Alberta paused renewables because of concerns about grid stability and cost implications

Cosmos Voutsinos: Critics of Alberta pause in renewables overlook grid system challenges

In this column, I will address criticisms of the Alberta government’s decision to pause renewable projects last August.

Some critics overlook the incompatibility of wind and solar technologies with our grid system, which has evolved over 150 years to handle specific demands. They suggest adopting recommendations from non-elected, unaccountable organizations that thrive on federal subsidies and produce reports that serve more as propaganda than practical policy. These organizations’ small, stepwise emissions reductions are impractical.

Others claim that the pause in renewable projects destroyed investments and jobs, conveniently ignoring the fundamental purpose of building electricity generators: to provide low-cost, reliable power, not merely to attract capital or create jobs.

The pattern of attacks – all loaded with partial truths and distorted narratives – from renewable energy proponents since the pause raises several concerns.

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The problem with renewable technologies is their inability to effectively manage the grid’s demand fluctuations. While the grid can handle minor demand changes caused by consumers turning small loads on and off, it cannot adjust the energy input from wind or solar sources. Renewables often cause significant fluctuations; for example, when a cloud passes over a solar farm with a 150MW capacity, the grid must compensate for this sudden large drop in energy. As the capacity of renewable farms increases, these fluctuations become more significant and more challenging to control, making the grid less stable.

The term “intermittent” does not fully explain this issue to the public and uninformed activists. Wind energy is inconsistent, coming in puffs and gusts, and solar energy varies with factors such as location, elevation, season, cloud cover, and daylight hours. Closer to the poles, solar energy is weaker, which is why the ground freezes in winter and many people travel south for warmer weather.

Grids that include renewable energy sources manage their fluctuations using backup generators. These gas-powered generators run continuously at low power to stay synchronized with the grid at 60Hz and to be ready to adjust production as needed. This backup system involves using both the renewable energy farm and the gas generator, effectively requiring two generators to do the job of one. As a result, it doubles the grid’s capital and operating costs.

Furthermore, due to the unpredictability of renewables, backup generators often need to buy natural gas on the spot market, which can be up to 10 times more expensive than the regular price. Additional costs also come from subsidies and preferential treatments given to renewables. Ultimately, these extra costs are passed on to consumers.

Renewable energy sources have had 40 years to improve their grid performance. Since they now claim to be competitive, it is time to reconsider these subsidies, which is why electricity costs have risen alongside the increasing use of renewables. In Europe, where renewable usage is about 10 years ahead of Canada, electricity costs have significantly increased.

While trying to determine the benefit of renewables in terms of emissions savings, I reviewed data from the Alberta Electric System Operator’s website, which publishes the output for each of their generators. The data showed that the annual production of wind farms in Southern Alberta averaged about 32 percent of their installed capacity. Similarly, solar farms varied between 33 percent in the summer months and four percent in the winter months, averaging 17 percent annually. This means that, over a year, wind farms produce about one-third of their installed capacity, while solar farms produce about one-sixth.

The gas-fired generators that back up wind farms produce about twice the amount of power that the wind farms generate. For solar farms, the backup generators produce twice as much power in the summer and up to 24 times as much in the winter due to shorter daylight hours. These generators also run continuously to compensate for fluctuations. While wind and solar technologies do save some CO2 emissions, the savings are far less than what many people believe.

Renewables are very useful in off-grid operations where they handle smaller fluctuations that can be managed by a small bank of batteries. However, grid-sized batteries are prohibitively expensive. An American study showed that an effective battery backup for its renewable grid would cost five times the country’s annual GDP. The same high costs can be expected for any industrialized country.

After discharge, a battery needs to be recharged by the renewable farms while also being available to supply the grid. Imagine a battery backing up six solar farms in the winter. How could it maintain a constant grid voltage while charging itself, especially when the solar farms are operating at only four percent of their installed capacity? Additionally, considering that batteries need to be replaced every eight to 15 years and then disposed of, it should be clear to any proponent of renewables that using today’s batteries directly in a grid application is not feasible.

If renewable technologies used in the electric grid have such a poor track record, why do we see so many investors and contractors investing in our renewables industry?

Europe started investing in renewables about 10 years ahead of Canada, and their experiences provide valuable lessons. Europe is now facing significant challenges. Bankruptcies in the renewable energy sector are increasing, and new renewable projects have slowed down. For instance, Siemens, a manufacturer of wind turbines, lost $2 billion last year, and Danish turbine manufacturer Ørsted saw its share value drop by more than 90 percent.

In Germany, the Keyenberg wind farm was removed to access the coal deposits beneath it, and the country is now building more coal-fired power plants than wind or solar facilities. Many EU countries have reactivated old coal power plants due to a shortage of imported gas and the need to ensure a stable power supply. Additionally, renewable projects in the eastern U.S. were cancelled.

As a result, many EU contractors and investors turned to Alberta, attracted by its “open market,” leading to excess renewable energy installations and plans for the grid. This continued until last summer when the Alberta government temporarily paused all new construction for re-evaluation. Rather than being criticized, this decision should be appreciated for its foresight.

What has kept the momentum for renewables despite these obvious problems?

Robert Bryce, in his Substack article Environmentalism in America is Dead, provides a valuable perspective on the role of NGOs in promoting renewables with their $4.5 billion per year of “dark money.” He concludes that “over the past decade or so, the business of climate activism has become just that – a business.” Corporate cash and dark money are fueling the growth of the NGO-corporate-industrial-climate complex.

Our electricity grid is the backbone of our civilization. Yet, we are attacking it from both ends. On one side, we increase demand by decarbonizing industries, adding electric vehicles, and now AI. On the other side, we weaken our grid’s ability to meet this increased demand by adding incompatible technology generators.

European companies are considering leaving the EU, indicating potential deindustrialization. Contradictions are increasing: people are forced to drive electric cars and charge them in conditions where they cannot function properly, and others are required to heat their homes with heat pumps that are ineffective in cold winters. We subsidize electric vehicles with around $40 billion, yet the government hesitates to build the necessary roads. This promotes renewables while discouraging backups.

Philanthropists and foundations love NGOs for their tax benefits. Unelected and unaccountable climate NGOs love dark money and infiltrating governments, promoting their agendas like “organized crime.”

Western governments must hold these NGOs accountable, or voters must do it for both.

Cosmos Voutsinos is a retired engineer who has published multiple scientific papers that have garnered a total of 96 citations. He earned his Bachelor of Applied Science (BASc) at the University of Waterloo and his Master of Engineering (M.Eng) degree from MacMaster.

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