How to tell if electricity decarbonization is working: replace renewable energy standards with a simple carbon standard

There is no shortage of advice out there about how to decarbonize the economy. A lot of of it focuses on electricity, and power generation especially. This is natural—electric power generation is the world’s largest source category for anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions (see the IEA publication “CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion” page 9). However, too many jurisdictions have opted for the so-called Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) approach to decarbonizing electric power generation. RPSs mandate a certain percentage of renewable energy like wind and solar. The reasoning is twofold. First, wind and solar are assumed to be clean and carbon free. Second, they have been blocked, by electric utilities, from access to most grids. Therefore, governments are forcing them into grids.

The first of these aspects is false. Wind and solar are not green, not when it comes to electricity grids. While nominally they come with zero carbon, neither is reliable. Wind does not blow all the time; the sun goes down at night and many days are cloudy. Therefore, to run a grid that has wind and solar, you must have other sources that stand in when the wind is not blowing or at night or when clouds cover the sky. Those sources are almost always fossil.

The second of these aspects is true. Wind and solar were indeed blocked from access to the grid by utility planners. And for good reason. Utilities used to operate on model of low-cost power at affordable rates to all people inside a regulated jurisdiction. Those three criteria—low cost, affordable rates, and universal access to electricity—instantly rule out wind and solar. Wind and solar are too intermittent and unreliable to be low cost. No rate-payer can afford to pay rates high enough to pay for wind turbines and solar panels; therefore no utility can make a profit selling wind or solar-generated power. End of story.

This is why, under the regulated monopoly utility model, which presumes that electricity is a public good that should be available to all, almost no regulated monopoly utility, in any country in the world, put wind turbines or solar panels into its grid.

If wind and solar are neither carbon-free nor affordable, then why are both so popular when it comes to governments seeking to decarbonize power systems? Because they have been spun as carbon-free, and because expensive electricity has been spun as good. This spin has been happening since before the 1970s. And because the spin was largely unanswered—likely because those who know that it is bunkum felt it was such obvious bunkum that they did not need to counter it—it took hold. Now we are dealing with it at the policy level.

What we really need to do is to look at the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) associated with the electricity in a given grid. How much CO2 comes with each unit of electricity? Since the standard unit of electricity that most ratepayers are familiar with is the kilowatt-hour, why not go with that. How much CO2 comes with each kWh of electricity from a certain grid?

That quantity is, on some grids, easily estimated. In Ontario, our deregulated electricity system has an independent grid operator, an organization that controls the grid. Here it is called the IESO (Independent Electricity System Operator). The IESO publishes hourly generator reports. If you know how that generator makes electricity, you can quite easily estimate the amount of CO2, if any, that comes with its electrical output.

That is what I have done, with the help of the great Darcy Whyte of siteware.com, in Tables 1 and 2 in the left-hand sidebar. We took the IESO’s hourly generation reports and added a CO2 dimension; you can see that in the column entitled “CO2, tons.”

Add up the amount of CO2 produced by each generator in a given hour, and divide that by the total generation, and you get a quantity called CO2 Intensity per Kilowatt-hour, or CIPK. That tells you with great precision how much CO2 comes with each kWh of Ontario electricity in a given hour.

What is the CIPK, and how is it calculated?
CIPK stands for CO2 Intensity Per Kilowatt-hour. It is a measure of the carbon content of a kilowatt hour of grid electricity.

The CIPK of a given grid is simply the amount of CO2 emitted by the generating plants that feed the grid with electricity, divided by the total amount of electricity fed, over a given hour. Of course, you have to know both of these figures.

Here is how to calculate Ontario’s grid CIPK. You need to refer to Table 1, in the upper left-hand sidebar on this page. It gives the current Ontario grid generation mix, and the CO2 emissions associated with the emitting fuel types.

  1. Go to the Total row in Table 1.
  2. Take the figure from the CO2, tons column.
  3. While still in the Total row, now take the figure in the MW column.
  4. Divide the CO2, tons figure by the MW figure.
  5. Multiply that result by 1,000. This converts tons-per-megawatt-hour into grams per kilowatt-hour.

Try it!

The CIPK really represents the Coin of the Realm when it comes to environmental or green or clean electricity. And because a gram of CO2 is a gram of CO2, and a kWh is a kWh, no matter where on the planet you are, the CIPK is as close to a universal measure of a grid’s cleanliness, or lack thereof, that you can get.

The CIPK will tell you, again with great precision, how or whether you are succeeding in efforts to decarbonize electricity. For example, if you have a grid whose CIPK is 57.1 grams and another whose CIPK is 540 grams, you can tell pretty much instantly which one is cleaner. The first one emits one-tenth the CO2 of the other; clearly it is cleaner.

And just as clearly, the cleaner grid is the one to emulate if you are a third jurisdiction looking for examples of how to decarbonize.

These two examples are not hypothetical, of course. The first one is Ontario, the second is Germany. Ontario’s electricity is, on an average per-year basis, about five times as clean as Germany’s. The CO2 spread between these two grids is getting wider, and in Ontario’s favour. I predict that by the end of 2013 Ontario’s CIPK will be around 86 grams and Germany’s will be pushing 600.

