Nova Scotia’s energy future

After years of hearing discussions over the pros and cons of wind turbines and wind-generated electricity, most Nova Scotians are probably aware that wind turbines are an intermittent source of electrical generation. Quite simply, if there is no wind, no electricity is generated, and as wind speeds increase, the amount of electricity generated increases to some maximum. To avoid damaging a wind turbine during periods of very high wind speeds, most turbines automatically shut down.

When a small community, industry, or farm expects its electrical demand to be met by an intermittent source of electrical generation, one of three things can happen: the intermittent source can meet the entire demand, none or part of the demand can be met (requiring a backup electrical supply to make up the shortfall), or the supply exceeds the demand, meaning the demand can be met but the excess must be disposed of.

Shortfalls and excesses caused by intermittent generation are not restricted to small communities. The provincial government’s requirement that Nova Scotia Power obtain 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources means that at times external supplies of electricity will be needed to meet shortfalls, while at others, there will be excess renewable electricity produced. The problem is NSP cannot be expected to invest in generation equipment to meet periodic shortages of renewable electricity and in order to cover their costs, renewable electricity generators need to be paid for all their electrical production, even that not used by NSP’s consumers.

The solution being pursued by NSP and tacitly endorsed by the provincial government is the creation of a “big grid” into which other jurisdictions and their electricity suppliers buy and sell electricity. If there are shortages caused by the lack of renewable electricity in Nova Scotia, it can be imported from elsewhere over the big grid. On the other hand, any excess can be made available to consumers in other jurisdictions who are connected to the big grid. This leads to three important observations: first, Nova Scotians will not get 25 percent of their electricity from Nova Scotian renewable sources; second, renewable electricity exported from Nova Scotia to New England will fetch a premium price for its producers; and third, Nova Scotians can be expected to pay top dollar for imported electricity.

Although seldom mentioned, but certainly implied, is the provincial government’s belief that the big grid would run from the proposed Lower Churchill hydroelectric project in Newfoundland and Labrador to Nova Scotia and then to New England, either directly or via New Brunswick. The big grid would allow NSP to obtain electricity from the Lower Churchill whenever there was a supply shortage in Nova Scotia and allow Nova Scotia’s renewable generators to export excess electricity to New England.

The importance of the big grid to the plans of both the provincial government and Nova Scotia’s renewable energy generators became apparent late last month when Hydro Quebec announced its intention to purchase parts of NB Power. This caused many of Nova Scotia’s renewable electricity generators to cry foul as they feared Hydro Quebec could block them from selling electricity to New England. The premier and various provincial cabinet ministers expressed concerns about this because without the Lower Churchill, Nova Scotia Power would be forced to turn to Hydro Quebec to provide backup electricity for any renewable energy projects completed by 2015. Electricity imported from Hydro Quebec will not be cheap, especially if it is purchased when there is little available surplus and at deregulated market prices.

Despite what has been said and written about the Hydro Quebec deal, perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing as it gives the provincial government the opportunity to focus on a far more pressing energy problem: Nova Scotia’s overwhelming reliance on imported energy, notably oil.

Oil, or refined petroleum products, meets about two-thirds of Nova Scotia’s secondary energy demand and is essential to transportation and much of the province’s heating needs. The oil is refined from crude oil; in Atlantic Canada, over 80 percent is supplied from oil producers whose production is in decline (Norway, the United Kingdom, Newfoundland and Labrador) or are facing internal or external political pressures (Nigeria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Russia). If this weren’t enough, the world’s oil scene is changing with growing demand for crude oil from countries like China, India, and other emerging economies.

Oil is central to Nova Scotia’s economy; the past few years have shown that when it gets more expensive or shortages occur, many Nova Scotians suffer. In times of oil market volatility, it would seem reasonable to turn to the province’s domestic energy resources; yet Nova Scotia, with few domestic energy resources of its own, has exported all its oil and most of its natural gas, and is exporting wood chips and pellets. And now the provincial government is promoting the export of electricity generated from renewable sources to New England.

Rather than encouraging the export of Nova Scotia’s renewable energy resources, the government needs to establish policies that will reduce the province’s consumption of imported energy, while finding ways of replacing existing demand with, and restricting future energy demand to, energy sources that are secure, sustainable, and preferably environmentally benign.

Reducing energy consumption is easier in some services than others; for example, consider oil use in transportation and space heating. In transportation, oil consumption can be reduced by driving less, changing driving habits, and shifting from one form of transport to another. In space heating, long-term reduction requires new building standards and potentially costly building retrofits; while immediate reduction of oil consumption by lowering building temperatures can have heath implications for the young, the elderly, and those on low-income.

However, energy reduction can only go so far, meaning that there will still be a need to meet the energy demands for transportation, heating and cooling, and the modern energy services that rely on electricity. As imported energy sources become more expensive to obtain, it will be necessary to find other sources that meet Nova Scotia’s energy needs.

Some of Nova Scotia’s renewable energy resources fit the description of secure, sustainable, and environmentally benign; these include biomass, geothermal, hydroelectric, solar, tidal, wind, and, if used judiciously, coal and natural gas. However, to ensure the future well-being of the province, it will be necessary to ensure that: first, whenever possible, every unit of energy that is produced in Nova Scotia stays in Nova Scotia, and second, every unit of energy is used as efficiently as possible.

Such a future will need energy products for transportation (liquid fuels and electricity), heating and cooling (electricity, hot water, and steam), and services, like lighting, cooking, computers, and machinery which require a continuous supply of electricity.

Some renewable sources of electricity, such as wind and solar-electric, are intermittent, meaning that they cannot be relied upon to meet demand. Rather than connecting to a big-grid to export and import electricity (as proposed by the provincial government), any excess production of electricity should be stored, either as electricity (in batteries) or changed into a form (for example, compressed air, pumped storage, or other means) that can be converted back into electricity when needed.

Biomass is a renewable source of energy that can be transformed into a variety of products. When burned in a cogeneration facility, the energy from the biomass produces both electricity and heat, including hot water for space heating and steam for industrial applications; with only a small percentage of the energy being lost. The heat from such facilities can also be used to produce liquid fuels from biomass for transportation. Other renewable energy sources, such as geothermal or solar-thermal, can heat homes and buildings, replacing oil. The wind can also meet our heating needs; by storing wind-generated electricity in thermal storage units, buildings can be heated when the wind is not blowing.

Over the past century-and-a-half, humanity’s energy needs have been met increasingly from three energy sources: oil, coal, and natural gas. But these sources are finite and it is becoming more difficult to maintain supplies at affordable prices. Some jurisdictions have recognized that the world’s energy supply picture is changing and are preparing for it. Nova Scotia’s government is not one of them, as it continues to rely on an energy strategy that made little sense when it was released in 2001 and makes even less sense now. Encouraging the export of energy with little thought being given to where or how Nova Scotia will obtain the energy to meet its own energy requirements makes no sense whatsoever.

Nova Scotia needs a new energy strategy, one that ensures the energy needs of Nova Scotians are met, while reducing Nova Scotia’s reliance on imported oil and coal. Nova Scotia’s domestic supply of energy can go a long way towards meeting such a strategy—but the energy must be used wisely and within the province. Existing policies, such as requiring NSP to meet 25 percent of its electrical generation from renewable sources by 2015 will not do this, if anything, they will perpetuate Nova Scotia’s reliance on insecure energy sources.

The question confronting Premier Dexter, his government, and all Nova Scotians is where will the energy come from to meet Nova Scotia’s future energy needs?

Larry Hughes
Published: 24 November 2009