Alberta's Electricity Generators and the Future that Society Requires of Them
Times are changing.
The configuration and the role of Alberta's electricity generators, regulators and the operation and management of Alberta's electricity grid
need to plan for and facilitate these changes. This includes Alberta Energy,
the Alberta Electric System Operator,
the Alberta Utilities Commission, the transmission line owners and operators, and the
electric utility companies (called Wires Service Providers).
Presently in Alberta, the main generators on our electrical grid consist of:
18 coal-burning electric generating plants that provide 5893 MW of baseload generating capacity (or 48% of total);
51 natural gas-burning electric generating plants that provide 4895 MW of baseload generating capacity (or 40% of total);
8 stored-hydro electric generating plants that provide 869 MW of baseload generating capacity (or 7% of total);
10 wind electric generating farms that provide 497 MW of generating capacity (or 4% of total); and
6 biomass-burning electric generating plants that provide 214 MW of generating capacity (or 2% of total)
for a total of 12,364 MW of generating capacity. Note that "generating capacity" means the amount of electricity that a generator is able to
generate. It does not indicate how much electrical energy that a generator does generate because they are all not operating all the time.
Under Alberta's free-market system, they compete with each other to provide us the lowest price energy.
In addition there are two bi-directional transmission lines into the province:
some 800 MW with BC; and
some 125 MW with Saskatchewan.
In addition there are likely 0.25 MW (a calculated guess) of grid-connected solar PV and another 0.5 MW (a totally wild guess) of grid-connected
micro-wind. There may well be other generators connected too, such as biomass, biogas, Stirling engines and Diesel generators.
Most electricity generating plants generate electricity by rotating large coils of wire inside magnetic fields. The coil, shaft and magnet assembly is
called a "generator". Boiler-based generating plants that burn any kind of fuel such as coal, oil, natural gas, biomass, or biogas use the heat
from that fuel to boil water to make steam to expand inside a steam turbine, which causes the blades and the shaft to turn and thus turn the generator.
Nuclear fission plants generate electricity using the same sequence of water boiling and steam expansion except that they produce the heat through the
production and radiation of nuclear particles. Other generating plants burn natural gas and use the expanding combustion gases from the burning process
to turn a gas turbine (basically like an aircraft jet engine) to turn the generator. Hydro-electric plants cause the generator coils to rotate by
causing water to hit the blades in a turbine, which is connected to the shaft of the generator. Wind turbines use the force of the wind on the blades
to turn the generator. Solar-generated electricity can be generated in two ways: one uses concentrated light radiation from the sun to heat up a
"working fluid" (such as molten salt or water) to make steam to turn the steam turbine to turn the generator; the other way uses the principle of
"photovoltaics" (called PV) where a photon of light bumps an electron from a conductive material in a semi-conductor (usually based on silicon)
eventually causing the electron to flow in a wire.
The electrical consumption in Alberta in 2008 ranges from a low of 6400 MW to a high of 9700 MW. Note that the unit "MW" is a unit of energy flow and
means "millions of watts", which is the same as "millions of joules of energy flowing per second". A common energy unit, gigajoule (or GJ), is a
billion joules and is equal to 28 litres of gasoline. A kWh (1 kilowatt-hour equals 1/10 of a litre of gasoline) is typically the unit of measurement
for electricity. In 2006, Alberta generated some 65,000 GWh (gigawatt-hour) of electricity per year (equal to 65,000 million kWh). An average
household consumes 6600 kWh, or one 10-millionth of Alberta's electricity generation. As of 2006, 56% of Alberta's electricity is consumed by
industry, 24% by commerce, 3% by farms, and 16% by residences, totalling some 52,000 GWh of electricity. It is not clear to me where the rest of this
electricity goes to -- it equals 17% of the total, or 11 000 MWh (1 megawatt-hour equals 100 litres of gasoline). It could well go to heat lost in the
transmission and distribution systems (typically this amounts to 8%), plus electricity consumed on site in the generating plants.
Since reliability of the grid is so critically important for the proper functioning of our society (otherwise countless economic value is lost if
manufacturing plants suffer electrical outages, plus the social value of electrical outages and the sudden increase in population 9 months later),
the operators of the electric grid need to have what is called "spinning reserve" to be put into operation at a moment's notice in order to
accommodate any unforeseen increases in the amount of electricity used plus to back up any generating plant in case one or more of them should
suffer a catastrophic failure.
