27 March 2006

Electricity Billing

The base rate for electricity in British Columbia is C$0.06/kWh versus C$0.085/kWh in Alberta. They may not seem like a big difference, and it isn't. However, my monthly bill is over twice as high due to fixed charges related to administration and transmission charges. If I include the various transmission and administration charges the numbers are more like C$0.075/kWh for BC versus C$0.175/kWh for Alberta. While the official average cost for residential electricity in the USA is US$0.0942/kWh I have seen some anecdotal evidence that the coal producers play the same games in the Eastern US.

This is in my mind's eye a terrible way to allow utilities to operate. If you want to encourage conservation you should not be front loading a bill with fixed charges because the marginal cost of excess consumption becomes so much lower. Only about 45 % of my bill is electricity... Now, I am not a big user -- I average about 7-8 kWh/day of consumption -- so this billing feature seems highly regressive. If any government was serious about encouraging conservation of electricity the logical place to start is by eliminating the fixed charges. Utilities should be forced to makeup the shortfall by raising their kWh rates. While the average consumer would see no net change to their bill, it would immediately become more attractive to invest in a new refrigerator or compact fluorescent lights.

Hiding the cost of electricity behind an Administration Charge, Fixed Service Charge, Delivery Consumption Charge, and Local Access Fee doesn't benefit either the consumer or the environment.

It is of course pretty embarrassing for coal to be outperformed by such a wide margin by renewable hydroelectric power. Here, I have to pay almost three times more for dirty, greenhouse gas producing power. Worse then that, particulate emission in regions where there's surface snow appears to be yet another positive feedback mechanism to reduce albedo and increase global warming. I am not purchasing power from a modern integrated-gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plant with sequesterization. These are largely 30 year old steam plants without even modern sulfur scrubbers. From an environmental economics point of view, I'm getting a raw deal. I am personally becoming highly suspect of the ability of truly clean coal solutions (i.e. with sequesterization) to compete with nuclear, wind, and hydroelectric power. My impression at this point is that clean coal lies approximately even with concentrated solar from the US Southwest.

17 March 2006

Electrical Load Leveling, the Home Front

So as I look through my list of half-finished posts for ideas (I'm not feeling too creative with my workload), I came back to this idea: use heating/cooling to do load leveling of renewables, combined with electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, for voltage regulation. I actually started this post November 11th, 2005.

The basic idea is to store energy in a heat sink when electricity is available and draw it out as needed to provide heat or cooling for a building. This generally takes the form of either ice, for cooling, or hot water for heat. However it is possible, for example, to use a solid heat sink like granite and then pass a liquid through it to exchange heat.

People who have seen large air conditioning systems will know that they come rated in 'tons', which seems a strange unit of cooling. This nomenclature comes from the olden days when a building would purchase tons of ice from an ice house to provide cooling. Hence a ton refers to the cooling potential of a ton of ice, through the combination of heat of vapourization and the temperature gradient to room temperature. A home typically needs a 1-2 ton AC unit.

There are of course drawbacks to this scheme. One is the sheer volume required. A ton of ice is roughly 1 m3, so a 50 ton unit for a mall will require quite a large room just to house the ice. One doesn't want to directly pass air over moist ice and humidify it in the summer time either. If anything we want to dehumidify the air with a desiccant. Thus a solid-to-liquid heat exchanger is needed, adding cost and complexity. The natural way to heat and cool through this method is to circulate hot or chilled water through radiators or in-floor heating.

On the other hand, we can get away with a smaller air conditioner unit. Instead of an AC unit that needs to meet the peak demand at midday we can install a much smaller one that can continue to operate at night, producing ice to use throughout the day. Also, once installed, a heat pump can provide heating or cooling to an appropriate heat sink. There's no need to have separate components for a well-designed system.

In all cases it is necessary and advantageous for homes and commercial buildings to be well insulated, sealed and with climate appropriate construction methods and window coatings. For example, my south facing apartment has a couple of large elms in front of it. In the winter, the sunlight comes streaming in but when summer rolls around their leaves will provide shade. This is passive heating/cooling in action.

These systems have a relatively high capital cost so it would have the greatest impact to encourage large commercial and residential buildings to operate with flexible load heating/cooling. The advantages would be serious, not just for intermittent electrical sources like wind but also for reducing peak power demand in general for utilities: both their generating capacity and transmission lines benefit. Afterall, a peaking gas turbine is a very expensive operation now.

