Only the Right Kind of Hydroelectricity Need Apply

Rent-seekers in the Massachusetts renewable energy industry are “raising alarms” about abundant, clean hydroelectricity from Quebec.  They argue that Renewable Portfolio Standards – mandates forcing utilities to purchase renewable energy – ought to subsidize “less competitive renewable energy projects.”  Wind and solar qualify – even Big Wind and Big Solar – but Big Hydro doesn’t make the cut.

From the Boston Globe:

Should hydroelectricity produced with massive dams be counted as clean energy?

That is the issue emerging as a result of new legislation that would allow utilities to meet the state’s mandates to cut greenhouse gases by acquiring power from large-scale hydroelectric projects, such as Hydro-Québec in Canada.

Environmentalists say the bill, backed by the Patrick administration, would provide preferences to an established technology that does not really need them, while hurting the competitiveness of emerging renewable sources, such as solar and wind, that do. New England power plant owners worry the legislation would provide an unfair advantage to an already low-cost competitor.

A second Boston Globe article quotes Seth Kaplan, Vice President for Policy and Climate Advocacy at the Conservation Law Foundation:

A key fix would be to tweak the bill to “explicitly foster” the use of clean energy technologies, such as wind turbines and solar panels. Another change in the legislation, [Kaplan] said, would be to find a way to ensure that hydropower projects, which use a mature technology, are not directly competing with less competitive renewable energy projects.

“If amended appropriately,” Kaplan said, “it could help us reach our climate and energy goals.”

Those goals include cutting greenhouse gas emissions  –  blamed for accelerating climate change  –  by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Here’s what the Pew Center on Global Climate Change has to say about hydroelectricity:

Hydropower’s GHG emissions factor (4 to 18 grams CO2 equivalent per kilowatt-hour) is 36 to 167 times lower than the emissions produced by electricity generation from fossil fuels.

Compared to other renewables, on a lifecycle basis hydropower releases fewer GHG emissions than electricity generation from biomass and solar and about the same as emissions from wind, nuclear, and geothermal plants.

To his credit, Gov. Patrick could have let the Renewable Portfolio Standards he created hit the fan after he leaves office.  He has, however, expressed some sense of accountability for his pie-in-the-sky regulations:

The bill’s sponsors and Patrick administration officials say hydroelectricity needs to be part of the clean energy mix if the state is to meet the goals of the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act, which requires the state to cut greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050 […] the state needs to find new energy sources to replace aging coal and nuclear power plants...the power system could lose 8,300 megawatts of generation – about a fourth of the region’s total – by 2020.

Aging nuclear plants are not being replaced?  One thought: Jane Fonda’s fear-mongering in The China Syndrome about a nuclear meltdown tunneling a hole to China.

Coal plants are not being replaced?  Barack Obama, 2008: "If someone wants to open a coal power plant then they can. It’s just it will bankrupt them because they'll be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas being emitted.”

In addition, nearly all of the hydroelectric capacity in the United States was built before the mid-1970s.  Of the 25 largest dams under construction, 13 are in China, none in North America.  That’s because, as George Bachrach of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, remarks: “We support hydro, but we want it to be the right kind of hydro.”  Big Hydro just isn’t the right kind of hydro.  Small hydro is good, micro-hydro even better.  Think of how neat it would be if we all built a hydro generating station in the brook crossing the country estate.  Every little bit counts!

Fortunately for Gov. Patrick, the New England states share a long border with the Province of Quebec.  Since the late 1940s, the Quebec provincial government has developed the tremendous hydroelectric resources north of the St. Lawrence River and around James Bay.  To date, the province has built 60 generating stations in what is, aside from the sparse aboriginal populations, uninhabited wilderness.  Hydro-Québec’s largest dam, Robert-Bourassa, ranks 8th in the world.

Above: Robert-Bourassa Generating Station with the Staircase of the Giants spillway. Length: 9,301 feet. Height: 450 feet. Capacity: 5,616 Mw. Total capacity for the La Grande Complex: 16,527 Mw.

La Grande-4. Length: 12,500 feet. Height: 410 feet. Installed capacity: 2,779 MW.

Daniel-Johnson Dam. Length: 4,311 feet. Height: 702 feet. Installed capacity: 2,656 MW.

It’s clearly not a fair fight between these “massive dams” and the rooftop solar panel.  And just when solar power in Massachusetts was growing in leaps and bounds!  Rebates and subsidies have spurred dramatic growth, from 3 Mw installed capacity in 2008 to 464 MW in 2013, making the state 5th in the country in installed solar capacity. 

