The Grumpy Old Astronomer

What Happens When the Sun Don't Shine
or the Winds Don't Blow?

1. How Canadians Avoid Freezing to Death in the Dark:

Here's how, for example, Albertans generate and use electricity as of December 2015:

Source: Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) via Alberta Energy
The Generation exceeds Consumption because generators need to be taken offline for maintenance, and, when everything is working, unused capacity can be shared (sold) to B.C., Saskatchewan, or the US via connected power grids.

Please Note: There are no "Provincial Megawatt Solar Plants" at this time. Solar is used mainly for small, private, Commercial, Residential and Farming consumers.

And here's how this works: (The Grumpy Old Astronomer is an Electrical Engineer. We talk in schematics. Deal with it.)

(Click (or "view") the image for a larger sized version)

On the right side of the diagram above:
  • This is us, the consumers. We demand 100% availability of electricity. No "Brownouts". No "Blackouts". Ever!

  • Without a consistent, reliable source of power, everything shuts down. This means nothing works. Even if your home furnace is natural gas, the blower motor in your furnace which moves the air can't run without electricity. And when the blower motor doesn't run, the furnace shuts off to avoid overheating and starting a fire which could burn your house down. So no heat.

  • Failure means no way to charge your electric car, your smart phone or tablets, no power to run your PCs, microwaves, fridges and freezers. Food begins to spoil within hours. You can't go buy more food because store cash registers and credit card machines won't work. And you probably don't have enough cash on hand to pay for food that way.

  • Failure means elevators won't work.

  • Failure means classes get cancelled at schools and you have to go get your kids.

  • Failure means Rapid Transit trains stop dead in their tracks.

  • No shopping at the mall.

  • Your big flat-screen TV is dead - no Netflix.

  • No electric lights. You are now freezing in the dark.

In the middle of the diagram above is the Electrical Grid.
  • This is magic controlled by magicians. Dedicated. Powerful. Magicians.
  • They work their spells 24 hours per day.
  • They never take a day or night off.
  • They can predict the future - when entire cities will wake up and go to work, when factories will start up and shut down, when millions of people will cook their dinners, do their laundry, run their air conditioners, and turn their lights on and off.
  • They foresee storms and forest fires that could interrupt their magic.
  • They route and re-route and re-re-route their awesome power instantaneously.
  • They foresee their power minions failing or requiring care, and plan ahead to grab more power accordingly.
  • Without them, their spells, and the tools of their magic, we would spend a lot of time in disaster centres, sleeping by the hundreds on gym mats, hoping the gas generator behind the building will keep us cool in Summer, or warm in Winter, or basically, alive.

On the left of the diagram above, are the different ways of generating electricity for the Electrical Grid.
  • There are two different types:
    • On Demand Generation, and
    • Generate When Possible.

  • On Demand Generation by Coal, Natural Gas, Biomass, Fuel Oil, and Nuclear plants burn their fuels to create electricity, and Hydro plants open their floodgates to create electricity - All Based on Demand. If consumers reduce their need for electricity, they reduce or partially stop generating power. If consumers increase their demand, they increase their generating capacity. There is no way for these facilities to "store" generated power and "use it later". They respond to real-time needs only, but quickly.

  • Of these On Demand Generators, Hydro is the cleanest. After construction, they use the natural force of gravity to propel river water though their generators. It's clean, efficient, inexpensive and only works if you have enough large rivers and waterfalls to generate the power needs of your consumers. Unfortunately, unlike B.C., Manitoba, Quebec and some other provinces, Alberta does not have the number of types of rivers and waterfalls to generate all the power we need.

  • Generate When Possible plants provide clean energy (like Hydro) by utilizing the Sun or the Wind to run their generators.

  • And this finally brings us to the title of the article What Happens When the Sun Don't Shine or the Winds Don't Blow?

