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Another demonstration

10 Jan 2024 | OP ED Watch

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.

8 comments on “Another demonstration”

  1. This is extraordinary. The Manhattan Contrarian has been doing its best to get government to observe that nobody's actually done what they're proposing, no demonstration projects. Well, here's a perfect example, folks. Let's get 3 or 4 of these municipalities to go for it, the whole Net Zero magilla.
    Show us a success and your credibility will be enhanced. Let's go! We can demonstrate this in the next 2 or 3 years, right? I mean, you've got Net Zero planned for 11 years away, a single community or a handful can be made ready to go now. Right? Right? Hello?

  2. There are no doubt a number of municipalities that could reach net zero electricity production through natural advantage such as abundant hydro or the addition of baseload nuclear.
    Net zero energy use, on the the other hand, is much more difficult but perhaps possible if hugely expensive.
    All apples are not the same size, however, and such advantageous situations seem to be exceedingly rare. Most jurisdictions have provided for energy needs by utilizing the best and cheapest resources available to them. That may, in many cases, be the importation of energy from outside jurisdiction boundaries which is only possible if the financial situation allows it. It may even be solar and wind which can be sufficient where it never really cold and the sun shines about half the day if it is not cloudy. That is definitely not the majority of Canadian jurisdictions.

  3. The problem with wind and solar is that in a country like Canada they are usefully available only about 20-30% of the time. The rest of the time they have to be backed up with, typically, natural gas, which may be required on a moment's notice if the wind stops blowing or the sun doesn't shine. This means that wind and solar are merely boutique power supplies which may or may not be available at any particular time. Hardly a power source for a modern industrial society to be reliant upon.
    Ontario is lucky to have nuclear for its baseload supply, but uses a combination of wind/solar and natural gas for everything else, thus requiring two separate power systems to be available at all times where only one (gas) would do the job. And you wonder why our electricity bills are so high.

  4. The reason activist groups, towns, cities go for the green dream is that by talking the talk, media prominence and government subsidy comes their way. This may continue as long as the money lasts. If they haven't done anything substantive, ie they still have their legacy systems in place, they'll survive when the subsidies dry up, the windmills, solar panels and batteries fail/need to be replaced at monumental expense. A cynical but practical incentive based approach, hedged with a prudent degree of realism kept in the back pocket. Stupid they ain't.
    Government now...

  5. El Heiro in the Canary Is. is the only place I know of that tried to go all Green all the time.It's been a dismal failure.Was discussed in previous newsletters.No surprise that California's so-called high-speed train has went triple over budget,with Gov. Gruesome Newsom at the helm.
    To be fair,I don't think he was governor in 2008?But hey,Californians had a say in one of their "Propositions" on this matter,so it's on them.
    Literally,go woke,go broke!

  6. You can see the breakdown for Ontario at live.gridwatch.ca. The top two are nuclear, typically about 50%, then hydro at 25% or so. Third is either wind or gas with wind at 20% or so when it's blowing and gas when it's not. There is a bit of biofuel and a bit of solar. Solar may rise in summer but I've only been watching this thing for a few weeks. There is some import and some export too. So gas is clearly important. It can be cranked up and down quickly so is very flexible (dispatchable). Use wind and solar when available and gas when they are not. Nuclear and hydro as base loads. Only problem with the wind/solar/gas scenario is the building of these multiple energy sources to provide a more or less fixed percentage of the total. The gas is essential because of the intermittency of wind and solar. Would have been more cost effective to go just with gas.
    I live in the City of Kawartha Lakes (CKL - I know, it's not really a city but the new name circa 2000 wasn't my idea) which is one of the municipalities on the list of those endorsing the shutdown of gas plants. I did not support this but what can I do? I say, choose Toronto as one of the "test" cities as suggested by Parker Gallant. The millions of people there will make a far louder combined scream than the 70 or 80k in CKL.

  7. A true test of net zero should be required to be very thorough. It should require all stages to be free of the use of hydrocarbon fuels. By this I mean, the mining of raw materials, the transportation of raw materials to processing plants, the operation of processing plants, the transportation of processed material to manufacturing plants, the distribution and transportation of manufactured parts to assembly plants, the transportation of assembled machinery to the installation sites, installation on site, and the building of the distribution grid and connections to homes and businesses. Installation on site requires an extensive amount of work to prepare the site. All of this should likewise be accomplished without the use of hydrocarbon fuel.

    Oh, yes, let’s not forget the feeding, housing, and transportation of all the workers necessary in all of these steps. In addition, we need to include timbering and lumber milling operations and transportation, the production and processing of food, and the production and processing of clothing.

    I know that I have skipped a few steps. I am not trying to be all inclusive of what would be involved in going to net zero. I’m just trying to illustrate the utter impossibility of such an endeavor succeeding in the near future. Will humans succeed someday? I don’t know.

    Hat-tip to I, Pencil by Leonard E. Read - Foundation for Economic Education (fee.org) .

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