Misconception: "Renewable energy is unreliable"
Misconception: “Renewable energy is unreliable; the wind isn’t always blowing or the sun isn’t always shining.”
Another misconception hindering the energy transition in Alberta is the idea that renewable energy is inherently unreliable because the resources it uses are unreliable. Proponents of this narrative highlight the fact that unlike fossil fuels, renewable energy is subject to variation as to when the resources are available and how much power is able to be generated (due to varying weather conditions). Those in the renewable energy industry refer to this as ‘intermittency’. While there is some truth behind this narrative, it is simultaneously flawed for a few reasons and it fails to present the ways in which this issue is being addressed.
Most importantly, not all forms of renewable energy are subject to the intermittency problem. Certain types of renewable energy, like geothermal or biomass energy, are able to produce electricity whenever needed. Geothermal energy is even theoretically capable of meeting baseload generation capacity; it is able to continuously generate enough power to meet the minimum demand for electricity across a grid. However, geothermal and biomass power are likely to only be parts of Alberta’s renewable energy system and therefore strategies and policies will need to be implemented to resolve the intermittency problem faced by other forms of renewable energy generation.
One such strategy is to use batteries to store electricity. With an electricity grid using battery storage, electricity is generated whenever a renewable resource is available, regardless of whether or not the power is needed on the grid. If the power is needed, it’s used immediately and if it isn’t, the extra power is stored for when it is. There are still some issues that are preventing the widespread adoption of battery storage, such as the technology still being fairly expensive, but things are changing quickly. Tesla, an American electric car and energy storage company, recently built a battery storage system on Kauai that is capable of meeting the Hawaiian island’s electricity needs completely. With this system already operational and with others being developed around the world, it seems that large-scale battery storage systems will only become more and more viable in the coming years.
Another strategy to help fix the intermittency problem is to power a grid with many different types of renewable energy. Using many resources increases the likelihood that one will be available to meet the demand for electricity. This strategy alone will not solve the intermittency problem but it would certainly help.
Finally, one ambitious strategy to address the intermittency problem would be to build a Canada-wide ‘smart grid.’ With the current system, each province and territory generates its own electricity and manages its own electricity grid. While there is some sharing of electricity between the different provinces, such as hydroelectric plants in Québec supplying power to Ontario, this is due to specific agreements and no provincial electricity grids are completely interconnected. With an integrated national smart grid however, electricity would be free to move across the country from where it was generated to where it was needed. For example, extra power generated from a sunny day in Alberta could help meet the demand for power on a sunless day in Nova Scotia, or vice versa. However, a national smart grid is a costly and complex strategy to implement. Canada is a big country and so building and maintaining a national grid would be a very expensive undertaking. As well, integrating the electricity grids of the different provinces and territories would be a logistical and legislative nightmare. While a national smart grid may be one solution to address the intermittency problem, it is not one that is viable for Canada.
Ultimately, the problem of intermittency represents a critical issue for renewable energy. Addressing it effectively is a crucial step in building any reliable energy grid that runs on renewable power. However, intermittency is not the death-stroke for renewable energy that some would believe. Solutions to address the issue are already being developed and many forms of renewable energy are not subject to intermittency.
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