Electricity: Time to Flip the Switch!

We are probably all familiar with the story of the business that says “our work can be good, fast or cheap, pick any two”.  There is a somewhat similar idea for electricity systems.  Your electricity grid can be reliable, affordable or clean.  Pick any two. But, if you want “clean”, the other two may be unavailable if you force your grid to go clean with the wrong technology.

Many Western governments have committed their populations to the goal of net zero by 2050, with something like 40-50 percent of that goal to be reached by 2030 or 2035.  To achieve this, governments have spent and will spend enormous sums to “decarbonize the grid”. That means increasing the percentage of total electricity generation from wind and solar, while reducing or even eliminating the contribution of fossil fuels.  If the percentage of renewables rises to over approximately 30 percent that reduces the reliability and increases the cost of your electricity supply.

Imagine your life without electricity, even for a few days.  No furnace or electric heat in winter, no lights, complete thawing of all food in your freezer and refrigerator, no way to charge computers, phones, or anything else.  An outage of even a few days can be dangerous, especially in winter, when outages can cause many deaths from cold.  We have taken our electricity for granted, but those days are coming to an end.  

As European countries have reluctantly discovered  – particularly the UK and Germany – even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the time had come to flip the switch to “off” for adding more wind and solar, and to “on” for adding more fossil fuel. 

The EU and the UK spent too much, too quickly, on intermittent, unreliable wind and solar generation and too little on preserving reliable nuclear and natural gas generation.  The result?  An electricity system that is both unreliable and unaffordable, and will remain that way for many years.  Even worse, as a quick fix, Germany has been forced to revert to increased coal generation, even razing an entire village to expand a coal mine.  Replacing closed nuclear and natural gas generation with coal is hardly green, but clearly necessary. In Germany’s coalition government with the Green Party, Robert Habeck, Vice-Chancellor and Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Action has reluctantly approved this expansion of coal as a ‘temporary’ necessity. 

So let’s look more closely at the choices of reliable, affordable and clean.


Electricity grids can be described as having three components: the generators, the high-voltage transmission lines and the lower voltage distribution lines that bring the electricity to your home.  When discussing reliability of the grid I am referring to the first component, because if your generators don’t generate, no one down the line will get electricity (unless it can be imported). 

Electricity systems are enormously complex to construct and to operate.  They are designed and maintained to very high standards of reliability such as only a one day outage per decade (excluding local lines, which can be knocked out by a fallen tree).  Our generation must reliably and economically handle wide fluctuations in demand by time of day and by season.  They are connected to adjacent grids, both North-South and East-West, to buy from and sell to neighbouring provinces or states.  These interties enhance reliability and reduce cost.

While achieving 99 percent reliability is costly, increasing to 99.9 percent is more than 10 times as costly, and that cost increases with each decimal point of increased reliability.  How is all this done?  Apart from the interties, most jurisdictions have a carefully calculated mix of generation technologies, which must also take into account when some of these are down for maintenance or will soon reach the end of their useful lives.  Canadian electricity grids in our most populous provinces will have substantial amounts of water generation as baseload, sometimes supplemented by baseload nuclear.  These technologies can have long lifecycles (as much as a century for hydroelectric and half a century for nuclear), providing non-emitting, reliable generation year in and year out.  Nevertheless, to handle the “peaky” shape of the day/night demand curve requires intermediate and peak load generation, now mostly with natural gas rather than coal.

Through government intervention, however, grids have been required to phase out coal and even natural gas (in Europe as well as North America) and even some nuclear, and to replace them with renewables: wind, solar, and even burning wood chips (i.e., burning trees, misleadingly calling this “biomass”). 

Most people who haven’t studied electricity systems can be misled by renewables advocates who insist that wind and some solar can completely replace fossil fuel generation at lower cost.  However, there is an enormous difference between what is called the “nameplate capacity” (the theoretical maximum output) of a wind generator versus its actual, day to day generation output.  As Parker Gallant has repeatedly shown on his blog, in Ontario, wind generation often generates at as little as 5 or 10 percent of its nameplate capacity during the daily peaks in demand when it is most needed, while generating at close to capacity when demand is at its lowest.  If the grid managers did not take costly remedial actions (discussed below under Affordable) the result would be power outages at demand peaks and blown circuits at demand troughs.


