Looking for Imagination in Energy Policy (Part 3) - Less Fantasy, More Imagination

[Author's collection]

Less fantasy, more imagination please

When we think of clean electricity, most of us have an image in our minds of hydro poles and transmissions lines. We see in our mind’s eye large steel skeletons, like alien space robots, carrying cables through forests and farmlands, over hills and across valleys – bringing energy to towns and cities.

Some of us see networks of high voltage towers, like some vast nerve network, bringing charged electrons to our doors.

Or you can view the electricity generation, transmission and distribution system like fast-flowing rivers, communication arteries along which electrons flow – as mariners and explorers do when seeking to reach distant destinations.

Much as depicted on old maps, for example. Such as the 1597 map (shown above) by Cornelis Van Wytfliet, Nova Francia Et Canada. This was the first printed map to use CANADA in its title and the first to focus on the St. Lawrence River region. It pre-dates the voyages of Samuel de Champlain.

As you can see, there’s lots of imagination shown here. Wytfliet is bridging the unknown with the partially known. His cartographic style is partly Ptolemaic (Ptolemy had no idea there was an American continent), partly Mercator (whose seminal 1569 world map incorporated the travels of Jacques Cartier and other early French explorers), and partly, well, his own fantasy of what might or could be there.

Of particular interest are the many large rivers branching off from the St. Lawrence – the relatively huge and complex Saguenay River; another fat river (Ottawa River?) partially obscured just west of the settlement of Hochelega (Montréal) just beside “Nova Francia”; and a Newfoundland (Terra de Bacallaos – land of cod) fractured into smaller islands.

In short, a mariner’s – or in modern terms, a communicator’s – projection of what the world may be like, allowing for transmission of people, boats, information, even energy along a navigable route.

Analogous, I would suggest, how we might view electricity flows today. Similar to Van Wytfliet, we need to use imagination to see in our minds what a carbon-free or low-emission electricity system would look like. 

In fact, there’s no shortage of imagination out there these days on what a decarbonized Canada would look like – let alone how we would build the clean energy system to make it work. Many environmental advocates are imagining fully renewable energy grids with seemingly only a passing connection with engineering reality. 

Maybe, like Wytfliet, we have to marry our aspirations with reality. If we intend to use clean electricity technologies to reach our decarbonized climate goals, we’d better have more reality than fantasy to guide us.

Here we use imagination in energy policy NOT to drive more fantasy but to discover what parts of reality our preferred ideas and aspirations may be missing. We need to imagine – and find, if possible – the evaluation basis, the benchmark, that will give credibility to our clean technology maps.

How might this be done? A simple but cogent formula is offered by Blake Shaffer and Jason Dion in Policy Options (January 14, 2022) Building on Canada’s electrical advantage (irpp.org)

First, you start with a carbon price that will rise – as the Canadian government has pledged – to $170 tonne by 2030. Then, you add the 2035 net-zero target for the electricity sector set by the government.

To meet such ambitious goals, the authors propose a clean electricity performance standard.

This would “set a limit on the emissions intensity of all newly constructed generation facilities. The level would be set lower than that of unabated natural gas (to rule out construction of new gas capacity) but leave room for near-zero technology, such as carbon capture or certain forms of hydrogen.”

Good imagination so far – but not as open-minded and ranging as we would like to see. For they neglected to include or cite clean/low-emission nuclear power generation.

The authors continue: “Second, the clean electricity standard could rachet down such that by 2035 all new and existing facilities would need to be net-zero.”

Further, we would also need to have “non-emitting sources of dispatchable, or ‘on-demand’ generation and other types of flexibility that can help to manage the variability of renewables…”

Wouldn’t advanced nuclear power generation, using SMR technologies, fulfil the role of managing the variability of renewables?

Establishing performance standards with respect to the emission intensity of power plants is indeed key. However, the authors have overlooked another key element: the density of the low-emission power being generated and the capacity factor (ability to generate low-emission electricity reliably day-to-day, hour-to-hour).

This is the performance Achilles heel of many renewable generating sources (excluding perhaps hydro). Installed capacity of such sources may be theoretically X Megawatts electric. But their actual hour-to-hour generation (i.e., performance) is sporadic, mentioned only in passing as “variability of renewables”.

However, if you want the significant and increasing amounts of low-emission electricity to displace gas-fired generation, capacity factors and power density become crucial.

Still, there’s some good imagination in their approach. Yes, set an increasing price on carbon through legislation, so that everyone sees the increases coming. Yes, set performance stands for the emission intensity of power plants.

But, if you want to really drive carbon-emissions reductions (and use market initiatives to lead the way), then let’s expand our imagination. Include nuclear energy among the required low-carbon generating sources. See it as a means of plugging the gap created by the variability of renewables. Put nuclear and renewables together in a hybrid or smart grid, instead.

Above all, use imagination to get past seeing electricity generation as a contest between fossil fuels and renewables. 

We would then see the rivers of low-carbon electricity flowing more realistically, based on performance standards, taking us to our net-zero destination.

Message to climate and energy policymakers: less fantasy, more imagination. Please.