Why is this? The answer has everything to do with the way Germany elected to decarbonize its grid: it went with the RPS approach and forced huge numbers of wind turbines and solar panels into the grid.

Well, the proof is in the pudding—or, in this case, the CIPK. Germany’s RPS approach has resulted in CO2 emissions that are at least five times Ontario’s, kWh for kWh.

Ontario, on the other hand, decarbonized by putting nuclear energy onto its grid. Again, the proof is in the CIPK. Ontario’s grid electricity is five times cleaner than Germany’s.

That is how you measure the success of electricity decarbonization.

15 comments for “How to tell if electricity decarbonization is working: replace renewable energy standards with a simple carbon standard

  1. November 26, 2013 at 8:00 pm

    Facts are facts, but Wind And Solar Are Clean And Green is an element of faith.

  2. November 27, 2013 at 3:36 am

    “Add up the amount of CO2 produced by each generator in a given hour, and divide that by the total generation, and you get a quantity called CO2 Intensity per Kilowatt-hour, or CIPK.”

    Steve who first came up with that CIPK term? It needs to be widely used.

    I think a couple of other standards would reveal nuclear’s superiority.

    1) Kilowatt-hour per volume of fuel (all fossil fuels would lose here)
    2) Kilowatt-hour per area of land required (wind and solar would lose here)

    • Bas
      December 16, 2013 at 11:53 am

      Rick,
      “Kilowatt-hour per volume of fuel”
      Nuclear is losing from wind and solar as those require no fuel.

      “Kilowatt-hour per area of land required”
      Nuclear is losing here also clearly from wind and solar:

      Solar no land use at all as people do that on their roof. If people do that on all buildings, more than enough is generated for the whole country (twice!).

      The footprint of a 10MW wind turbine is only 10x10meter.
      That is many factors better per square meter than a nuclear plat with its uranium mine.
      All the land around the footprint is used (farming, etc.).

      • Keith Pickering
        December 18, 2013 at 11:04 pm

        @Bas
        > Solar no land use at all as people do that on their roof.
        In the US, utility-scale solar hit 50% of installed generation last year, and is expected to remain that way. That means land use.

        > The footprint of a 10MW wind turbine is only 10x10meter.
        But those footprints must be spaced very far apart to make a windfarm work. And each of those separate footprints needs its own access road, each of which will be well more than 100 square meters.

  3. robert budd
    November 27, 2013 at 9:35 pm

    In Ontario the green energy alliance is looking at decreased demand as the sign of success and suggest it is wonderful thing for the environment.
    Reality is that people are substituting ASAP from rapidly increasing (but clean) electricity, to cheaper (but dirty)gas/propane/wood for space and water heating. If anyone listened to the CBC phone in today re. rising electricity costs in On., that was the message…along with painful stories of increasing energy poverty.
    So we are increasing the total emissions by driving people toward burning fossil and biomass. Is this the law of unexpected consequences or are they really hsppy to live with any outcome as long they can claim they have defeated nuclear?

      • Bas
        December 16, 2013 at 11:45 am

        Enginee-Poet,
        France has a far more friendly climate than Germany and Denmark.
        Just look at the weather in those countries.
        In big parts of France you don’t have to heat, even not in winter!
        So you cannot compare.

    • Bas
      December 16, 2013 at 12:00 pm

      Robert,
      Try to compare the costs of new nuclear (e.g. Hinckley Point, UK) with renewable and factor in all the subsidies (high inflation corrected strike prices which becomes $200/MWh once the nuclear plant runs, decommissioning subsidies, limited waste liability subsidy, guaranteed loan subsidies, accident liability subsidies; total for several billion a year!).

      Then you find that all renewable are far cheaper.

  4. KitemanSA
    November 28, 2013 at 4:23 am

    The term should probably be CeIPK, C)2 equivalent Intensity Per kWhr. Natural gas emits less CO2 per kWhr, but it also leaks CH4 which is a MORE powerful GHG than CO2. In some systems, old ones with substantial leakage, the CH4 emitted is a stronger driver than the CO2. Oh, and a seal blowout on a fracked well can spill enough to do the same thing.
    Just a thought.

  5. Bas
    December 16, 2013 at 11:41 am

    Steve you wrote:”..affordable rates, and universal access to electricity—instantly rule out wind and solar. Wind and solar are too intermittent and unreliable..”.

    Denmark with ~35% of electricity generated by wind; and Germany (81million people) with 23% renewable show that this is nonsense.
    Denmark is planning 50% wind in 2020. Germany 35% in 2020.
    Both have a scenario towards 100% renewable!

    The good predictive nature of solar and wind (a.o. weather forecast), together with the distributed generation (no sudden outage of a single wind turbine can cause a significant issue) make the grid more reliable as Germany showed.

    Germany experienced that av. total outage time for customers went down from 30min/a to 15min/a when the share of renewable became substantial. UK and France still have the old 60min/a outage value.
    USA even worse with more than 120min/a.