“Affordable”, when discussing an essential service like electricity, must mean affordable for most people, not only for the upper-middle-class while everyone else freezes in the dark.  Even a doubling in the price of electricity will force many lower income consumers living from paycheck to paycheck to face the “heat or eat” dilemma.  It will also force industrial customers in energy intensive industries to cut back production and investment, and some will move to other jurisdictions.  This has already begun to affect production in Germany’s large car manufacturing industry, even as China has become the dominant exporter of low cost electric vehicles.  These are built in Chinese factories, mostly powered by coal.

In much of Europe, the cost of electricity over the last five years has more than doubled, and in some countries has increased by more than a factor of five, creating widespread energy poverty.  Indeed, I have seen graphs showing a correlation between a rising percentage of wind and solar generation in the mix and more rapidly rising cost of electricity.  The simple truth is that wind and solar technology cannot power a grid on their own with current technology.

As the percentage of the generation mix reaches approximately 30 percent wind/solar it becomes both increasingly unreliable and increasingly costly.  As it approaches 50 percent the unreliability rapidly increases because, as Germany has discovered, there can be a lack of wind and almost no sunshine for as long as a month in winter, when the demand for electricity is the greatest.  There is no battery storage technology that can affordably allow a country or even a city to store enough electricity to power demand for more than a few hours, let alone a few days or weeks. 

With currently available technologies, unless we engineer our grids to ignore reliability and tolerate lengthy blackouts, we have to limit the percentage of generation capacity represented by wind and solar. 

Because wind and solar may provide little or no electricity when it is most needed our grids need backup capacity greater than the wind and solar normal or average output.  Since that output is typically less than half the nameplate capacity the backup typically needs to be at least twice as great or, usually, even greater.  This means the cost will be twice as high or even higher. 

Wind generator contracts typically include clauses that require the grid operator to pay the generator owner a fixed price for “curtailment”, which means whenever the grid operator tells the wind generator to disconnect from the grid because its power is not needed.  Alternatively, the grid operator may keep the wind generators hooked up to the grid but sell the excess electricity to interconnected neighbours at a fraction of the cost being paid to the generator, with the loss made up by us, the customers. As I described in a previous blog post, one day Ontario was buying wind generation at $135 and selling it for ¼ of a cent — almost giving it away. The result?  Ontario’s electricity system’s customers lost approximately $1.8 million in just those 7 hours of that one day. And that happens quite often.

Because the backup fossil fuel generators are not required to generate when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, they are initially contracted to be paid for their capital costs over their anticipated lifespan, including an approved “return on capital”. When they are required to provide generation to the grid they will be paid for their fuel costs plus a small margin.  Of course, with backup generators operating at significantly reduced capacity for the many hours when wind and solar are generating adequately this will greatly increase the cost to consumers of maintaining this essential backup capacity. 

Because wind and solar are given preferential access to the grid compared to backup generators, some backup generation is gradually forced out, requiring governments to start subsidizing fossil fuel generation to get it back on the grid, while simultaneously subsidizing or otherwise financially assisting wind and solar.  This becomes analogous to an isometric exercise like pressing the palms of your two hands together, which uses a lot of human energy while generating no movement.  Government subsidy of competing generation alternatives is only happening because of self-contradictory government policies that have made it necessary.  Meanwhile, we are paying for all this in our electricity rates, making the goal of affordability more and more distant.


Clean electricity generation has two dimensions: air pollution and CO2 emissions.  Over the last 50 years or so Western countries have made great progress in reducing air pollution of all kinds, even from coal generation, but developing countries have much less stringent environmental protection laws and law enforcement.  Natural gas produces very little air pollution per unit of electricity generated, and only half the CO2 emissions of coal.  That is why it has been so obviously wrong for European countries to have reduced or eliminated nuclear and gas generation, only to be required to replace it with coal. 

