maneuvering of the existing base load units, with 4 subsections
  • improving storage capability
  • dispatching the wind turbines

On the demand side there are also several schemes.  Of all those ideas only 2 seem practical: (1) wind turbine dispatching and (2) nuclear steam bypassing.

Technically #1 is easy to do but quickly makes the wind turbines into money-losers, so Ontario would likely have to pay them to not produce, like Scotland does.  #2 is done on a limited basis now and with some retrofitting could be improved, but here is where the OSPE gets surreal.  Steam bypassing is simply releasing the pressure so there is less electricity being generated.  The fuel continues to be consumed per usual, and the already zero CO2 emissions remain zero.  So exactly how, in this situation, does the production from the wind turbines benefit anybody except the owners of the turbines?  From the submission: “However, in the longer term the capability to back up wind without GHG emissions will maximize the environmental benefits of wind generation.”  If wind’s “backup” (which in reality produces about 75% of the electricity, given a typical wind capacity factor of 25%) is also CO2-free, then what in the world is the benefit of the wind turbines in the first place?  Other than perceived political benefits, that is.  Why not just run the “backup” and be done with it?

Another disappointment in the submission is the “Some Surprises” section on page 21.  There are 5 of them, and I can only say that most of these were surprises only for someone who wasn’t paying attention.  Here they are.

  1. As wind production increases, GHG emissions go UP, due to the necessary use of gas to backup the wind.
  2. The shutdown of a nuclear generator is very expensive, as for the next ~3 days you’ll have to replace that generation from somewhere else (if the inter-ties are sufficient) when the wind dies.
  3. Strong winds during low demand create severe SBG.
  4. The public thinks wind is replacing coal, but “this is not the case”.
  5. The contracts with the different producers are really a mess. You’ll have to read this one to believe it.

I could go on, but William Palmer’s submission to the submission is my next posting and his is a very powerful statement.

Useful Links

Original link to the OSPE’s draft submission.

Backup link.

Good Explanation of SBG.

The Ontario Grid Operator’s Reliability Outlook.

The Ontario Long-Term Energy Plan.

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