Wind Power Kicks Fossil Power Butt

What if you ran the numbers for wind power replacing all fossil fuel and nuclear electricity in Canada? How could it work? How much would it cost?

WHO:  L.D. Danny Harvey, Department of Geography, University of Toronto, Canada

WHAT: Mapping and calculating the potential for wind electricity to completely replace fossil fuel and nuclear electricity in Canada

WHEN: February 1st, 2013

WHERE: Energy Vol. 50, 1 February 2013

TITLE: The potential of wind energy to largely displace existing Canadian fossil fuel and nuclear electricity generation (subs req.)

As a kid, I really loved the TV series Captain Planet. I used to play it in the school yard with my friends and I always wanted to be the one with the wind power. Mostly because my favourite colour is blue, but also because I thought the girl with the wind power was tough.

Go Planet! Combining the power of wind, water, earth, fire and heart (Wikimedia commons)

Go Planet! Combining the power of wind, water, earth, fire and heart (Wikimedia commons)

What’s my childhood got to do with this scientific paper? Well, what if you looked at the Canadian Wind Energy Atlas and worked out whether we could harness the power of wind in Canada to replace ALL fossil fuel and nuclear electricity? How would you do it? How much would it cost? That’s what this researcher set out to discover (in the only paper I’ve written about yet that has a single author!)

Refreshingly, the introduction to the paper has what I like to call real talk about climate change. He points out that the last time global average temperatures increased by 1oC, sea levels were 6.6 – 9.4m higher, which means ‘clearly, large and rapid reductions in emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are required on a worldwide basis’.

Of global greenhouse gas emissions electricity counts for about 25%, and while there have been studies in the US and Europe looking at the spacing of wind farms to reduce variability for large scale electricity generation, no-one has looked at Canada yet.

So how does Canada stack up? Really well. In fact, the paper found that Canada has equivalent wind energy available for many times the current demand for electricity!

The researcher looked at onshore wind and offshore wind for 30m, 50m and 80m above the ground for each season to calculate the average wind speed and power generation.  Taking into account the wake effect of other turbines and eliminating areas that can’t have wind farms like cities, mountains above 1,600m elevation (to avoid wind farms on the Rocky Mountains), shorelines (to avoid wind farms on your beach) and wetlands, the paper took the Wind Energy Atlas and broke the map into cells.

For calculating your wind farm potential there are generally three options; you can maximise the electricity production, maximise the capacity factor, or minimise the cost of the electricity. The paper looked at all three options and found that the best overall option (which gives you a better average cost in some cases) was to aim for maximum capacity.

Using wind data and electricity demand data from 2007, the researcher ran the numbers. In 2007, the total capacity of fossil fuel and nuclear electricity was 49.0GW (Gigawatts), or 249.8TWh (Terrawatt hours) of generation. This is 40% of the total national electricity capacity for Canada of 123.9GW or 616.3TWh generation.

To deal with the issue of wind power being intermittent, the paper noted that there’s already the storage capacity for several years electricity through hydro in Quebec and Manitoba, as well as many other options for supply-demand mismatches (which this paper doesn’t address) making a national wind electricity grid feasible.

To run the numbers, the country was split into 5 sectors and starting with the sector with the greatest wind energy potential, the numbers were run until a combination was found where the wind energy in each sector met the national fossil fuel and nuclear requirements.

Wind farms required in each sector to provide enough electricity to completely replace the fossil fuel and nuclear power used in 2007 (from paper)

Wind farms required in each sector to provide enough electricity to completely replace the fossil fuel and nuclear power used in 2007 (from paper)

Once the researcher worked out that you could power the whole country’s fossil fuel and nuclear electricity with the wind energy from any sector, he looked at minimising costs and meeting the demand required for each province.

He looked at what size of wind farm would be needed, and then calculated the costs for infrastructure (building the turbines) as well as transmission (getting the electricity from the farm to the demand). Some offshore wind in BC, Hudson Bay, and Newfoundland and Labrador, combined with some onshore wind in the prairies and Quebec and that’s all we need.

The cost recovery for the investment on the infrastructure was calculated for 20 years for the turbines and 40 years for the transmission lines. The paper found that minimising transmission line distance resulted in the largest waste generation in winter, but smallest waste in the summer, however overall, the best method was to aim for maximising the capacity factor for the wind farms.

