Prof. Hughes gets it wrong

larry Hughes-csTwo weeks ago,, the excellent online journal run by daughter-father team Caroline Wood and David Bentley, ran the latest in a series of occasional pieces by Larry Hughes, a computer engineering coordinator at Dalhousie University.

Hughes is something of an energy policy gadfly. He expects energy will soon be in short supply globally, so he places a lot of emphasis on energy security, by which he appears to mean energy produced within Nova Scotia.

Nevertheless, Hughes opposes Nova Scotia Power’s plan to mix wood waste with coal to burn in its thermal generating plants. His piece, in the August 25 edition of AllNS [subscription required], makes a concise, persuasive case that wood waste would be better deployed in home heating.

Unfortunately, Hughes’s argument is marred by a string of misstatements about wind generation in the opening paragraphs. After noting that NSP is scrambling to meet a legislated requirement for increased use of renewable energy by 2010, he adds, “Until recently, ministers and NSP insisted wind would easily fill the gap.”

In fact, the contracts NSP signed with independent wind producers two years ago would have easily filled the gap, but when the world economy went into a tail spin 13 months ago, several of the producers lost their financing. It’s been clear since then that NSP would be hard pressed to meet the timetable.

But Hughes puts the financial meltdown far down the list of factors behind wind’s inability to fill the gap.

At the top of the list he puts the grid’s limited capacity for intermittent power. This is simply incorrect. Two years ago, NSP and the Nova Scotia Department of Energy commissioned a Wind Integration Study to evaluate the grid’s capacity to absorb intermittent power sources.  It determined that the grid has enough capacity to handle the 2010 targets and, with careful management, the even greater requirements for 2013.

Beyond that, Hughes is right: If we want to keep ramping up our use of intermittent energy sources like wind, solar, and tidal beyond the legislated 2013 targets — and we do — Nova Scotia will soon have to invest very large sums to beef up our electrical grid.

Hughes also cited “the poor economics associated with wind in Nova Scotia.” In fact, the economics of wind power are better than average in Nova Scotia, because wind speeds are higher than average here. The price gap between wind and conventional energy sources has narrowed, and given the likelihood of future fuel price increases, it has probably already closed on a net present value basis.

Hughes also lists “multi-year delays” in wind turbine deliveries as a factor. That will come as news to Gamesa Corporación Tecnológica, a large Spanish wind turbine manufacturer. Gamesa announced in May that it would not meet sales targets because so many buyers had canceled purchases in the face of the economic meltdown.

In 2007. neither NSP, nor the Department of Energy, nor Larry Hughes, nor Parker Donham knew that the following summer, the world would experience the biggest economic meltdown since the Great Depression. Based on what we all knew then, the wind power contracts were a sensible approach to the need for more renewable energy. There is no need to invent reasons why it didn’t work out when the real reason is as clear now as it was unforeseeable then.

Finally, in describing the scramble to replace the likely-to-be unfulfilled wind power contracts, Hughes claimed that the province’s 2009 Energy Strategy expanded the term “renewable” to include “green” natural gas.

No it didn’t.

Natural gas is certainly the greenest of the ungreen fossil fuels, far less polluting and  GHG-genrating than coal or even oil. But the revised energy strategy does not reclassify it as a renewable energy source, and while its use could help NSP reduce emissions, but it will not contribute to meeting the legislated renewable energy targets.

[Disclosure: I know this because I had a hand in the revised strategy, having been under contract with the Department of Energy as a writer on the project.]

Contrarian would be pleased to publish a response from Prof. Hughes.