No good energy choices?

March 10, 2011

There is a list of Ontario generating stations online, categorized by type. The hydro-electric stations between Westport and Kingston produce a total of 5.2 megawatts, according to the chart. A seventy-acre solar farm is rated at 10.0 megawatts.

So which costs more? Forty million dollars for panels is a steep price against an expected 20-year lifespan. But how much for a series of hydro-electric plants with indefinite lifespans?

The opportunity costs figure prominently in the balance, as well. Dams and non-seasonal drawdowns to feed the generators have the potential to disrupt the ecosystem of the entire area, not to mention the lives of many waterway users, in return for a piddling amount of electricity. On the other hand I doubt if anyone will miss seventy acres out of the Eastern Ontario landscape in the short term, especially when the solar fields can only be installed on class 4 or worse land.

But there’s no way a solar panel can produce at anywhere near its rated level. The sun goes down. Clouds interfere. Snow sits for long periods on even steeply-sloping panels. But hydro stations on the Rideau quickly run out of water after going full-bore during spring runoff, so they can’t produce their rated power, either.

Dwarfing both sources a thousandfold are nuclear generating stations. These things are serious producers, 24/7, virtually forever. Of course there are some high costs per megawatt there, and the doomsday threat. After the huge earthquake and resulting tsunami tore Japan apart and damaged at least six reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, controllers have been forced to flood three of them with sea water to save lives, thereby destroying an enormous investment in the economy of the country. Will Japan ever recover from the damage it has undergone this week?

Our memories immediately flip back to Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986), tales of human error and bad engineering. In the case of the Japanese reactors, they were apparently engineered to handle a massive earthquake, shutting down automatically, and things were going fine until the flooding from the tsunami killed the emergency diesel generators which provided cooling water to the fuel rods. Even with the best of engineering, nuclear devices can fail, and when they do they endanger entire populations and landscapes. That’s the problem with large-scale projects.

Coal power is likely the cheapest souce of electrical energy. All you have to do is build the plant, fire it up, and keep the legislators paid off. I wonder how the dirt factor per unit of energy stacks up between coal and oil sands bitumen?

In the context of this enormously complex power market, solar farms may not be so crazy. They can’t be accused of polluting the air above them in the manner of a coal-fired plant, and they aren’t likely to blow us to kingdom come in a meltdown. Sunlight is a year-round resource, unlike the annual spring runoff for hydro.

Rated at 197.8 megawatts, the Wolfe Island Wind Project with eighty-six wind turbines is the second-largest wind project in Canada. Toronto papers are full of dark grumblings about wind power, but when asked last month, Wolfe Island residents seemed generally positive about the project.

On February 22nd Patrick Meagher and Jessica Simms of Farmer’s Forum handed out surveys of attitudes toward wind turbines to the occupants of cars waiting for their morning ferry off the island. Of the two hundred adults asked, only two declined.

“79% of respondents say they either approve (53%) of the wind turbines or that they don’t affect them or aren’t sure (26%). At the same time 21% said they were opposed to the wind turbines. That’s 42 of 200 people polled, not a number easily dismissed (Farmer’s Forum, March 2011).”

You can find the well-written report of the survey on


2 Responses to “No good energy choices?”

  1. Martin Says:

    I’m optimistic about thorium-fueled nuclear reactors. Too bad China will beat us to it…

  2. rodcros Says:

    That’s an interesting article. So the dirty method of making steam was preferred because it produced weapons-grade plutonium as a by-product. The other method just made steam. No budget for it from Unce Sam!

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