As for CO2 emissions, these are very difficult for any fossil fuel generation to reduce to near zero without a technology called carbon capture.  This captures CO2 and stores it in underground storage.  However, this technology is still not sufficiently developed to be able to use it for any significant reduction in CO2 emissions on a large enough scale, at an affordable cost.  It remains to be seen how useful this technology will be in future.

The much feared nuclear technology emits no CO2 or other air pollution.  It is highly reliable, but raises serious doubts about affordability, at least using existing nuclear technology.  But large nuclear generation manufacturers have been looking into a new technology: much smaller modular reactors.  Still, affordability becomes an issue as most nuclear plant construction has been well above estimated costs and considerably delayed.  Some of this has been due to engineering issues but much of it was caused by delays in the approval process caused by bureaucratic red tape, protests and litigation by activists.  As the approval and construction process for nuclear generation has typically taken as long as two decades, the future contribution of new nuclear generation to clean electricity remains uncertain. 

There are a few large hydroelectric projects being constructed in Canada to provide reliable, emissions-free (but not impact free) electricity.  These are all well over budget and considerably delayed.  However, they are among the last such projects that can be constructed because almost all large Canadian hydroelectric sites have already been exploited.

Renewable electricity generation includes solar, wind and biomass. Solar is used much less than wind for several reasons, all of which come down to cost and reliability.  The wind blows even when the sun doesn’t shine, which is particularly useful in northern latitudes, and wind turbines can be placed offshore with less visual and noise disturbance of neighbours.  However, as mentioned above, neither wind nor solar can generate electricity on demand from the grid.  Neither solar panels nor wind turbine blades are as durable as initially expected, some needing replacement as early as 10 years, and then many tons of these inoperable units end up in landfill because they cannot be recycled.   

The Example of Ontario

Ontario is Canada’s most populous province, with 40 percent of the country’s population.  Its electricity generation is amazingly non-emitting, yet that may not be enough for politicians. Over the last 5 years 93% of the electricity generated in Ontario was low emissions or emissions-free: 61% from nuclear power, 25% from hydro, and 7% from renewables. Only the last 7% is generated from natural gas. Yet natural gas plants are critical in meeting system peaks and maintaining system reliability.

The importance of natural gas was highlighted in a recent study by Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), which estimated the cost of eliminating natural gas generation by 2030. The study showed that, even in an optimistic scenario, by 2030 this would require over $27 billion of investment, and the cost of replacing just that 7% of output with renewables would require a 60% increase in electricity bills.


Canada and the USA, both intense competitors in the save the planet Olympics, are perhaps a decade behind Germany and the UK in destroying their energy security while multiplying their costs, particularly in electricity generation. But if we continue driving at full speed down the same net zero dead end as the Europeans, we will also soon have to make the same costly U-turn. 

Excessive reliance on the current technology of wind and solar generation provides neither reliable nor affordable nor clean electricity, as can be seen from European countries going back to coal rather than further expanding wind or solar generation.

Despite the hype about hydrogen or nuclear fusion breakthroughs neither of them has been tested in actual grid operations on a pilot project basis.  There are good reasons to believe that hydrogen will never work at scale and fusion will remain forever on the horizon that is never reached.  For the foreseeable future fossil fuels, hydroelectricity and possibly modular nuclear reactors will be the main generation technologies, with wind and solar playing a modest supplementary role, but not providing the backbone of the grid.  Current policies, if pursued, won’t save the planet, but they will make your country poor, cold and hungry. Time to flip the switch!

Categories: Uncategorized

10 replies »

  1. Excellent piece, thx Andrew. There is also a report published by the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers in 2015 which documented how the Ontario Green Energy Act actually INCREASED CO2 emissions by at least double and perhaps as high as quadruple because of the spillover of hydro, the steam off of nuclear, and the introduction of burning CH4.


