First Ontario, now Alberta: the march of the rent seekers

Next time you go to charge your smart phone battery, mark down the time you plug the charger in and the time the battery charge indicator tells you the battery is once again full. If you don’t feel like going through the bother, and who can blame you, I’ll save you the time and just tell you. Charging your smartphone will take hours. As if you didn’t already know.

My smartphone is a Blackberry Z10. It has an 1800 milliAmp-hour battery, which charges at 3.8 Volts. Do the math, and you see that a full charge from empty (not recommended) involves the storage of 6.84 watt-hours of electrical energy. It takes more than a few hours to store these 6.84 watt-hours, or 24,624 joules.

Notice I cannot simply get a charger that utilizes my full household electricity voltage (120 volts) so as to reduce charge time by a factor of 32. That would destroy my battery, and possibly burn down my home.

This morning I received a press release from the Alberta Storage Alliance, a collection of electricity-sector private companies and startups, who propose electricity storage as a solution to the intermittency of renewable sources like wind.

In the ASA’s own words:

The ASA believes energy storage can bring significant benefits to the Alberta Interconnected Electricity System. The ASA’s role is to help energy market stakeholders, regulators and politicians better understand how to integrate energy storage and ensure the province takes full advantage of these technologies.

What benefits could they possibly be talking about?

There are very frequent times when even if Ontario had 10 times the wind capacity it does today (i.e., even if there were 45,000 MW of wind capacity, about 10,000 more than the current total system capacity), wind could not meet even half of electricity demand. A perfect example is today, July 20. At noon on this picture-perfect Wednesday, Ontario’s wind fleet, capacity 4,500 megawatts, is producing a laughable 67 MW. That works out to less than half of one percent of the total.

So never mind having 10 times our current wind capacity—if we had 100 times the current wind capacity, i.e. if we had 450,000 MW of wind capacity, we’d only be getting 6,700 MW from wind.

Forget about meeting anywhere close to heat demand at any time of the year.

Storage is supposed to solve this problem. In the coming utopia, we’ll be able to instantly store excess power during those rare moments when wind output exceeds demand.

As I discussed above in the smartphone example, you cannot instantly store power as potential energy in a chemical battery. You have to wait many hours for the electrons to align.

But even if that fundamental physics problem gets solved—and let’s not fool ourselves, it will never be solved—the excess power, converted to stored energy, still cannot cover the more-frequent times when there just isn’t enough wind power.

Wind power is quite simply an uneconomical and inefficient way to make electricity. It does nothing other than line the pockets of rent-seekers whose business model is to get governments to force us ratepayers to pay them grossly inflated prices for a commodity we can get for far less from far cheaper sources.

Electricity storage is, like wind power, just another of the pie-in-the-sky notions purveyed by people whose careers are spent prying money out of the pockets of unsuspecting electricity ratepayers.

No government should fall for this confidence game.

The Notley NDP in Alberta showed a spark of independent outside-the-green-box thinking with their summary dismissal of the idiocy that is the Leap Manifesto.

Can Alberta’s government maintain that level headed position in the face of the ultra-confident rent-seekers of the ASA?

The best way for the Notley NDP to take full advantage of electricity storage technologies is to ignore them. They solve no problems other than the revenue-generation problems of their proponents.

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7 years ago

To play the devil’s advocate for a moment, what about pumped-water storage, or the more exotic technologies being proposed (underwater balloons filled with compressed air, etc)?

7 years ago
Reply to  Bradley

I’ve done calculations for the storage of air in underwater bladders.  The volumes of air are immense, and you’d have issues with lake level changes even in bodies as massive as Lake Michigan.  You’d also have to find some way to weight the bladders down to keep them from rising and exploding, meaning more cost.&nbp; Last, most lakes just aren’t that deep and can’t supply all that much pressure.

John ONeill
7 years ago
Reply to  Engineer-Poet

Don’t you lose much of the energy as heat when the air is compressed, and then have problems with ice forming in the lines when you release the pressure? There would be ways around that, but it all adds complexity and cost.

7 years ago
Reply to  John ONeill

You don’t necessarily “lose” this energy, but a lot of the input does appear as heat (both heat of compression and losses in friction and such).  You could save this heat by e.g. blowing the hot compressed air through an insulated bed of gravel on its way to storage, then reverse the flow through the hot gravel on the way back.

There was a company with a rather clever idea of compressing a foam rather than straight air and using the liquid to capture the heat and achieve near-isothermal compression and expansion (it required piston machinery), but it merged with General Compression and the idea does not appear to be proceeding towards commercialization.

7 years ago

God (or nature, if you prefer) came up with some amazing ways to store vast quantities of energy releasable by machines that are just as simple as the water turbines used in pumped storage facilities.

Uranium, thorium, petroleum, coal, and methane all represent nature’s way of storing energy that can be released for valuable motive force (or direct heat) through the use of various kinds of machinery.

Pumped storage is kind of nice, however, when the upper reservoir is 20,000 acres of central Virginia surrounded by hills with beautiful mountain views and 500 miles of shoreline on which to build lakefront recreation/retirement homes. Smith Mountain Lake is one of my favorite playgrounds. The lower reservoir, Leesville Lake, has too much water level variation to be of much use.

7 years ago

Well said Rod.

Great article Stephen.

Are you aware of the ASA would also promote thermal energy technologies such as salt or ice banks?

7 years ago

There’s this game called PlanetBase where your only source of energy is wind and solar, and a magic energy storage system. Even then the wind doesn’t blow long enough one night and EVERYBODY DIES! You have to grossly overrate your power supplies and storage for that one week that the wind doesn’t blow…