Some un-frozen thoughts on humanity, progress, and the dangers of pretending we can run an electricity grid with power that can’t prevent water from freezing

Mew Lake campground, Algonquin Park, Ontario, January 17 2015, four a.m. I’m alone in a 3-season tent, acutely aware that one of those three seasons is not winter. I’m acutely aware of this because the outside temperature must be close to minus-30° C (about 243 Kelvins). And I know this because the inside temperature is also not far from minus-30° C. This is why I am wearing thermal long underwear, and a fleece jacket, and I am in a sleeping bag that is inside another sleeping bag, under a pile of three blankets with my heavy winter parka on top. It is especially why I am wearing on my head a balaclava, with a headband, and a heavy wool touque, and my face is wrapped in a heavy wool scarf. Each breath I take fills my lungs with frigid arctic air, and each outbreath deposits a fresh coating of frost on the scarf.

Winter camping at Mew Lake, Algonquin Park

Winter camping at Mew Lake, Algonquin Park

... and next to the unheated tents, an electrically heated Yurt. Some of my weekend companions escaped the minus-30 outside temperature by staying in this. Heat was mostly courtesy of Ontario’s three nuclear plants which through the cold night provided about two thirds of the province’s electrical power.

… and next to the unheated tents, an electrically heated Yurt. Some of my weekend companions escaped the minus-30 outside temperature by staying in this. Heat was mostly courtesy of Ontario’s three nuclear plants which through the cold night provided about two thirds of the province’s electrical power.

I am warm but not comfortable: lying nearly fully clothed inside two sleeping bags with blankets on top and my face wrapped feels a bit claustrophobic. I recall, with annoyance, the figures, often repeated by proponents of solar power, of the sheer amount of solar energy that saturates each square meter of the surface of our planet. Geologist Iain Stewart, in his otherwise very interesting documentary series How to Grow a Planet, makes exactly that point in Episode 2.

But my point, lying in my 3-season tent at Mew Lake in minus-30 and unable to sleep at four a.m., is: yes, all this solar energy is part of why the average energy level (i.e. temperature) in molecules that comprise the ambient air around Mew Lake is 243 Kelvins while the energy level of gas molecules in outer space 2 to 4 Kelvins. The plethora of solar photons arriving on earth are indeed part of what is keeping the surface air near Mew Lake at 243 K and not 2 to 4 K. But they cannot even prevent water from freezing, let alone boiling—that happens at 373 K.

The more I work this thermodynamic fact over in my head the more annoyed I become. As my annoyance grows, so does my claustrophobia inside my thermal straitjacket. I begin obsessing on the cruel irony that my straitjacket is necessary precisely because the plethora of solar photons arriving on earth are not now, and likely won’t for at least the next six months be, sufficient to bring the ambient temperature around Mew Lake toward anything close to the 37°C (310 K) temperature that my body functions at.

On top of all this, I feel Nature calling. This means I have to get out of “bed” and walk to the “washroom”—i.e., to the snowbank next to the bushes on the other side of the campsite. It’s not like at home, where I just get out of bed. Here, I have to get dressed, and do it quickly. Like I said, the temperature inside my 3-season tent is not much different than the outside temperature, and that, to repeat, is near minus-30 C or 243 Kelvin.

I am now simply exasperated. I abandon hope of getting in even a decent short nap. I brace myself, mentally run through the escape routine like an astronaut rehearses a spacewalk. The escape routine is the following. As quickly as possible:

  1. Sit up.
  2. Feel for the battery-powered PrincetonTech headlamp, turn it on and strap it on over my touque.
  3. Put on the heavy parka that is perched on top of the pile of blankets draped over the two sleeping bags I am tucked into.
  4. Pull my legs out of the sleeping bags, and slip into my winter pants.
  5. Put my boots on.
  6. Collect my heavy mittens, which are in the inside flap.

The whole choreography takes about twenty seconds and before it is done my hands are numb with cold.

