As the “energy transition” thunders forward, or staggers, Parker Gallant proposes a real-world experiment of considerable interest. It developed out of his habit of keeping a beady eye on power generation in the Canadian province of Ontario, including that on December 5 the IESO website, with commendable transparency, revealed that at the peak demand hour (“Hour 18” to insiders, 5 to 6 pm to the rest of us) “Those IWT (industrial wind turbines) were barely operating and only generated 86 MWh a miserly 1.7% of their rated capacity. Solar generation was zero at that hour!” So what do we do if we really do move away from fossil fuels, especially in jurisdictions that lack Ontario’s generous endowment of hydro-friendly rivers and its aging nuclear fleet? Well, since no fewer than 35 Ontario municipalities have been convinced by the zealots to urge the provincial energy ministry to phase out natural gas power, he suggests they turn off the electricity to a selected group of those towns and cities when wind and solar aren’t getting the job done.
As Gallant also notes, there’s a blithe assumption among green energy planners, or pseudo-planners, that if Ontario can’t get its own electricity it can simply import it from Quebec which, again unusually in global terms, has a vast array of power-generation-suitable rivers and has built a vast array of suitable dams. Clearly the idea that everyone should switch off their reliable power plants then import it from their neighbours who did the same thing would be parody rather even than fantasy, even if Europe seems to be succumbing to it. But, Gallant explains, on Dec. 5 when the new energy system in Ontario was sitting there doing nothing:
“As it turns out in reviewing IESO intertie (exports minus imports) data, Ontario was a net-exporter of power to Quebec for each and every hour of the day and it totaled 16,179 MWh.”
One of the most frustrating things about all sorts of public debates, including those around climate change and green energy, is the tendency of a lot of people who are not technically either stupid or ill-informed to substitute fantasy for reality. As Thomas Sowell argues convincingly in his masterful A Conflict of Visions, there is a powerful and persistent inclination to make a tacit, unexamined assumption that what matters is will rather than skill, that compassion will sweep away difficulties and that practical concerns are really just a form of sabotage. Hence slogans like “Visualize world peace” which focus on desire and imagination, as opposed to ones like “Peace through strength” which focus on methods and history.
It is largely on this basis that people who propose the truly gargantuan task of completely transforming our energy system, like those who without ever having run a corner store propose completely transforming our economies or for that matter geopolitics, often do not trouble themselves with outlining or even considering details of how it would work, in what order, how the incentives would have to be aligned and so on. And when people like us say, as we keep doing, that if you really think the whole world can run on this kind of energy we’d like to see one city do it, never mind one country, they accuse us of being paid shills for Big Oil or something else that abuses motives rather than addressing arguments and which, even if true, would have no actual relevance to the validity of our request or the importance of a successful demonstration.
To take one trivial example of the result of this kind of magical thinking, back in 2008 California voters were persuaded to approve a $10 billion bond issue for a trendy bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles. At the time the project was meant to cost $33 billion total, and get passengers from one to the other in under three hours. By now, the Wall Street Journal just reported, the estimated cost has instead risen to $100 billion and the project is way behind schedule.
Naturally the response of those in power was to expand their ambitions, running trains as far as the state capital of Sacramento at the north end and down to San Diego in the south. But the first, more “modest” phase, was meant to be completed by 2020. Guess again.
One kluge after another was proposed to save the gleaming futuristic vision. Including running the trains on existing tracks at lower speeds, which the Journal correctly observes “made a mockery of the ‘high speed’ rail claim.” You can read the article yourself for the bewildering, comical series of further bumps and bruises in the form of projected delays, increased costs and so forth. But the main point is that confronted with this mess, the federal government just tossed in $3.1 billion. A sum so small in the overall scheme of things as to be derisory. But also to underline that the people involved are good at dreaming, and talking, but really really bad at achieving things.
Perhaps there too it would have been wise to stage a demonstration project on a small scale instead of declaring all such suggestions to be not just petty but malevolent. At any rate, we’d like to see how voters and councillors would react in those various Ontario municipalities if someone called their gas-power bluff. Because when fantasy collides with reality, the latter wins.