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, 286 solar companies employ 6,400 people Massachusetts.  “In 2013, $789 million was invested in Massachusetts to install solar…This represents a 50% increase over the previous year, and is expected to grow again this year.”

And yet…in Massachusetts, solar panels receive an average of 4 hours of sun; their capacity factor is rated at 13%.  Therefore, the installed capacity of 464 Mw per hour x 24 hours x 365 days would yield 4.0 terawatt hours at 100% of capacity, but the actual generation is 0.53 Tw/h.  (These are my calculations, since state and federal reports combine solar and wind with “Other Renewables.”)

Numerous wind farms are being constructed, but few have come on line.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency: “Most new renewable generating resources planned in New England are wind-powered, and Massachusetts has set a goal of 2,000 megawatts of wind capacity by 2020. About 5% of that capacity [100 Mw] was in place by mid-2013.”

To summarize the above:

 

Installed Capacity

Megawatts/hour

Annual  Generation

(Terawatt hours)

Robert-Bourassa

7,722 Mw

26.5 Tw/h

Hydro-Québec Total

35,829 Mw

213.3 Tw/h

Three Gorges Dam, China

22,500 Mw

80.0 Tw/h

Massachusetts solar

464 Mw

0.53 Tw/h

Massachusetts wind

100 Mw

0.26 Tw/h

Massachusetts retail sales of Electricity

 

57.1 Twh

After all the RPS mandates, rebates, carve-outs, subsidies; after $789 million spent in 2013; after an explosive growth of the industry, solar power provides less than 1% of Massachusetts’s electricity.

I agree that cheap, efficient, low-carbon renewable hydropower doesn't need special preferences.  But when Mr. Kaplan and other environmentalists talk about “hurting the competitiveness” of wind and solar, they mean, making them less competitive in the market for government handouts.

Out in the real world, wind and solar are less competitive because they’re expensive and cannot come close to meeting the electricity needs of an industrial society.  If your “climate and energy goals” (not mine) are to cut greenhouse gas emissions, you should be clamoring for more hydroelectricity in the mix.  Demanding affirmative action for disadvantaged classes of green energy is a sign that the real goal is to keep the gravy train rolling along.

Rent-seekers in the Massachusetts renewable energy industry are “raising alarms” about abundant, clean hydroelectricity from Quebec.  They argue that Renewable Portfolio Standards – mandates forcing utilities to purchase renewable energy – ought to subsidize “less competitive renewable energy projects.”  Wind and solar qualify – even Big Wind and Big Solar – but Big Hydro doesn’t make the cut.

From the Boston Globe:

Should hydroelectricity produced with massive dams be counted as clean energy?

That is the issue emerging as a result of new legislation that would allow utilities to meet the state’s mandates to cut greenhouse gases by acquiring power from large-scale hydroelectric projects, such as Hydro-Québec in Canada.

Environmentalists say the bill, backed by the Patrick administration, would provide preferences to an established technology that does not really need them, while hurting the competitiveness of emerging renewable sources, such as solar and wind, that do. New England power plant owners worry the legislation would provide an unfair advantage to an already low-cost competitor.

A second Boston Globe article quotes Seth Kaplan, Vice President for Policy and Climate Advocacy at the Conservation Law Foundation:

A key fix would be to tweak the bill to “explicitly foster” the use of clean energy technologies, such as wind turbines and solar panels. Another change in the legislation, [Kaplan] said, would be to find a way to ensure that hydropower projects, which use a mature technology, are not directly competing with less competitive renewable energy projects.

“If amended appropriately,” Kaplan said, “it could help us reach our climate and energy goals.”

Those goals include cutting greenhouse gas emissions  –  blamed for accelerating climate change  –  by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Here’s what the Pew Center on Global Climate Change has to say about hydroelectricity:

Hydropower’s GHG emissions factor (4 to 18 grams CO2 equivalent per kilowatt-hour) is 36 to 167 times lower than the emissions produced by electricity generation from fossil fuels.

Compared to other renewables, on a lifecycle basis hydropower releases fewer GHG emissions than electricity generation from biomass and solar and about the same as emissions from wind, nuclear, and geothermal plants.