I unzip the tent flap, step outside and stand up, and put on the mittens. As I wait for my hands to recover normal feeling, I look up into a spectacular star-filled northern winter sky. I reflect with bitter wonder that just like the sun keeps the temperature at Mew Lake, at four a.m. on January 17 2015, at 243 K instead of 2 to 4 K, it’s those countless dots of light that keep outer space at 2 to 4 K.

Once my hands have recovered normal feeling, I realize I am cowed, whipped, by this cold. Three times earlier this night I had, when Nature called, performed the urgent choreography just described, then taken the short walk over to snow-draped bushes, then hurried back to the tent and performed the exact reverse of that choreography to get back into the thermal straitjacket. But this time I decide I will avail myself of the Mew Lake Campground Comfort Station, a heated building with hot and cold running water, toilets, and a shower. It is a five-minute walk away. I start stiffly off, my boots crunching loudly in the snow. There is no wind, but I can feel heat draining out of my six-layer thermal shell just with the air flow caused by my own motion.

Comfort Station, Mew Lake, Algonquin Park. This building, powered by the Ontario electric grid, is why so many people try their hand at winter camping at 45.577837° North and 78.513652° West.

Comfort Station, Mew Lake, Algonquin Park. This building, powered by the Ontario electric grid, is why so many people try their hand at winter camping at 45.577837° North and 78.513652° West.

The comfort station is all cheerfully lit up, and when I open the door and step into the warm room I feel immediate relief.

I reflect, as I luxuriate during a perhaps-too-long four-thirty-a.m. shower, that most of the energy that makes this shower possible is being manufactured in the three Ontario nuclear plants that are located hundreds of kilometers away. Not a single watt of the power that keeps the water at around 318 Kelvins—75 K higher than outside—and the lights on is coming from solar panels.

I also reflect that my Mew Lake circumstances embody in microcosm the circumstances of thirteen million of my fellow Ontarians. Ontario from Kenora to Niagara Falls and everywhere in between, is very, very cold at this moment. Those nuclear plants are providing millions of people, not just me and my fellow campers in Algonquin Park, with life-sustaining energy.

The State of the Union
Three days later I will, from the comfort of my home living room—powered to a large extent by the same Ontario nuclear plants—watch the U.S. president give his sixth State of the Union speech. I will shake my head as he touts the amount of solar power America is bringing online. Does nobody, including the president himself, want to admit that solar panels in America are contributing about as many of the watts that are broadcasting his speech around the world as were making the Mew Lake comfort station comfortable at four-thirty a.m. last Saturday?

In wonderment at this implicit but nearly breathtaking denial of reality, I compose the following little note:

Seven score and ten years ago, your country emerged from a vicious, bloody, traumatic civil war over slavery. The brutality of that war reverberated violently for more than a half century; I can feel the reverberations, from Canada, even today, in 2015. The civil war was waged by those who knew slavery is wrong and had developed an economy that had rendered it technologically obsolete, against those who, through a confluence of circumstances utterly unique in history, used slavery to reap profits so fabulous as to inoculate them against its wrongness, close their minds to the possibility of economic production without subjugation of their fellow humans, and indeed to rationalize the institution with all manner of highfalutin reality-denying rhetoric.

Now, in the midst of a great global struggle to avoid further destabilization of the global climate, you tout solar energy, an energy source that cannot power the machines that made slavery obsolete. You do not claim it can power these machines because you must know it cannot. Indeed, you extol your country’s pre-eminence in the production of oil and gas—two energy sources that can.

But while oil and gas can power the machines that made slavery obsolete, they are also two energy sources that have contributed to destabilizing the climate. In touting solar power as a way to not destabilize the climate, you gave life to an idea that sustains those who have forgotten that seven score and ten years ago your country won a war over whether machines should perform hard labour for all people, or people for some.

