Cutting the Umbilical Cord

A lot of people ask if there is a way the Bruce Peninsula could get all of its electricity from the wind, and cut our connection to the rest of the province. Is this technically possible? Is it economically viable? Is it environmentally wise?

My brother Lyle was visiting on the weekend. He had come up so we could both attend my brother Jim’s 50th birthday. Lyle is writing a book, about how thinking and acting locally can be so important for sustainability, both economically, and environmentally. He is on the hundred mile diet, on which I had just seen an outstanding presentation at a BPEG meeting. Naturally, the issue of providing local energy came up.

First the technical – can it be done? Can the Bruce Peninsula cut its electricity supply off from the rest of the province, and rely on its own sources? The answer is an unequivocal yes. But it would be challenging. The load on the M24 feeder, which supplies the Peninsula north of Wiarton ranges from 2.9 Megawatts to 29 Megawatts. The average is about 7.2 MW. The highest average loads are in the winter, with the lowest in June and September (when the weather is mild, and the tourists and cottagers are mostly gone). The high winter loads would be attributable to the substantial heating load, as there is no natural gas in the area.
First, we need to tackle conservation. It costs less than new supply. It is cheaper to replace inefficient lights, and old refrigerators, than it costs to build new capacity. Then we we need to look at substituting alternate energy. Ground source heat pumps create 3-4 times more energy for space heating or hot water than they use. Switching some electricially heated houses would make sense. Solar thermal hot water can supply 50% of a family’s hot water, and at a competitive cost. In total, we should be able to reduce consumption by 35%. Of course it will cost us something to get there. But it costs less than new capacity. 35% is definitely achievable. The average Danish home consumes half of what the average Ontario home consumes. And my personal use went down by more than this with a few simple and cost effective changes.
But then we need to figure out how to supply the energy when we want it. Winter winds match very well with the local load, but of course not perfectly. The first thing we would look at is shifting the load. There are lots of possibilities in this area. For example, hot water heaters, some space heating, some refridgeration etc. could be cut for a brief time, and shifted by a period of time. This could reduce our peak loads, and make a system easier to build. Lets say we can trim our peak load by 4 MW. This would seem to be achievable, but of course there will be a cost to do it.

So our average consumption has dropped to less than 5 MW, and our peak has dropped to 16 MW.

The Ferndale wind farm is 5.1 MW, and produces an average of 1.6 MW, so we would need to triple in size to meet the average requirement. We would need to add 6 new turbines. So we have met our average load, but need to supply it when it is required. This will require storage, or back up. We could buy a back up deisel generator. We could build a lake at the top of the escarpment, with pumped water storage, and generators to run the water through. Good luck getting the permits on the Niagara Escarpment. There are some battery systems that we could look into, but they would be very big and costly. Some suggest hydrogen might be the answer. I’m not so sure – it still seems to be a long way off, and the energy losses are still considerable. Perhaps someday plug in hybrids might be our diversified storage. Throwing in some photovoltaic would diversify our supply, and help with summer peaks.
What about the economics of severing the link to the rest of the province? It would be costly. My guess is that the cost of electricity would quadruple. With the lower consumption from conservation, an individual’s bill would increase by 2.5 times on average, but the consumer would also have to invest in new appliances, lights, ground source heat etc. Needless to say, it would be difficult to gain community support for such a concept.

And finally, what about the environment? Would severing the umbilical cord from our nuclear/coal grid be desirable? It turns out that no, we are better to stay connected. In using pumped storage, or batteries, or other storage, there are always losses. Pumped storage might be 85% efficient. Batteries are similar. Hydrogen is much worse today. But if we stay connected, then instead of storing our surplus, for our own use later, we send it south. And doing that reduces the use of fossil fuels for other people.

But we could sever our links to the rest of the Province. Maybe if the province doesn’t move fast enough to clean up the supply mix in the rest of the Province we will have to think about it.

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