  • Well, those types of plants just sit there, doing nothing, and no power comes out of them. (OK, maybe it's just a slow wind, or a very cloudy day/week/month. So instead of "nothing" they generate "less" power. Well, if they can't generate enough power for their consumer AND charge their batteries they might as well be generating "nothing".)
  • Whether this is an industrial multi-megawatt complex, or the solar panels or wind turbine on your roof, they become expensive works of art without their Sun or Wind power source. And here in "Upper Canada" there's this thing called "The Dark Days of Winter" where we get less than half a day of sunlight each day for several months.
  • The only way Solar and Wind generators can become a reliable source of power is to do what the other systems cannot - they MUST generate excess power and store the excess in large battery complexes for use when the generators are scuppered (look it up).
  • So they generate excess power when they can, run what they need to run, store the rest - and when the demand comes on and they have no generator power to give, they start draining their batteries to keep the lights on.
  • And they HOPE that the Sun or wind will come on again soon to replenish those batteries. If not, well then the consumer is scuppered too.

2. Keep reading - I'm about to make some very important points.

  • Generate When Possible plants are only 100% viable when they have HUGE battery plants to supply power when the generators can't. Otherwise there will be times when we freeze in the dark. And by huge I mean - the average single-family "off the grid" solar powered house needs a roomfull of batteries to backup their solar panels. Now multiply that by several millionfold to handle Industrial, Commercial, Residential and Farming consumers.

  • Those battery plants are expensive to build, and expensive to maintain over the long term.

  • Current battery technology (from smart phones to car batteries) can only be re-charged a few hundred times (a few years of use) and then they die.

  • Almost every battery in use today contains toxic chemicals (e.g. lead).

  • So, every few years we will have to manufacture, transport, and install many gigawatts of new batteries, and DISPOSE of the old batteries. And who will pay for that? And what will the environmental impact be? (The same is true for electric cars by the way. I hope you are aware that every few years you will be faced with the same situation of replacing millions of vehicle battery packs and disposing of the old ones.) Non-renewable generating plants, on the other hand, are designed to operate for decades, not years, before major replacements are necessary.

  • You cannot reduce overall 100% reliable generating capacity below the required consumer need.

  • For every 1.21 Jiggawatts of "unreliable" power you install, you must build 1.21 Jiggawatts of "reliable" non-interruptable) power as a backup. Because, if there's not enough Sun (e.g. during winter storms) or not enough Wind then you cannot meet demand, and the "Brownouts" and "Blackouts" will begin.

  • Even if those "backup" capacities are hardly ever used, they must exist. Consumers DEMAND 100% reliability.

  • This means building about twice the amount of generating capacity politicians think we'll need. Either twice as many "renewable" plants all over the place so that when the weather is bad in one place, another generator can take over the load, or, for every weather-dependent plant, you have to build another non-renewable plant as a backup.

  • As much as the politicians would love to decommission non-renewable plants and praise their successes, if the total amount of 100% reliable power generation falls below the needs of everyone, there will be very serious consequences to the health and well-being of Canadians.

  • Well, if our "renewable" generation falls short at times - "Can't we just import power from somewhere else when needed?" Sure. As long as "somewhere else" has the 100% reliable electrical grid that we don't, and we all-of-a-sudden don't care where they get their power from and whether it's "green" or not, and if we've got enough money to pay for it.

  • And Finally - I do not think we have a huge Solar Power manufacturing, or Wind Power manufacturing capacity in the province. Every dollar spent on acquiring this technology will probably go out-of-province, or even out-of-the-country.

  • So when the politicians say we're going to "Get Off Coal and Oil" by 2030 - they will NOT tell you that it's going to be so incredibly expensive and potentially unreliable (through bureaucratic cost-cutting) that the current recession will seem like "The Good Old Times".

So, be careful what you wish for.
And be wary of what the politicians promise.
Those disaster centre gym mats are not a comfortable way to spend a Winter.

Now don't get The Grumpy Old Astronomer wrong. I'm not "For Oil" or "Against Solar or Wind". What I am saying is that we REQUIRE and DEMAND a 100% Reliable electrical grid. Take a look at the bar chart at the top of this article again. If you remove the "Coal" and "Natural Gas" bars - there's basically nothing left on the "Generation" side. It HAS to be replaced with 100% reliable solutions.

And whatever solution is put together will cost more to build, cost more to run, and take longer than the politicians are saying, and the solution will have consequences far into the future.