It is for us, those who remember this, to dedicate ourselves to the great task of powering machines so they can perform hard labour for all people all over the world—without destabilizing the global climate, so that all people, in my country and yours and all countries in the whole world, can not just yearn for but actually live in freedom and prosperity.

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8 years ago

Well stated. A TRUE state of the globe address!

George Angwin
8 years ago

Well done, Steve. Your reinterpretation of the Civil War was especially apt. Also, I admire your fortitude to watch such an embarrassing State of the Union speech.

I suggest a slight improvement on the last sentence of the penultimate paragraph: “a war over whether machines labor for all or humans labor for a few.”

8 years ago

You’re really coming along. Great writing keep it up

R. Budd
8 years ago

Yes a breathtaking amount of denial around energy policy currently. Well written responce.
In future take a hot water bottle to pee into without leaving the sleeping bag. You can’t afford to give up that much metabolic energy to the bushes in those temps ;-).

8 years ago

This is how opponents to uranium mining in northern Saskatchewan deal with the cold weather……

8 years ago

In my neck of the woods (kept warmer than the same latitude in Ontario only by lake effect) there are a bunch of seniors trying to make the town of Northport entirely renewable.

If Michigan was a geothermal hotspot, this might be possible.  It’s not.  Going renewable means freezing in the dark, and I’m shocked that these people don’t know it.  The power of delusion is strong.

8 years ago

I haven’t got the data (on things including NG consumption for heating) to confirm this, but my speculation is that SMRs like the NuScale could almost completely de-carbonize small cities with single units.  Whether a single-unit plant is economic I don’t know, but if the spent steam is replacing NG during the heating season and is supplying absorption refrigeration all year (for A/C as well as other uses) the balance of the economics might still work.

A carbon tax would make it even more favorable.

John ONeill
8 years ago

I’m at 45 S, shirtsleeves and bare feet, midnight, only heating supplied by a lap cat, but even in winter we don’t have to put up with anything like that. Makes North America’s mighty production of CO2 more comprehensible, and the rejection of nuclear heat, less so.

8 years ago
Reply to  John ONeill

Okay, I’m officially jealous of you Kiwis.

8 years ago

In some climates solar just isn’t going to cut it.

According to this solar calculator:
If I were to try to produce enough solar energy to break even on the 4-6 sunniest months of the year the pay back time with the cheapest panels would be 23 years; with the most expensive panels it would be 54 years.

And I would still need batteries for the night to store surplus energy. Plus I would still need to be connected to the grid. Plus that doesn’t include heat. This house uses maybe 7000 kwh of electricity a year. But for heating, depending on how bad the winter is, we can use up to 250 gallons of oil, or approximately 11,000 kwh.

To go “off the grid” and produce 17,000 kwh of energy it would take 65 of the cheapest panels at $47,000 dollars. The more expensive panels would cost $105,000. I would still need enough storage to store that energy for the winter months. In your average lead-acid car battery terms, that would be 20,000 batteries. And those batteries would need to be replaced every 5 years or so.

No thank you. Producing those panels, and the however many batteries, would cause more pollution than nuclear ever would. Plus I would need a whole new house to store the several hundred tons of toxic batteries in, which would be a nightmare if there was a fire. But if I had to build a new house just to store the batteries then I would need to heat that house too, which would mean more batteries, which would mean more space …..

Of course people also think solar can work on Mars where dust storms can block out the sun for months. A place where temperatures can drop to “-123C.” Yeah, right. Unlike the rovers we send there, humans can’t hibernate.