To his credit, Gov. Patrick could have let the Renewable Portfolio Standards he created hit the fan after he leaves office.  He has, however, expressed some sense of accountability for his pie-in-the-sky regulations:

The bill’s sponsors and Patrick administration officials say hydroelectricity needs to be part of the clean energy mix if the state is to meet the goals of the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act, which requires the state to cut greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050 […] the state needs to find new energy sources to replace aging coal and nuclear power plants...the power system could lose 8,300 megawatts of generation – about a fourth of the region’s total – by 2020.

Aging nuclear plants are not being replaced?  One thought: Jane Fonda’s fear-mongering in The China Syndrome about a nuclear meltdown tunneling a hole to China.

Coal plants are not being replaced?  Barack Obama, 2008: "If someone wants to open a coal power plant then they can. It’s just it will bankrupt them because they'll be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas being emitted.”

In addition, nearly all of the hydroelectric capacity in the United States was built before the mid-1970s.  Of the 25 largest dams under construction, 13 are in China, none in North America.  That’s because, as George Bachrach of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, remarks: “We support hydro, but we want it to be the right kind of hydro.”  Big Hydro just isn’t the right kind of hydro.  Small hydro is good, micro-hydro even better.  Think of how neat it would be if we all built a hydro generating station in the brook crossing the country estate.  Every little bit counts!

Fortunately for Gov. Patrick, the New England states share a long border with the Province of Quebec.  Since the late 1940s, the Quebec provincial government has developed the tremendous hydroelectric resources north of the St. Lawrence River and around James Bay.  To date, the province has built 60 generating stations in what is, aside from the sparse aboriginal populations, uninhabited wilderness.  Hydro-Québec’s largest dam, Robert-Bourassa, ranks 8th in the world.

Above: Robert-Bourassa Generating Station with the Staircase of the Giants spillway. Length: 9,301 feet. Height: 450 feet. Capacity: 5,616 Mw. Total capacity for the La Grande Complex: 16,527 Mw.

La Grande-4. Length: 12,500 feet. Height: 410 feet. Installed capacity: 2,779 MW.

Daniel-Johnson Dam. Length: 4,311 feet. Height: 702 feet. Installed capacity: 2,656 MW.

It’s clearly not a fair fight between these “massive dams” and the rooftop solar panel.  And just when solar power in Massachusetts was growing in leaps and bounds!  Rebates and subsidies have spurred dramatic growth, from 3 Mw installed capacity in 2008 to 464 MW in 2013, making the state 5th in the country in installed solar capacity. 

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, 286 solar companies employ 6,400 people Massachusetts.  “In 2013, $789 million was invested in Massachusetts to install solar…This represents a 50% increase over the previous year, and is expected to grow again this year.”

And yet…in Massachusetts, solar panels receive an average of 4 hours of sun; their capacity factor is rated at 13%.  Therefore, the installed capacity of 464 Mw per hour x 24 hours x 365 days would yield 4.0 terawatt hours at 100% of capacity, but the actual generation is 0.53 Tw/h.  (These are my calculations, since state and federal reports combine solar and wind with “Other Renewables.”)

Numerous wind farms are being constructed, but few have come on line.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency: “Most new renewable generating resources planned in New England are wind-powered, and Massachusetts has set a goal of 2,000 megawatts of wind capacity by 2020. About 5% of that capacity [100 Mw] was in place by mid-2013.”

To summarize the above:

 

Installed Capacity

Megawatts/hour

Annual  Generation

(Terawatt hours)

Robert-Bourassa

7,722 Mw

26.5 Tw/h

Hydro-Québec Total

35,829 Mw

213.3 Tw/h

Three Gorges Dam, China

22,500 Mw

80.0 Tw/h

Massachusetts solar

464 Mw

0.53 Tw/h

Massachusetts wind

100 Mw

0.26 Tw/h

Massachusetts retail sales of Electricity

 

57.1 Twh

After all the RPS mandates, rebates, carve-outs, subsidies; after $789 million spent in 2013; after an explosive growth of the industry, solar power provides less than 1% of Massachusetts’s electricity.

I agree that cheap, efficient, low-carbon renewable hydropower doesn't need special preferences.  But when Mr. Kaplan and other environmentalists talk about “hurting the competitiveness” of wind and solar, they mean, making them less competitive in the market for government handouts.

Out in the real world, wind and solar are less competitive because they’re expensive and cannot come close to meeting the electricity needs of an industrial society.  If your “climate and energy goals” (not mine) are to cut greenhouse gas emissions, you should be clamoring for more hydroelectricity in the mix.  Demanding affirmative action for disadvantaged classes of green energy is a sign that the real goal is to keep the gravy train rolling along.

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