Saturday, October 25, 2014

Wake up call for Canada

Dear Gerald,

I read with interest your article in the SPIN. May I offer my two cents of opinion on the subject?   
First I must admit I agree with many points you made. For example, there is no need in 21st century to fly over the world to demonstrate support for climate change action. I totally agree that televised video-conference would be not only more efficient but also more effective. A great example of this approach I witnessed at the Green Buildings Council Conference in Vancouver last year where Cisco technology (which was one of the sponsors of the Conference) allowed to connect live audiences from Portland Oregon, Germany (forgot the city) and Shanghai China with Vancouver over the gigantic wall screens. 
I would leave the discussion of the level of urgency on the climate change aside for time being – but I hope we agree that both so called “green” side and its opponents (should we call it “black” for oil?) have their agenda and political lobbies. Either side is supported and promoted by various sectors of industry and because of that they have more in common than different. They all want to build mega-gigantic projects – economy of scale of course – be it a wind farm, a solar power plant the kind you mention in your article, a hydroelectric dam nuclear power plant or any other. 
Any technology has its hurdles. And any large-scale projects create large-scale problems. Wind turbines kill birds and bats (by the way, encasing them in the “housing” will significantly reduce turbine's efficiency so this is not a good option). Solar plants expropriate large areas of land and contribute to the grid instability. Hydro dams flood huge areas and disturb regional ecosystems (Site C comes to mind). Fukushima disaster reminded again of potential dangers of nuclear meltdown. 
But keep being reliant on fossil fuels – be it oil or natural gas - is not an alternative. “Business as usual” is an equivalent of stagnation at best, and in a world moving forward with a fast pace it is a guarantee to be left behind. The statement that fossil fuels are “wonderfully efficient, abundant throughout the world’s crust and will not go away” is extremely misleading. If a definition of efficiency is simply "being cheap” in a short run, then I want to know a long-term cost. "Abundance" is a very relative notion. Distribution of fossil fuels around the planet is very uneven – this is why some parts of it have to bring them from the other side of the globe spending lots of the same fossil fuel on the way. “Will not go away” doesn’t even fit common sense. All natural resources are finite, and in the case of fossil fuels the rate of their extraction exceeds the rate of their natural generation by thousands times - this is the fact which will not go away. Don’t forget oil is used not only for fuel – all plastics, paints, a lot of cosmetics and number of other products are derived from oil. While we may change our estimates of when the so called “oil peak” occurs, new methods of the natural resources extraction can only accelerate the rate of their depletion. They are also becoming more costly, which eats into the so called “efficiency” of fossil fuels. Alternative technologies, particularly solar PV and solar thermal, at the same time are becoming less expensive and more efficient in terms of their performance. 
Cost of one alternative versus another deserves more discussion. Even if one would wave away an indirect cost of a long-term consequences of a greenhouse effect and global warming - which although would be not wise but it is in the human nature to think what would happen later - he or she can hardly do the same about the health affecting air, ground and water pollution. And what about after-cost of unavoidable equipment failures and human errors? Shall we recount events like oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, derailment in Lac-Megantic, an explosion at pump station in Saskatchewan and barely avoided another disaster with the Russian cargo ship which lost power near the British Columbia coast? 
Risking of falling victim of the overused (and may be over-politicized) term “sustainability” I need to say few words about it. Any system – technical, economical, biological or social – consists of a number of components. In very general terms, sustainability is a system’s ability to remain in balance over extended period of time without need for external resources or energy. In other word’s it is a measure of a system’s stability. It is a lesson of generations of engineers that the more complex system is – i.e. consisting of a larger number of components – the less stable it is.
One of the most familiar and relevant examples of a complex system is a power grid, consisting of a large number of energy producers (typically power plants), even a bigger number of all sorts and sizes energy consumers (from residential homes to institutions and industry) and an extremely tight and interconnected energy transmission and distribution network including under and above ground power lines, substations and many other. In a centralized grid all components are highly inter-dependent, which on numerous occasions was demonstrated by big blackouts, recently in Calgary. Residents of Sun Peaks are very well familiar with the consequences of a drunk driver hitting a power pole. Several hours in darkness, and often in cold during the winter is not fun to say the least!
Take another example, from a subject which became touchy recently – distribution of oil and natural gas over pipelines. Complex, expensive, subject of environmental concerns and political disagreements, their short-term benefits are unstable. As with any resources, demand for Canadian oil is highly dependent on an unpredictable international business and political environment. Pipeline like the Northern Gateway is an easy target for terrorists’ attacks and political manipulation. Take example of Russia using its natural gas supply as a tool for political pressure on Ukraine and not too subtly - on Western Europe. Bet on China is a very risky gamble. For one, Russia will easily and happily overflow it with much cheaper oil and gas than Canada can ever afford to offer. US is already resisting Canadian oil – not only they have enough of its own but they are steadily moving away from oil dependency. 
I hear you asking - what is the alternative? Glad to oblige. I am not a supporter of government mandated or subsidized technologies, but I strongly think we need a long-term sustainable national energy strategy based on the System Approach and Real Options methodology.
Decentralized energy system should be very seriously considered. Continuous progress in solar, particularly solar thermal technologies in combination with air and ground source active heat exchange, as well as in in energy storage technologies including fuel cells and phase-change thermal accumulators, makes a self-sufficient house or a building a real possibility. We are talking about more than “net-zero” building where more energy produced than consumed at some periods of time but it needs to draw energy from the grid at other times averaging to about zero over the year. We are talking about a building as a self-sufficient system. Passive design, energy conservation measures and new highly thermoresistant materials in combination with ultra-efficient lights, appliances and electronic equipment significantly lower energy demand. Equipped with on-site renewable energy generation, heat recovery, water recycling. No more blackouts or freezing while waiting for a power to be restored. Individual houses are connected in an “intelligent network”. A further evolution of a “smart grid”, it is a sort of an “energy cloud” in which all nodes are independent from each other but can combine the power when needed.  
The projects like Northern Gateway and alike take an enormous amount of financial and intellectual resources which could not be used elsewhere. The more we invested in these the more difficult it will be to change the course later. It is more than likely that much higher return on investment in 30 to 50 years of projected lifetime would be achieved if invested in the research of new technologies. This would have more than economical and environmental benefits but also decide on which way Canada would be moving in the future – slide to a backward resource dependent state or move toward the advanced technological society. And if the government still wants to build something large across the country I have a proposal - high-speed train connecting Canadian West and East Coast. It works for Japan, Taiwan and Korea - why it shouldn't in Canada? 

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