But the important question – how much would your power cost? On average, 5-7 cents per kWh (kilowatt hour), which is on par with the 7c/kWh that BC Hydro currently charges in Vancouver. Extra bonus – wind power comes without needing to mine coal or store radioactive nuclear waste for millions of years!

Estimated wind power costs for Canada (from paper)

Estimated wind power costs for Canada (from paper)

Some more food for thought – the researcher noted that the estimated cost for coal fired electricity with (still unproven) carbon capture and storage technology is likely to be around 9c/kWh, while the current cost for nuclear generated electricity is between 10-23c/kWh. Also, the technical capacity factor for turbines is likely to increase as the technology rapidly improves, which will reduce the cost of producing wind electricity all over again.

This is all great news – Canada has the wind energy and the potential to build a new industry to not only wean ourselves off the fossil fuels that are damaging and destabilising our atmosphere, but to export that knowledge as well. We can be an energy superpower for 21st Century fuels, not fossil fuels. I say let’s do it!

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Improved Drought Prediction: Now With Six Soil Layers

Predicting the severity of drought using multiple indices

WHO: Liu Sun, Scott W. Mitchell (Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, Geomatics and Landscape Ecology Research Laboratory, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada)
Andrew Davidson (Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, Carleton University, Ottawa National Land and Water Information Service, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Ottawa, Ontario)

WHAT: Improving the accuracy of drought prediction in the Canadian prairies

WHEN: September 2012

WHERE: International Journal of Climatology, Vol 32, Issue 11, September 2012

TITLE: Multiple drought indices for agricultural drought risk assessment on the Canadian prairies (subs req)

Are you tired of your drought prediction methods using only two layers of soil structure to track moisture? Sick of having to work with constants when you’d much rather be using dynamically calculated values? Well, this paper is for you.

Drought is going to be a big issue with climate change as rainfall patterns change and move. Agricultural yields are not able to increase as quickly as the world’s population increases but people still need to eat.

Drought is going to affect all of us as extreme weather increases from climate change, whether it’s through increased food prices (I’m still upset about bacon), local water restrictions (stop hosing down concrete – stop it now), local ecosystems being stressed or climate refugees from newly arid areas. This is one of the great ironies about climate change – you can’t negotiate with or spin physics. The laws of physics aren’t going to change because of some slick advertising campaign trying to prop up a floundering status-quo, and climate change isn’t going to avoid you if you ignore it.

In terms of drought modelling and prediction, each method currently used has slightly different ways of predicting drought, which means they can’t easily be compared. The method the researchers used for this paper was to modify the original Palmer Drought Severity Index to include more variable data. They accounted for six soil layers and a new evaporation calculation. Instead of using constant numbers for the characteristics of the climate, they allowed each of those to be calculated too. This means most people end up with a giant math headache from extra calculations, but by allowing for greater variability, they also allowed for greater sensitivity and accuracy in their model. The new model was also tested for accuracy against the Palmer Drought Severity Index, Standardised Precipitation Data and Palmer Moisture Anomaly Index methods.

For any of these models to work, they need approximately 30 years of monthly weather data (temperature, rain etc). This paper looked at 1976 – 2003 as it was the period of most consistent data in the area they were studying (the Canadian Prairies).

Then they got into the serious math using all kinds of things like a ‘thin plate smooth spline surface fitting method’ to remove the noise from the data and a linear regression to remove yield differences from better agricultural practices, allowing them to just look at the data that was climate affected.

The different models: red dot indicating the new model. Spot on for most, slightly under for some (from paper)

It went pretty well; their predictions were more accurate than the other standard drought prediction methods, except for predicting extreme drought, which their model under-predicted. This is possibly because there wasn’t a lot of data points in the previous 30 years with extreme drought, so as extreme weather becomes more normal under climate change, their model will probably get more accurate. They also found that the model is more accurate for arid locations, as flooding messes up the model.

As the extreme, unpredictable realities of climate change start to affect everyone in the next decade or so, this drought prediction model will likely be very useful. Predicting the extremes as best we can is going to become an essential tool for preventing massive crop failures as well as loss of human lives.