Typically the spinning reserve is supplied by natural gas-burning and stored-hydro generating plants. These ensure a reliable electricity grid.
The amount of electricity generated by most generating plants can be increased or decreased at will. The act of increasing or decreasing their
electrical production is called "dispatching". Dispatching is determined and controlled by the
Alberta Electric System Operator in order to ensure a reliable and stable electricity grid.
The act of changing the amount of electricity produced every few minutes to accommodate the changes in amount of electricity used is called "load
following". Load following is provided by dispatching the generating plants. Typically boiler-based generating plants, though the amount of
electricity they generate can be increased and decreased at will with some degree of flexibility, are not designed to be turned off very often --
such as a couple dozen times over their operating life. It causes stress on their operating components to cool them down and heat them up, plus a
long time to turn them on. As a result, they become inflexible when it comes to providing load following services. Typically then, you can consider
the coal-burning and natural gas-burning steam generating plants to be the baseload plants, and the natural gas-turbine generating plants and
stored-hydro plants to be the load-following plants.
Any generating plant that is not dispatchable (such as wind and solar PV) can be considered to be a "negative load" when considering the requirements
that the dispatchable plants need to meet in order to load-follow. In essence the whole network of dispatchable generating plants become then
"net load-following" because they follow the amount of electricity consumption minus the amount of non-dispatchable electricity generation. In 2008,
the total electrical load ranges from 6400 MW to 9700 MW. The net load (total consumption minus wind generation) would likely range from 5900 MW to
9700 MW at its extremes.
Increasing amounts of wind electricity is being generated in Alberta these days. Presently 2.2% of Alberta's annual electrical energy is being
generated from wind, ranging from 0% to 7% on an hourly basis depending on the wind conditions and the amount of electricity that Alberta uses.
As of 2008 November 14, 11,634 MW of wind is under development in Alberta. (See the AESO's
Generation Interconnection Queue). This would generate an annual
average of some 54% of Alberta's electricity, likely ranging between 10% to 180% on an hourly basis.
Thus when all this wind generation becomes available to Alberta, it would appear that the net load on that the dispatchable generators would range from
0 MW to 9700 MW at the extremes. The net load would likely vary much more quickly than the total load, because its rate of change would depend on the
rate of change in the load plus the rate of change in the non-dispatchable generation.
I wonder, then, whether the concept of having baseload plants is becoming outmoded. It is starting to appear that what we may need in the future is a
significant penetration of renewable electricity sources (wind electric, biomass electric, waste-heat electric, solar photovoltaics, solar-thermal
electric, and geothermal electric). This will drastically reduce our environmental footprint (easily 60%). However we then need something to
be able to accommodate the uncontrollable and variable natural of wind and solar PV -- this would be provided by fuel-burning turbine-based generating
plants (at first using natural gas and then adding renewable fuels) and electricity storage facilities (pumped hydro dams, battery banks, ultra
capacitors and flywheels) that are able to provide spinning reserve and very very quick changes in electricity production in order to meet the
increases and decreases in the net load.
As a result of the highly variable net grid load, I wonder if it is going to increasingly become difficult to justify building baseloaded plants -- to
justify spending $2 billion to $12 billion only to see the market evaporate because that business economics model did not allow for society's demands
for electricity that is free from environmental effects (air, water, land, and habitat), free from catastrophic risks, and
free from belabouring future generations with our near-term choices plus the increasing ability of the renewable energy industry to
supply these demands at a capital cost, an operating cost, an environmental cost and a life-cycle cost that is less than those costs for the
baseloaded plants. We need to keep in mind also, that it is not the government's job to restrict the development of disruptive technologies that make
inflexible business models obsolete -- this is what competitive business risk is all about (as I am told).
Note that everything to this point discussed electricity generating capacity and not electrical energy -- these are two completely different subjects.
From the AESO's 2007 Annual Report, we see that
coal-burning electric generating plants provided 74% of Alberta's electrical energy;
natural gas-burning electric generating plants provided 17% of Alberta's electrical energy;
large hydro electric generating plants provided 4% of Alberta's electrical energy;
wind farms provided 2% of Alberta's electrical energy;
Diesel and biomass electric generating plants provided 1% of Alberta's electrical energy; and
imports from BC and Saskatchewan provided 2% of Alberta's electrical energy.
