Wind turbine at Grenfell. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

The evening of July 26, I did something that’s become routine for me – check on the status of Alberta’s power grid.

I can do this because that province posts minute-by-minute data on the power generation from each and every facility connected to the grid. That includes 20 solar facilities totaling 977 megawatts nameplate capacity, 26 wind facilities totaling 2,269 megawatts, and three battery backup facilities totaling 50 megawatts.

Nameplate capacity is the maximum capacity that facility can put out. When you build a coal, natural gas or nuclear plant, generally speaking, you get that nameplate capacity all the time, unless you purposely dial it down because you don’t need that much power. But for wind and solar, as seven months of study of the Alberta grid have shown, it’s an entirely different thing.

Wind and solar, our supposed renewable, green power salvation, are “intermittent power,” meaning they come and go. And that’s a problem. Because from my observations, they come and go a lot. And at times when our society needs power the most, they will occasionally disappear almost completely.

Since the last week of December, I periodically check out the Alberta Electric System Operator website, which you can also do, here at this link http://ets.aeso.ca/ets_web/ip/Market/Reports/CSDReportServlet.

SaskPower won’t put out this information. In April I was told, “Saskatchewan’s electric utility is a vertically integrated system that has the responsibility for planning the system expansions to meet domestic demands, maintain system reliability at a stable, reasonable cost rather than the whim of the market. Due to this difference, displaying real-time market sensitive information would put Saskatchewan rate payers at a significant disadvantage when looking for opportunities to supply domestic load over the tie lines during periods of potential internal shortfall due to unforeseen outages or to displace internal generation during times where external market may provide short-term economic options.”

Alberta’s grid data is updated minute-by-minute, showing not just how much every power plant is contributing to the grid, but each unit. There are only three coal units left in Alberta, a province with more coal underground that can be possibly imagined. At this moment Genesee Unit 1 is producing 394 megawatts out of 44, Unit 2 is 401 out of 400, and Unit 3 is 460 out of 466 megawatts. With coal, you literally get what you pay for – reliable, consistent baseload power.

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There are times when I see individual solar and wind facilities actually hitting their nameplate capacity. But those times are rare and fleeting. At this very minute, just before noon on July 27, three of Alberta’s 20 solar facilities are producing maximum power, and a handful more are just a megawatt or two shy. But other solar facilities at the exact same moment are producing two megawatts out of 15, 12 or 14. Apparently it’s cloud at Brooks at this moment.

I asked SaskPower some hard questions about this back in April. I was told SaskPower’s expectation is that the wind facilities will produce roughly 40 per cent of total capacity on a long-term basis. For solar, that number is 25 per cent. And to their credit, in announcing the new solar facility near Weyburn, the press release reflected that 25 per cent when talking about how many homes it could supply power to.

Getting back to last night, at around 10 p.m., being night, surprise surprise, there was no solar generation. But notably there was only 122 megawatts coming out of those 26 wind facilities – 5.4 per cent. I didn’t have time to do a story on it, but resolved to check it out again the next morning.

And at 10:16 a.m., just as people are getting up from their morning coffee breaks, I did. And wind, at the time, was contributing just 22 megawatts, out of 2,269. Less than one per cent.

This wasn’t at night, as people were going to bed. It was during the middle of the morning, when conceivably almost the entire population is at work, being productive. Industry is running. Welders are welding. Computers computing. Maybe even some electric cars are being charged at work. And wind was producing less than one per cent. That’s effectively nothing.

There is no way to describe this other than a complete and utter failure.

Wind turbines on the Alberta side of the Saskatchewan/Alberta border, northwest of Macklin, Saskatchewan Photo by Brian Zinchuk

And this has happened time and time again. I’m losing track of how many times I’ve seen this, and written about it. But it’s a lot. I’ve listed a number of those stories at the bottom of this column.

What happens when we double or triple or quadruple our reliance on wind and solar? What happens when the whole fleet, as Alberta’s 26 wind farms, drops to a cumulative 1 per cent in the middle of the day? Will it be better when there’s 75 wind farms? So far, more is not proving better. So do we have rolling blackouts?