  2. A master class in electricity, Andrew. Thanks.

    Proponents of weather-dependent generators — I will refer only to windmills from here on as solar I don’t think will ever play much of a role in Canada — argue that the problem of intermittency can be met by over-building these “nearly free” windmills everywhere and tying them together so that you draw on wind from far away when it’s not blowing locally. This is the, “The wind is always blowing somewhere” argument. Every somewhere just needs to have enough capacity to serve demand everywhere when it’s its turn to be windy. This is the basis of the Suzuki Foundation’s report and the proposals by Mark Jacobson: legacy hydro only, all the rest wind, no storage needed except a few hours to cover brief widespread calms while the smart grid finds working windmills somewhere. Many many new long-distance east-west interties to allow the provincial grids to share output. (These currently intertie chiefly with adjacent American states.) And the plan will provide enough electricity to electrify cars, steel-making, and heating, too.

    This model resembles asset diversification where you avoid investing in asset classes that corelate with each other. This works fine until one day the various assets all go underwater because your estimate of non-correlation was too optimistic. Medical insurance markets in the U.S. operate similarly. The number of policyholders you need to protect the pool from being bankrupted by one astronomically expensive patient is much larger than many individual doctor groups think, who try to beat the insurance companies by self-insuring their own patients. The longer you run, the more likely a rare event is to happen eventually. And if it’s not all that rare to begin with….

    I can tell you that I can usually predict what the combined power output of Ontario’s entire fleet of windmills will be just from looking out my window. It was OK through mid-day but crapped out at 2 p.m. — that’s the whole province. “Somewhere” in Canada would have to be farther out west if we were relying on wind tonight (and Alberta wind is generating only 13% of installed capacity right now. )

    The unsolved (and probably insoluble) problem of intermittency is what makes wind energy so expensive as more and more of it penetrates the grid. It all has to be backed up with generators that can start up at a moment’s notice. The seductively low capital costs and “levelized costs” of windmills assume that Someone Else is going to pay the very high costs of intermittency, which are either gas backup or blackouts. Choose one.


    • It is also very difficult to try to forecast wind generation output anywhere, let alone everywhere. One cannot operate an electricity grid to handle irregular demand without the ability to forecast. Hence the need for frequent blackouts or to pay customers to get off the grid.


  3. While this is an excellent assessment of the sort of information that should have been provided in a cost/benefit analysis before industrial scale wind was foisted on rural residents in Ontario, here’s even more information on why they should not even have been permitted to operate.

    Click to access Infrasound-wind-turbines-4-August-2015.pdf



    Compiled by
    Keith Stelling, MA, (McMaster) MNIMH, MCPP (England) Reviewed by
    William K. Palmer, P. Eng.
    Carmen Krogh, BSc (Pharm), provided comments on the health component

    July, 2015

    “We now know that subaudible pulsating infrasound can be detected inside homes near operating wind turbines. It can also be identified up to 10 kilometres distant. We know also that very low levels of infrasound and LFN are registered by the nervous system and affect the body even though they cannot be heard. The research cited in this report implicates these infrasonic pulsations as the cause of some of the most commonly reported “sensations” experienced by many people living close to wind turbines including chronic sleep disturbance, dizziness, tinnitus, heart palpitations, vibrations and pressure sensations in the head and chest etc.

    Similarly, there is medical research (also cited below) which demonstrates that pulsating infrasound can be a direct cause of sleep disturbance. In clinical medicine, chronic sleep interruption and deprivation is acknowledged as a trigger of serious health problems. “


  4. Also, this recent development needs to be acknowledged:
    “But, as of late, there are some naysayers that dare to stand up to the socialism-by-stealth promoters with Tim Buckley, chief executive at Vanguard, perhaps the biggest name yet to buck the ESG orthodoxy.

    “Our research indicates that ESG investing does not have any advantage over broad-based investing,” Mr. Buckley said in a recent interview with the Financial Times.


  5. Then there is the issue of forecasting wind and solar generation and apparently it seems to rely on “pick a number and spin the wheel” science as Scott Luft notes:


  6. My biases lead me to suspect that our future lies with small-scale advanced nuclear and that the leading purveyors will come out of Russia and China. So let’s not burn bridges unnecessarily.

    Natural gas will be very useful as a transition and peak load fuel. 🙂


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