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Beware the dark side — coal power’s allure

September 20, 2011

The recently released review of BC Hydro’s proposed rate increase has generated a fair bit of discussion over the past couple of weeks.

In fact, we may be a little guilty of understatement in characterizing things that way, because in some quarters the review has stirred the pot considerably and garnered a significant amount of public attention and media commentary.

Of course, as the boys in the BCCGE mailroom will readily confess to you, there is always a tiny little cloud hanging over spirits in the BCCGE mailroom around the fact that the public rarely ever take notice of energy issues unless hydro rates threaten to go up.  But such is life.

And as mailroom stalwart, Scotty, says: “If something raises energy issues to prominence and draws public attention to these issues, even for a brief moment, then we have to see it as a good and positive thing.”

For anyone not fully up to speed on the BC Hydro rate review, the review panel basically suggested that BC Hydro’s proposed 32 percent rate increase could be reduced by postponing infrastructure renewal projects and importing cheap electricity from outside the province; even though much of that imported power would be coming from dirty coal-fired generating plants.

And, although initial reaction to the review mostly focused on a) BC Hydro’s multibillion dollar infrastructure upgrade plans, b) BC Hydro’s strong aversion to risk, and c) BC Hydro’s reputed “gold standard” corporate culture, the focus of public discussion has now shifted to the province’s electricity self-sufficiency policy which is enshrined in the Clean Energy Act.

Adopting a more relaxed definition of self-sufficiency, the review panel suggested, was one way for BC Hydro to reduce its proposed rate increase by giving BC Hydro more flexibility in meeting its customer’s electricity needs at a lower cost.

Yes, abandoning self-sufficiency and relying on cheap imported power from coal-fired generators would certainly keep BC Hydro rates down.  But is that really the route we want to go in this province?  After all, we’ve got a wealth of renewable energy resources in B.C. we could be tapping into, and these resources are virtually unparalleled in their quality, quantity and diversity.

As Kumar in the BCCGE mailroom recently commented with penetrating insight, what the self-sufficiency question really boils down to is an archetypal battle between the temptations of cheap coal power imported from the states and Alberta versus the development of B.C.’s own renewable, clean energy resources.

But which path will we choose?

Okay… let’s get an obvious Star Wars reference out of the way right here and now: The lure of the dark side is very seductive, and it easy to see the attraction that cheap coal power has for politicians wanting to keep the voting masses happy with low electricity rates.

There aren’t any coal-fired electricity plants here in B.C. at present (barring any miraculous technical breakthrough that suddenly makes carbon sequestration any more realistically viable and cost-effective than the Holy Grail of clean energy sources, i.e., fusion power). However, there are plenty of coal plants nearby in the USA where half the electricity they generate is produced by burning coal.

There are also plenty of coal plants in Alberta where they also generate most of their electricity by burning coal, and where they are also talking about building at least one more coal-fired generating plant.

With such a ready supply of coal power sitting right there on our provincial doorstep, it must be a very tantalizing option for politicians to consider.  And resisting the siren call that constantly beckons them to indulge in the decadence of coal must be very difficult.

However, a big part of what makes coal power so cheap (aside from the obvious fact that coal plants get to spew GHGs and other pollutants into the atmosphere free of charge) is the simple physics of thermal generation: It takes hours to ramp up a thermal generator and hours to ramp it back down again.

As well, as various engineers have told the boys in the BCCGE mailroom, there are also thermal stress issues to be considered from any rapid heating or cooling of a thermal plant.

So, given these thermal limitations (which hydroelectric plants don’t share) it means coal-fired plants are kept running most of the time, even at night when there is little demand for the electricity they generate.

And, as we all know, when there is lots of supply of something and little demand for it prices tend to go down.

Another factor in the apparent cheapness of coal power is the fact that coal-fired generating plants are typically older, which means their capital costs are generally paid down (kind of like B.C.’s aging mega dams).

So, that’s the basic recipe for cheap coal power: A cheap, abundant fuel source; greater supply than demand; mortgage-free generating facilities; and no costs attached to the GHG waste products emitted or to the impacts these GHG emissions have on the environment.

Clean, renewable energy clearly faces a tough opponent in any one-on-one competition with coal power, especially during economically troubled times.

One might even say that (and, yes, we can hear the groans already) coal fights dirty.

However, the supposed disadvantages that clean energy has against dirty coal need to be put into proper perspective and viewed through the lens of a meaningful context.

For starters, most renewable energy facilities happen to be fairly new which is unlike most coal-fired plants.  The capital costs of renewable energy facilities therefore tend to be a significant factor in the cost of the electricity they produce.

However, capital costs would be a factor for any newly built energy generating facility regardless of whether it was a new coal-fired plant, a new hydro dam such as the proposed Site C dam, or a new wind, solar, geothermal, run-of-river or biomass plant.  You simply can’t build something new and then just give the energy away for free (even though that appears to be the business model subscribed to by most opponents of independent renewable energy projects).

As Scotty in the BCCGE mailroom often says: “As a general rule of thumb, the cost of the electricity generated by any facility is largely a function of its age and the number of years it takes to pay down the original capital costs.  That’s why BC Hydro’s mega dams, which were built in the 1950’s through to the 1980’s, are able to generate what appears (on paper at least) to be fairly cheap electricity.”

And, as Scotty also recently pointed out, if wind farms had been built 50 or 60 years ago instead of coal-fired plants, coal might just as easily have ended up being the chronologically disadvantaged energy source instead of the renewable energy sources currently being built.

Another important factor to consider, one that favours renewable energy sources, is the fact that you can’t beat cost-free renewable fuel sources like the sun, the rain, the wind, the tides, and the heat from the earth’s crust.

So, the long-term recipe for renewable clean energy is clearly much tastier and more nutritious than the recipe for cheap coal power: a completely free and abundant fuel source that is endless; greater demand than supply; the prospect of essentially mortgage-free generating facilities once capital costs are paid down; plus, no GHG or other waste products being emitted into the atmosphere.

So, although the dark side beckons us to coal, the spark of hope for the future clearly rests with the development of renewable clean energy resources.

So, rather than hitching our wagons to coal out of fear for angry, pissed off voters, B.C. needs to get back to thinking long-term and continue to push forward with its world-leading clean energy agenda.

As they say, today’s clean energy is tomorrow’s cheap energy.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 20, 2011 4:33 pm

    Just looking at the US electrical generation 2009 wiki pie-chart (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electricity_generation), while coal made up single largest slice at 44.9%, natgas was second at 23.4% and nuclear was third at 20.3%. Even petroleum counted for 1%! So, with only an 11% chance of having hydro or renewables imported to BC, good chance that Darth Vader could win this round.

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