    • December 16, 2013 at 12:36 pm

      Unbelievable. Germany is burning more coal, Bas. Its power plant CO2 intensity per kWh (CIPK) has gone up. To add insult to injury, Germans pay double what the French pay. For power that is literally five times dirtier.

      None of this would have happened had governments simply shown a bit of backbone and refused to listen to know-nothing greens. Instead, the phony-green ideology became a vote-getting gambit. To the detriment of Mother Earth, as witness the GROWTH in German power plant emissions since 2011.

      • Bas
        December 16, 2013 at 4:03 pm

        Steve, your remarks:

        Germany is burning more coal
        That is temporary only. Germany is the only country that already passed the 20% Kyoto CO2 reduction target!
        Since 2011 they are temporary burning more coal for two reasons:
        – They took 8 NPP’s out in 2011 and the utilities decided to build coal/lignite as that is the cheapest method of electricity generation here. As electricity generation is free in the EU, nobody can prevent that.
        – Those new circulating fluidized bed plants can also burn waste and biomass and fuel/gas, and they are flexible enough (fast up-/down) to operate in an environment where ~80% of all electricity is generated by solar+wind. So they have a future.

        Now old coal and gas plants are closing.
        As the share of renewable grows (now 23%, 2020 35-40%, 2030 55-60%, 2050 ~90%), CO2 will decrease inevitable. Especially after 2022 when all NPP’s are closed.

        Germans pay double what the French pay
        Not quite but they do pay substantial more. And apparently are happy with it as >90% support the Energiewende!
        In the last election (Sept), the only party that wanted to slow with the Energiewende because of the high cost/electricity price, the FDP, got an historic defeat. It fell from 15.7% to 4.8%. They never had such a defeat, not even near, in their 60years history.

        Germans are happy that the nuclear danger is removed. They have connections in the east near Chernobyl and know the value of the WHO conclusions. Furthermore, while 1000miles away, they themselves experienced also radio-active fall-out. Especially the heredity effects.

        Not only areas with more cleft lip’s (a minor), but also with ~50% more stillbirth, Down syndrome, congenital malformations (e.g. heart), neural tube defects (Spina bifida, etc).

        In the south some districts got fallout (~0.5mSv/a) and nearby similar districts did not. All districts had an accurate birth registration system running since the seventies.
        The districts with fallout experienced a jump upwards after Chernobyl regarding all those serious birth defects (p<0.001). The districts without fallout (no rainfall) did not.
        The swing upwards was stronger the more fallout (P$100billion bill to handle the pile at Sellafield), but
        also in costs as Flamanville and Hinckley show.
        Renewable are at least ~50% cheaper than the new NPP in Hinckley.
        So France now targets to reduce the share of nuclear from 70% now to 50% in the next 10 years.

        • December 17, 2013 at 9:19 am

          Bas, have a look at my most recent article, in particular the chart that leads it off. Look at combustible fuel-fired power generation in Germany in the first nine months of 2013, then look at nuclear. Germany has dumped more CO2 into the air because of its retreat from nuclear. Plain and simple.

      • Bas
        December 16, 2013 at 4:25 pm

        Steve,
        Sorry, the last paragraph of my post got meshed. Please read that as below.

        In the south some districts got fallout (~0.5mSv/a) and nearby similar districts did not. All districts had an accurate birth registration system running since the seventies.
        The districts with fallout experienced a jump upwards after Chernobyl regarding all those serious birth defects (p<0.001). The districts without fallout (no rainfall) did not.
        The swing upwards was stronger the more fallout.
        Research published in peer reviewed journal.
        The higher levels of abnormalities continued in the years after Chernobyl as the fallout radiation is Cesium-137 (30years half live).

        Germans are also relieved seeing the rising already more than $100billion bill to handle the nuclear waste pile at Sellafield, to be paid by UK tax-payers.
        They also realize that new nuclear is far more expensive than renewable, and old nuclear is only cheaper because it shifts most costs to the (future) tax-payer (accident damage that unsafe old NPP’s may cause, waste management, etc).

        Just compare the new NPP at Hinckley and include the huge subsidy amounts (liabilities accident / waste subsidies, loan guarantees worth a billion/year, decommissioning subsidy, 35years period of inflation corrected high guaranteed price (more than twice present market price)..
        Renewable are at least ~50% cheaper! Even offshore wind will be much cheaper against the time the new NPP starts running (2023?).

        Even France started to realize they are on the wrong road. So France now targets to reduce the share of nuclear from 70% now to 50% in the next 10 years.

  6. Jim Van Zandt
    December 16, 2013 at 12:26 pm

    Excellent idea. I’d like to see it expanded to cover other jurisdictions (Countries in Europe, states in the U.S., etc.), with some history (daily and weekly totals).

    I do suggest you add a note in the second table like “11 hour period” to make the difference more apparent. And shouldn’t the units in the first table be MWh rather than MW? (I thought at first the first table showed power while the second one showed energy.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *