The cost of electricity in the real world: wind is not free

Yesterday’s ferocious winds translated into unusually high capacity factors for grid-connected wind generators in Ontario. Wind’s peak hour was between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., when it produced 781 megawatts—a capacity factor of 88 percent. Theoretically, the fuel cost of producing those 781 MW was zero: wind is free. But in practice, wind is unreliable. This means we need a backup source. That backup source costs money. Which means we’re effectively paying twice for the same power.

The Ontario Power Authority has long-term contracts with 13 big gas-fired power projects that are coming on line in 2009 and 2010. None of the project proponents is doing it for free. And none of the wind project proponents is doing it for free either. This means both get paid, even when one of them is not working.

There’s nothing wrong with paying for reserve and black-start capacity: they are essential components of modern power systems. Stuff happens. But the big expansion of wind and other intermittent renewable power sources necessitates a big expansion  of backup capacity: we need electricity 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

And remember why Ontario is expanding wind in such a big way. It’s to reduce air emissions from coal-fired power plants, whose power output skyrocketed when the eight nuclear units were laid up in the mid-1990s.

It is worth repeating that in 1994, annual power sector greenhouse gases (GHGs) in Ontario were nine million tonnes below the 1990 level. This means Ontario was far below the eventual Kyoto target for power generation.

This wasn’t because Ontarians used less power in 1994, or because we had lots of renewable power. It was because all three nuclear plants were operating at good capacity.

There has been much misinformation about the layups at Bruce and Pickering that began in 1995. The anti-nuclear lobby puts it down to faulty equipment. But the fact is, all nuclear reactors require some kind of refurbishment at some point in their operating lives. For political reasons, the government of the day decided to not pay for refurbishments at Bruce and Pickering. The availability of 7,500 MW of coal capacity gave the government the luxury of deciding that way.

Our response to the resulting skyrocketing GHG emissions has been only marginally effective. The current government has continued its predecessor’s belated refurbishment policy, and we now have the use of four of the eight laid-up nuclear reactors.

But the renewables-and-gas side of energy policy is leading us toward expensive power and expensive, and marginal, emission reductions.

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11 years ago

Nice point about paying twice for the electricity. And what we get for our double bill is a less stable grid since the wind mills make grid management more complicated and therefore cause more mistakes and shutdowns. I have explained this in detail at: — Entropy – The Key to Stability