R Budd
8 years ago

This is a bit of a drift from the posted topic, but still in keeping with delusional or at least dishonest advocacy.
I’m hoping Steve you might use this as a basis for a future article. The Super Bowl yesterday premiered the new BMW ad featuring it’s new EV “made with wind energy”.
I checked into this. The BMW site actually only claims 15% of electricity from their 10mw of installed wind. So 85% would be the large user category of grid electricity.
I have a friend in Bavaria (Munich) and she kindly gave me the stats on the generation mix there. Turns out BMW would be using electricity with a CCPK of 495g/kwh. Wildly higher than Ontario, France etc.
It appears in Germany they give industry a mix you could describe as cheap and dirty, consisting of 40% coal, 20% NG and thankfully 35% nuclear. Residential gets a slightly cleaner (440g/kwr) and much more expensive, non-nuclear mix of 33% coal, 28%NG, 32% renewable, 2% “other” fossil.
Bottom line is an EV built in and powered by Ontario’s ~60% nuclear powered grid would be in the neighbourhood of 8X cleaner than the attention seeking Beamer.
Why isn’t the Ontario gov’t grabbing this fact and running with it, instead of living the charade that wind, solar and natural gas are “cleaning our grid”?
FYI the amount of “nuclear waste” /kwh is provided on their electricity bills as being .0006g/kwh. Hmmm, lets see what would be the better choice with C02 at 400ppm?

8 years ago

R Budd’s sentiments exactly. Why nuclear advocacy organizations like ANS and NEI let such bogus media assertions slide unchecked and unchallenged much to the detriment of advancing the truth and merits of nuclear power ever gets me!

Ike Bottema (@Ikemeister)
8 years ago

Stephen,your winter camping dilemma brings back memories best forgotten. I’ve long ago forgone the winter camping experience because going out for a pee and merely finding my pee-pee in those temps is an experience in itself … and I grew up on the shores of Lake Huron where, just as in Michigan, the lake-effect makes the experience slightly more bearable than in these Ottawa climes. 🙂

Anyway your article left me pondering the solar insolation physics. First, the idea is to “steal” some of that photon energy before it is transformed into heat, transform it to electrical energy, transport it to where it’s needed and focus that energy to, for example, heat my home. Thankfully my home has a bit more insulation than your tent but it still required a precious 6.5 MWh of Ottawa Hydro’s smart-metered juice over the course of 33 days up to January 20th, so just under 200 kWh/day. OK admittedly that’s not so clever; better to use Enbridge gas except it doesn’t quite make it to my home … but then again I can be smug and rightly claim I don’t contribute as much to CO2 emissions.

In any case, the best I can figure, on a cloudless day in the same month, I can expect 1.6 kWh/m^2 of solar isolation over the course of the day. So assuming perfect efficiency I would need *just* 120 sq m of irradiated surface. Of course efficiency depends on how the energy is focused into heat energy inside the home and I haven’t accounted for spreading that heat out over those cold winter nights. If I were to have the photons directly convert to heat and use glycol to conduit that heat though coils in my furnace, perhaps optimistically I could achieve 50% efficiency on a cold day if everything is properly insulated. I’m not sure how realistic it would be to create a sufficiently large heat sink in my basement but assuming it’s feasible and that optimistically 80% storage efficiency over the course of 24 hours is doable, I’d need solar collectors covering 120 / 50% / 80% m^2, so 300 m^2.

Now my modest abode has perhaps 60m^2 of south-east-east facing roof surface so at the most optimistic calculations I can muster, I would need a solar heat collection array four times the roof size available! And that doesn’t cover for cloudy days nor deal with snow-bound collectors. I wouldn’t relish climbing up to clear the snow even though I long ago lost my fear of heights, especially since those south-facing collectors would very efficiently collect snow drifting over from the north-facing roof surface!

Yes I could turn the problem over to the province but I could expect to pay much more for all the infrastructure required to pipe the energy to my home and there would necessarily be many more inefficiencies along the way which I would be expected to pay for. Those inefficiencies would necessitate even more land area. Optimistically assuming 20% overall efficiency, heating a modest home such as mine would require at least 600 m^2 of land. Multiply that by the half-million homes in Ottawa-Gatineau for example and some 30,000 hectares would be required. That’s equivalent to 16 Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airports!

…. and that hasn’t even touched on industrial energy needs.