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David Staples: How did Alberta survive wicked cold snap? Thanks for nothing, solar power

Edmonton Journal logo Edmonton Journal 2022-01-14 David Staples, Edmonton Journal
Six hundred solar panels have been installed on the roof of of the Southland Leisure Centre in Calgary. © Provided by Edmonton Journal Six hundred solar panels have been installed on the roof of of the Southland Leisure Centre in Calgary.
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Old school green activists like Canada’s new Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault fantasize about a world powered by solar and wind energy.

But just how would that utopian green vision play out during the coldest days of the Canadian winter?

For example, how close would a solar and wind-dependent power grid have come to giving us the electricity we needed during the three-week freeze in Alberta where the average temperature was -22 C from Dec. 15 to Jan. 9?

Alberta sleuth Ian Mackay, an oilfield information technology specialist in Lacombe, has the answer. Mackay scrapes data from the website of the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO), a not-for-profit organization that manages and works with industry to operate the provincial power grid.

Alberta needs a supply of about 10,500 MW (megawatts) on average, said Mackay. If they are running at maximum capacity, solar can provide 736 MW and wind 2,269 MW.

Sounds impressive, right? That’s about 30 per cent of Alberta’s electrical power needs. But during Alberta’s recent biting cold days, solar ran at just 2.64 per cent of maximum capacity, the amount each panel would produce if it operated at full efficiency around the clock each day.

   Alberta power sources during recent cold snap Alberta power sources during recent cold snap

As for wind, it ran at 29.5 per cent of maximum capacity.

If we had been reliant on far more solar and wind, how would we have done?

“You’d have to start with rolling blackouts or brownouts,” Mackay said. “If we lost the bulk of our generation, there’d be a lot of people dying.”

But, of course, good, old reliable fossil fuels came to the rescue. Alberta’s gas generators, which have the capacity to produce 10,166 MW, operated at 71 per cent. Coal, which can now produce a maximum of 1,729 MW, operated at 87.5 per cent.

In total, during the three bitter weeks, gas provided 69.7 per cent of our power, coal 18.7 per cent, wind 6.4 per cent, biomass 2.7 per cent, hydro 1.6 per cent, dual fuel (coal-gas co-generation) 0.7 per cent, and solar just 0.1 per cent.

Thanks for nothing, solar power.

Mackay is a fan of solar power for some applications, just not when it comes to providing base load power, the kind needed to power a modern, prosperous consumer and industrial economy.

“I think solar is great for a lot of things,” he said, mentioning its utility for camping and cabins. “I just don’t think it’s great for powering a province.”

Mackay started to scrape power data about eight years ago to better understand how wind power impacted the power grid. Five years ago, he created a Twitter account, @ReliableAB , to publish the numbers every hour, with the tweets generated automatically.

Government seems more attuned to what people want to hear, rather than going on facts, Mackay said, so his goal is to present a constant flow of facts for people. “They can make up their own mind and conduct some critical thinking.

“Hopefully we will get more honesty from government that way. Everything seems so lop-sided to me. We constantly hear that Alberta has the greatest opportunity for solar generation because we have as much sun here as some places in Florida. But that’s obviously not true when you look at generation charts over the course of the winter. It just doesn’t happen.”

Wind usually averages about 38 per cent of maximum capacity, while solar averages 15 to 18 per cent, Mackay said.

Coal and gas averages fluctuate as their plants are powered up and down to make up for the unreliability of the wind blowing and the sun shining.

Mackay isn’t and doesn’t claim to be an expert on power regulation, generation or pricing. He can’t speak to the overall economics of these various power sources, but it’s evident to him that there’s no way right now Alberta can get by without gas, and that whatever solar and wind we have, we need to have to able to instantly replace all their capacity when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow if we want to have reliable power.

When advocates for solar power like Guilbeault now argue we should let the market decide on solar and wind versus gas or nuclear, they conveniently leave out this fact, this gargantuan cost to having a complete and highly efficient backup system in place to stand in for iffy renewable sources.

But some power source must turn on our lights and charge our cellphones.

For now, in Alberta, it’s mainly gas and coal, and after the hardship of this last cold spell I can only give thanks to our reliable energy and worry about the current infatuation with unreliable renewables.


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