Note that it is the production of electrical energy, and not generating capacity, that damages Alberta's environment. Since coal generated 74% of
the 65,300 GWh (millions of kilowatt-hours) that Alberta generated last year, and with the damage caused by coal-fired electricity estimated to cost
the public health care system around 9.62 c/kWh, (see the
Ontario study that puts a value on this), we see that the damage that Alberta's coal-fired electricity costs our health care system equals
some $6 billion per year -- and yet we don't even seem to want to confirm this or do something about it!
In my view, society needs to be moving towards an operating regime where the burning of any fuels actually becomes prohibited (a very big comment that
I am starting to hear more and more from others!!) unless they have zero net environmental effects (such fuels would include some renewable biomass
and biogas fuels), and where the release of any emissions from industrial processing plants is prohibited. Society has previously long ignored
and dismissed the highly damaging effects of such caustic emissions. There is much evidence of the damage of these emissions to our health and our
habitat diversity. There does not appear to be any rational effective reason why such emissions are permitted to happen, at any level of
concentration. We have the technology to prevent these emissions. Our politicians just don't seem to have had the "political will" to establish and
enforce these restrictions. Times are changing. The political and the industrial sectors of society need to keep up with these times in order for
our society to continue to be economically prosperous, environmentally benign and socially cohesive.
'On the verge of an energy revolution'
New technologies set to move world away from dependence on coal, study finds
Copyright 2008, Charleston Gazette 2008 December 28
By Ken Ward Jr.
New technologies will move the world economy away from coal and other fossil fuels much more rapidly than experts from the energy industry would have the
public believe, according to a new study by the
Hundreds of old coal-fired power plants that provide 40 percent of the world's power could be retired in the process, eliminating up to one-third of global
carbon dioxide emissions, while creating millions of new jobs, the study asserted.
"We are on the verge of an energy revolution," said Christopher Flavin, president of Worldwatch and author of the report, "Low-Carbon Energy: A Roadmap,"
issued in 2008 December.
Worldwatch, a nonprofit that follows environmental and poverty issues, argues that reducing dependence on fossil fuels will not only "strike a defiant
blow to the climate crisis," but also act "as an agent of recovery for an ailing global economy."
The 49-page report disputes arguments from coal industry advocates who say the world's energy future must be based mostly on finding ways to capture
greenhouse emissions from coal-fired plants and pump those emissions underground.
"While these technologies are advancing, together with advances in modeling and monitoring of geological sites, full-scale commercial [carbon capture and
storage] systems are still a long way off," the Worldwatch report said. "And a vast physical infrastructure will be needed to capture, move and store the
emissions from even a fraction of today's fossil fuels combustion."
The report found that government-sponsored carbon capture research projects in the United States, the European Union, Japan and China have moved at a
"surprisingly lethargic" pace "given the urgency of the climate problem and the fact that much of the power industry is counting on CCS [carbon capture
and storage] to allow them to continue burning massive amounts of coal.
"How large a role CCS ultimately plays in a low-carbon economy will depend on how much it costs, and whether governments and industries are able to
successfully mobilize the massive infrastructure that will be required," the study said.
Meanwhile, the Worldwatch study said, there are concrete steps the world could be taking to transition to a low-carbon economy:
Make buildings more efficient - Buildings consume about 40 percent of global energy and emit a comparable share of carbon dioxide emissions. More efficient
lighting and appliances and improved walls and windows could reduce energy use in buildings by 70 percent or more, with the investment paid for via lower
Improve efficiency of power plants - Two-thirds of the energy contained in the fuel for most power plants is converted to waste heat or lost in distribution.
Combined heat and power systems can reduce those losses to less than 20 percent and provide the U.S. with 150 gigawatts of generating capacity - more than
nuclear power now provides.
Expand wind power - In 2007, wind power represented 40 percent of new generating capacity installations in Europe and 35 percent in the United States.
Wind power now costs less than 6 cents per kilowatt-hour on average, less than natural gas and roughly even with coal.
"We no longer need to say 'in the future' when talking about a low-carbon energy system," Flavin said. "These technologies - unlike carbon-capture
facilities - are being deployed now and are poised to make the most carbon-intensive fossil fuels obsolete."