The intermittent power delivery from renewable sources remains the ultimate drawback of wind, solar, etc. that prevent their full-scale deployment even if we wanted too. Not many nations can be like Denmark and claim to derive 20 % of their power from wind while relying on Norway's dams to smooth out the peaks and valleys. The key to solving renewable intermittency lies with demand side management, not massive energy storage solutions. Modern communication through the Internet is an incredibly powerful device and it's appropriate to use it to our benefit.

14 March 2006

Maintenance Time

I fixed a number of the broken graphics on my site, so you shouldn't be seeing broken image links anymore.

Also, I added a link to GREET (Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions and Energy use in Transportation) Model from Argonne labs on the sidebar.

12 March 2006

Go West Young Man

An old saying that applies to Eastern Canadians in times of a weak economy was to head West to find work. In particular this applies to the province of Alberta, which is the Canadian analogue to Texas in terms of both culture and fossil fuel resources. First it was to take part in ranching and farming. Later the oil was in Leduc and a new type of rush began. Then they found they could sell natural gas to the US Midwest and make a huge amount of money doing that. More recently, we have seen a huge spat of development on the bitumen deposits around Fort McMurray and in some other parts of the province. Of course I've ended up in Edmonton for rather different reasons: the large gas and oil commissions that the government receives has allowed it to invest (along with the federal government) in a $140 million dollar nanotechnology centre.

Dave over at The Oil Drum has made an excellent post explaining the problems that we should expect to encounter as conventional natural gas is exhausted and we have to turn to unconventional sources. The problems Dave details for American continental gas supplies is even more exaggerated in Alberta. Because of exports the rate of extraction here is much, much higher. As a result, depletion of natural gas should go over the cliff by about 2012. The DoE energy factbook for Canada lays it out:
In 2002, Canada produced 6.6 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas, the third-highest level in the world behind Russia and the United States; the country also consumed 3.0 Tcf in 2002. Despite its high level of natural gas production, Canada’s proven natural gas reserves, 56.1 Tcf as of January 2005, only rank 19 th in the world. These reserves have decreased by 13.3% since 1996, and at current rates, production will completely deplete reserves in 8.6 years.
Alberta doesn't have a lot of alternative sources of energy to fossil fuels. There are certainly strong katabatic winds coming down off the Rocky Mountains. Some of the largest wind farms in Canada are located in southwest Alberta where the wind is so vicious the land is only suitable for ranching, not farming. However, as most people are aware wind has an immense intermittency problem and fairly low energy density. Alberta has no significant hydro or solar-electric resource. Technically it would be possible to produce biodiesel from the esterfication of Canola (rapeseed) which should become economic around $120 - 150 / bbl given current market rates for Canola oil. However, the use of arable land for biofuels will have to come at the expense of some other economic activity, most likely beef production.

This all raises the question, if this is now the boom, when is the bust coming? While Alberta is running a $10 billion a year provincial budget surplus, the bulk of that (~ 80 %) comes from natural gas royalties. At current extraction rates, we should expect conventional natural gas to exhaust itself by about 2012. That alone will have a big negative impact on the bottom line for an economy that is becoming increasingly unbalanced. Can coal-bed methane and sour gas pickup the slack? Moreover, what will the hydrogen source for the tar sands become? Without a source of hydrogen the frantic expansion in the tar sands begins to look ill advised. Catalytic cracking of the bitumen to strip off carbon (as practiced by Suncor) is an option but expensive, both in terms of product and CO2 production. Bitumen is already hydrogen poor in the first place, so you have to throw away a large percentage of your product and all you get for it is sulfur-laced coke.

05 March 2006

Exxon's Street Cred

Exxon seems to have made a suprising turn in the face of the NY Times Op-ed piece. They replied to it.


Of course the Exxon advertisement is full of misleading numbers but that's not the point. The bear has been dug out of his hole which now presents the opportunity to unleash the dogs on Exxon. While most of the large petroleum players have to some extent or another tactly acknowledged the coming challenge and made bit investments in alternatives Exxon has stood out as the one that stood fully oblivious to the issue.

Exxon's response creates the potential for, well, a conversation. The basic problem in the discussion of oil depletion is the poor data available to the public. And once a more engaged public discussion begins it becomes more difficult to diffuse without more data leaking out.

One has to ask the question, who is more crediable to the man or woman on the street? Exxon/Mobile or some unnamed peak oiler? It is somewhat akin to the polling where the 'unnamed Democrat' defeats the incubant and not so popular Republican. In the end, I think this is as much a victory for the peak oilers as was the original NY Times op-ed. It raises their profile and gives them an easy target to shoot at.