Renewable energy as a viable alternative to Muskrat Falls large hydro

Photo: flickr.com/Ken Whytock

Over the past few months, Newfoundland government representatives and Nalcor officials have made repeated statements in your paper to the effect that green renewable energy sources such as wind energy are variable, intermittent, and therefore, unreliable.

In a letter to the Friday July 22nd edition of The Telegram Nalcor’s vice-president for the Lower Churchill stated “These (renewable) sources of energy are best used in an electricity system that has a back-up generation source – be that hydro or thermal generation – or one that has the ability to import power when its needed.”

It is our understanding that the Island of Newfoundland already has hydro generation sources which already supply most of the electricity and have already been able to incorporate 54 megawatts of electricity from the two existing wind farms at St. Lawrence and Fermeuse. Aside from re-configuring the electricity grid – which occurs anyway as supply and demand alters across the island with ongoing urbanization and industrial development – what are the actual challenges involved with expanding renewable energy production? Unfortunately, Nalcor has never provided any substantive definition of what it means by “a firm source of power” as it pertains to the production and supply of electricity – although it may relate to “spilling water” over the Province’s existing hydro-electric dams during times of excess hydro production – considered a cardinal sin in some hydro-electric engineering circles. Similarly it appears that neither the Newfoundland government nor Nalcor have evaluated, in a systematic way, the energy portfolio that will best meet the energy needs of Newfoundland and Labrador and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while supporting local jobs and innovation.

Nalcor arguments against the incorporation of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, biogas, tidal and geothermal are always placed in the context of Newfoundland’s “isolated island electricity system scenario.” However, what is being proposed by Nalcor and the present government is to depart from the closed island grid, mothball the Holyrood station, and sell non-green Muskrat Falls hydro power to the Maritime Provinces and possibly New England. This is touted as the “only” solution. Hence the “isolated island model” is being used to deflect and dismiss meaningful discussion of including our abundant green renewable energy sources.

Utilizing a combination of existing hydro-electric power; combined with the best green renewable technologies available; its seems quite possible that the oil-fired Holyrood generating station can be replaced without building Muskrat Falls. If done using Feed In Tariff legislation, thus permitting widespread decentralized local electricity production using wind, solar, bio-gas, tidal and geo-thermal sources, with the surplus being sold off the island to the Maritimes and New England, it would offer greater self-sufficiency, with economic and employment benefits to the province while maintaining reasonable electricity rates over the long term. In our view this is an option which should be explored.

In that context we would refer your readers and government and Nalcor officials to a recent study Harnessing Variable Renewables (Brussels, May 2011) completed by the International Energy Agency(IEA), an offshoot of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development(OECD). That report specifically addresses integrating renewable energy sources into electricity grids. It singles out hydro power as the most flexible of energy sources and the most capable of accommodating green renewable energy sources. Regarding energy storage and the variable nature of renewable energy sources, the report identified five top technological methods to integrate various sources of renewable energy into the grid to balance supply with demand. These methods include innovations such as better management of the electricity grid to meet actual demand and promote widespread green renewable energy production, conservation and efficiency.

In response to the warnings about global warming and ocean acidification, the green renewable energy industry, its associated technologies, and enabling Feed In Tariff legislation has grown rapidly around the world with wind and solar energy growing at double digit rates each year for the past five years. As we move forward to reduce greenhouse gas emissions we need to rethink our scope and perspective on energy production and conservation with a focus on the energy future. Based on the experiences of those engaged in implementing green energy sources the advances in technologies now offer many alternatives and options.

We have the solutions at our fingertips that will allow us to turn off Holyrood, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the other heavy metals produced from burning heavy oil. This will protect citizens of the North-East Avalon from being exposed to further negative health effects resulting from such emissions. It will assist in transforming our economy which presently is dependent on offshore oil revenues which we know will run out. Before that happens we need to build an economy whose foundation is based on renewable resources with a renewable energy industry producing locally generated electricity to replace fossil fuels.

This can be accomplished using the best, most benign, renewable energy sources combined with state of the art technologies.

Fred Winsor
Conservation Chair
Atlantic Canada Chapter Sierra Club Canada

Originally submitted to The Telegram as a letter to the editor on August 14, 2011. Republished with permission of the author.

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