New wind farm in Alberta comes online September 1: AA, anyone?

The Whitla Wind project phase I came onto Alberta’s grid yesterday (September 1 2019) around 1:05 pm local time. Phase 1 is 202 megawatts capacity, making it the second-largest farm in the province— Blackspring Ridge, at 300 MW, is the largest. (Project info here.)

Could we say that Whitla, together with three new gas-fired steam plants that came online between late February and early July,1 represents Alberta’s first step toward phasing out coal-fired power? The three gas-fired plants are in what the Alberta system operator calls the “Cogeneration” category—that is, most of them are co-located with oilsands processing facilities, and appear to be the oil patch’s clever way of developing a lucrative new side business under the guise of politically correct concepts like… cogeneration.

From the provincial system operator’s minutely publication of data on Alberta generation and demand, the cogen plants are the biggest single category of generation, in terms of the number of facilities, collective capacity, and collective minutely output. Collectively, they supply the provincial baseload, the business that coal used to dominate.

But coal still plays a huge role. On March 27 of this year, wind output dropped nearly 500 MW between midnight and three a.m. It was coal that stepped in to keep the grid stable (coal output is shown in plot 4 in the figure below, wind in plot 7).

It appears that four coal-fired units—Battle River 4, Keephills 1 and 2, and Sheerness 2—performed most of the closely timed choreography of dealing with that relatively fast roughly 200 MW slack net of demand; none of the 34 cogen units appreciably changed output through those three hours.

And with the advent of Whitla yesterday, a bigger source of fickle power is now on the provincial grid. Coal, and when it’s gone likely cogen or combined cycle gas (of which Alberta currently has only six facilities) or some combination thereof, will continue its role as sudden stand-in for fickle wind. With the 13.8 percent increase in total provincial wind capacity that Whitla represents, the fossil backup role will increase in importance. Likely we’ll see more fossil units running continuously at or near half power, as 4 of the coal plants and 7 of the cogen plants in the plots above did on March 27—this gives the system operator more latitude in responding to sudden significant fluctuations in wind. Because CIPK increases as a fossil thermal unit backs away from full power, we have to wonder what the point of wind was in the first place. Wasn’t it to reduce emissions of CO2, not to mention oxides of sulfur and nitrogen?

What does this tell us about the “decarbonization” of Alberta’s grid between now and 2030? It won’t be decarbonized. Alberta will kick alcoholism through a partial switch from wine to beer. It will remain an incorrigible raging alcoholic, and the Canadian media will enable the behaviour by continuing to pretend at AA meetings that the drunk emperor is a teetotaller. The paltry reductions in CO2 will be celebrated, through they really only represent a slowing of the rate of increase of Alberta’s gargantuan cumulative emissions from power generation. Greta Thunberg and other young climate change activists can look forward to my generation waving this insipid record like it’s an accomplishment, and patting ourselves on the back.

  1. Mulligan (5 MW; first power February 23 at 07:02 local time), Saddle Hills (10 MW; July 1 at 7:28 am), and Blackfalds (6 MW capacity; July 4 at 08:03), combined capacity 21 MW.
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4 years ago

Because CIPK increases as a fossil thermal unit backs away from full power, we have to wonder what the point of wind was in the first place.

One of the things that bugs me is that I can find e.g. heat-rate data for CCGT plants running at their rated output, but not at lower power settings.  GE’s 9HA has a rated efficiency of 62% in combined-cycle use, but I can’t find anything on its heat rate at its rated minimum output of 15% or anything in between.

(Yes, of course I have a use for this information if I can get it.)

4 years ago

Problem is you’d have to catch the real engineers in the booths, not the booth babes.  Having a hidden recorder on you would probably be a good idea.

I’ve been persuaded to attend shows before.  That’s actually a possibility.

3 years ago
Reply to  Engineer-Poet

It might be more complicated than “heat rate vs percent rated power”. For example, if a CCGT were running at 50% rated continuously, it might have considerably higher heat rate than if it were load-balancing on a gusty day, and rapidly cycling between 20% and 80% and back.

It likely depends on a grid’s ratio of wind to gas capacity, how many gas turbines are there, and how the operator chooses to schedule them. It might be more informative, in a real-world operational sort of way, to simply ask the individual operators for their separated wind + coal + gas generation profiles over time, and corresponding data for the hourly fuel consumption of each turbine.

It wouldn’t be the same as knowing what each turbine was theoretically capable of doing, but might be just as informative.

4 years ago

So…. bye-bye blackbirds and blackhawks?

Andrew Jaremko
4 years ago

Thanks Steve for the post and Engineer-Poet for the discussion. As an Albertan I’m embarrassed by our provincial lack of ambition, and not having the courage to say NO to wind and solar projects. Not to mention not learning from Ontario.

But then, it seems like there very few politicians anywhere that know what questions to ask engineers.

Jim Baerg
4 years ago

I saw this here
“One of the best things I heard all week was the idea that if the U.S. invested hard enough in solar and wind electric power we could get rid of all the hydroelectric dams and begin returning this land back to his natural state. Benefiting the animals AND ourselves.”
When I asked for a link & mentioned that hydro or gas is what gets turned on when the sun sets & that some major advances in energy storage would be needed to use lots of solar without hydro & gas, the link I got was this:
Which briefly mentions storage without saying what major advance they think could to the trick.

Are you aware of ways to get such people to realize that the intermittency problem has not been solved.
The separate issue of nuclear having much smaller environmental impact even aside from the intermittency problem would be nice to get across too.