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.
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.