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And if you think solar power is so much better, it’s not. A few weeks ago another random check of the Alberta grid showed that Alberta was getting just 13.5 per cent of its solar capacity – at noon! And that was during the week of the summer solstice, when not only should we be getting the most hours of solar energy in a day, but its highest intensity due to the angle of the sun in the sky.

Alberta is far further down this path to renewables than Saskatchewan. Their build out of the aforementioned 26 wind facilities, 20 solar facilities and three battery backups makes us pale in comparison. As of today, Saskatchewan has nine grid-scale wind facilities and two solar facilities connected, and they’re working on a 20 megawatt battery storage facility for Regina.

This is the path Saskatchewan is on. SaskPower is continually moving towards implementing more power generation from wind and solar.

Real impacts

So far, Saskatchewan and Alberta have been able to cope with the intermittency of solar and wind. But what happens when it becomes a much high fraction of our power generation?

My wife is a long-time ER registered nurse. Does my wife’s emergency room have to run on generators? If she’s doing a code blue on your father, or maybe even you, what happens if the power goes out? What if the generator fails to fire up?

Do we shut down our steel mill in Regina? Close your business’ doors? Do we just accept regressing to the power generation reliability of a third world country?

This is the arc furnace at EVRAZ’s Regina steel mill. It relies entirely on dependable electricity to do its job. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

Time and again, when I go online just to check how things are going in Alberta’s power grid, and this is what I find: Wind, or solar, has flatlined, and battery backups are contributing precisely zero.

And what happens when, in 12.5 years, the federal government has banned the sale of internal combustion engine light vehicles, and everyone is plugging in their electric vehicles?

Banging the same drum

Yes, I keep banging on this drum. Why? Because we cannot run a modern 21st century economy on a power supply that, in the middle of the day, can and does drop to less than one per cent output.

And the supposed salvation of battery backup? In seven months, I have yet to see Alberta draw one megawatt from its 50 megawatts of battery backup. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. But every time I do a story on wind or solar flatlining, there’s nothing coming from the batteries. It’s a life preserver that never gets thrown out to the drowning grid.

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Maybe the grid’s not drowning, yet. But Alberta is on track to shut down its last coal plants soon, and the feds are pushing Saskatchewan to do the same. And there’s no way in hell we will have nuclear in place in time to replace our remaining coal. So we either stretch out the life of our coal facilities, build out 1,389 megawatts of gas-fired power in 7.5 years, buy a similar amount from Manitoba, Montana or North Dakota, or sit in the dark. And that’s just to replace existing coal, not dramatically increase power production due to the impending electrification of the transportation fleet.

And while I keep banging this drum, ask yourself when was the last time you saw any of the other media asking about this, questioning this supposed green transition? You won’t see it, because the mainstream media has bought it hook, line and sinker.

I keep finding examples of the complete and utter failure of either wind or solar, or sometimes both, to provide power during our times of greatest need – the hottest and coldest days of the year. This pattern is not a fluke. It’s consistent. The people pushing these renewables either know this and choose not to talk about it, or they are willfully ignorant. Neither is acceptable. We need to keep the lights on. We cannot start to experience brownouts and blackouts like California. We can’t have hospitals running on generators because we choose to screw up the best thing we have going in modern society – reliable power generation. Lives will hang in the balance if we get this wrong, and our society is rapidly moving towards screwing this up.

Two hours later, at noon on July 27, Alberta’s wind had picked up to a whole 67 megawatts of 2,269. It was now 3 per cent of capacity! Just 11 of its 26 wind farms were producing zero megawatts at 12:10 p.m. Some might call that progress.

 

Brian Zinchuk is editor and owner of Pipeline Online. He can be reached at brian.zinchuk@pipelineonline.ca. Agree? Disagree? Send a letter to the editor and it’ll be posted.

 

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Alberta’s wind fleet was putting out less than 1% of its capacity during Wednesday morning coffee break

Two days ago, Saskatchewan set another summer power consumption record. Today, Alberta’s wind is currently putting out 1.2% of its capacity

Two days in June show utter failure of solar and wind power in Alberta

Pesâkâstêw Solar Facility opens near Weyburn, first grid-scale solar facility done in cooperation with First Nations Power Authority

Asking the hard questions on SaskPower’s new solar and wind announcements