If you want to see the future of Premier Dalton McGuinty’s push for wind power in Ontario, look at Denmark today.
It has more than doubled its wind power production over the past decade or so and today produces almost 20% of its electricity from wind.
Denmark has been praised by everyone from U.S. President Barack Obama to New York Times global warming guru Thomas Friedman, for leading the international fight against climate change.
That was one of the reasons Copenhagen was chosen as the site of the UN’s 2009 meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its bid to draft, unsuccessfully as it turned out, a successor agreement to the Kyoto accord.
But despite all this green happy-talk, as veteran energy journalist Robert Bryce observes in his book, Power Hungry: The myths of ‘green’ energy and the real fuels of the future, Denmark’s reality tells a different story.
“(A) close look at Denmark’s energy sector shows that its embrace of wind power has not resulted in ‘energy independence’,” Bryce writes, “nor has it made a major difference in the country’s carbon dioxide emissions, coal consumption, or oil use.
“Despite massive subsidies for the wind industry and years of hype about the wonders of Denmark’s energy policies, the Danes now have some of the world’s most expensive electricity … And in 2007, their carbon dioxide emissions were at about the same level as they were two decades ago.”
The problems confronting Denmark are the same ones Ontarians are starting to experience.
Because wind turbines cannot supply continuous, on-demand power, Denmark has to back them up with conventional energy sources that emit greenhouse gases, in its case, coal-fired electricity plants.
In Ontario, McGuinty is slowly replacing Ontario’s coal-fired plants with natural gas ones to back up wind. But while natural gas burns far more cleanly than coal, it’s still a fossil fuel which emits carbon dioxide, is expensive to transport, highly flammable, and contains methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. This makes leaks both an environmental and safety concern.
Because the electricity generated by wind turbines cannot be stored, Denmark ends up selling up to two-thirds of it to Germany, Sweden and Norway at below-market rates.
Bryce notes in September, 2009, the Danish Center for Political Studies reported, “exported wind power paid for by Danish householders, brings material benefits in the form of cheap electricity and delayed investment in new generation equipment for consumers in Sweden and Norway, but nothing for Danish consumers.”
These problems are just starting in Ontario where, on New Year’s Day, hydro customers (us) had to pay Quebec and the U.S. $1.5 million to take our excess wind energy.
That was due to a combination of mild weather, low power demand on a holiday and the fact Ontario’s contracts with wind farm operators specify it must pay them for their electricity, regardless of whether it’s needed.
This will become increasingly frequent in Ontario in future, as more wind energy comes on line.
Bryce’s theme in Power Hungry is the global debate over renewable energy has been dominated by scientifically illiterate politicians making wildly optimistic claims about how quickly renewable energy can replace fossil fuels.
He’s also an inveterate number cruncher, who uses an array of statistics to show how incredibly naive this discussion has become.
Bryce’s proposed solution, written in 2010 before Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, is controversial – exploiting major new natural gas finds globally to gradually take over much of the work now done by oil and coal, before transitioning to nuclear power.
Power Hungry is a heavy but rewarding read for anyone who wants to understand the real challenges we face in moving away from a fossil fuel economy to renewable energy.
And that the happy talk we’ve been hearing from politicians, environmentalists and pundits about how relatively quick and easy it will be, is nonsense.