Starting a Dialogue – Can we really get to a "fossil fuel-free BC"?

I have written a lot of posts in the last four months discussing and describing issues to consider in the fields of energy, renewable energy and pipelines. Based on the feedback, many of those posts have been viewed as being somewhat pro-industry. As I have described in my recent posts, I disagree with that implication and would argue that I am pragmatic environmentalist with a desire to advance good, evidence-based policies. One of the most frustrating roadblocks to developing good, evidence-based policies in BC is an absence of a reasonable set of baseline numbers that can serve as a foundation upon which to begin any discussion. Even my favourite touchstone website Energy BC fails when it comes down to actually providing the necessary numbers, in readily comparable units, that would allow non-specialists and specialists alike a common basis for addressing areas of agreement and disagreement. In my mind, the absence of these baseline numbers is one of the main reasons why I can’t have a simple discussion with the people from TankerFreeBC etc… It would also help to explain why I cannot accept the premises of many of their arguments.

The first step in any evidence-based decision making process involves getting the evidence/data out there so all parties in the discussion are starting from a level playing field. In the spirit of this I would like to lay out some general numbers that will help us start a dialogue and clarify the positions of the various parties in this discussion. The biggest area of confusion with regards to energy use in British Columbia lies in the fact that most of the actors on both sides of the debate are unaware of the actual energy needs of our province. There is an ongoing myth out there that most of BC energy needs are already being met via renewable energy sources (primarily hydro) and as such it should be relatively easy to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. As I will demonstrate below, this is a myth. While it is true that the majority of British Columbia’s electricity supply (almost 94% according to the BC Gov) is supplied via renewable energy sources this only represents a small percentage of the actual energy needs of British Columbia. To further explain I am going to have to define a few terms.

Petajoule (PJ): A petajoule is the standard unit of energy used in international energy discussions to allow for direct comparisons between energy sources. A petajoule is 1015joules and is enough energy to supply the yearly gas and electricity needs of 9000 BC households or gasoline to drive 7000 automobiles on BC roads for a year (ref).

Killowatt/hr (KWh), Megawatt/hr (MWh)and Gigawatt/hr (GWh): these measure the capacity to generate electrical energy. Household energy is measured in KWh (1000 watts); generating facilities are measured in MWh (1,000,000 watts) and energy is discussed in GWh (1 billion watts). Approximately 278 GWh are equivalent to 1 PJ. (ref)

Capacity: Capacity is a measure of the absolute maximum amount of energy a generating facility can produce. A dam’s generators, running at 100% capacity would represent the capacity for that unit.

Capacity Factor: A capacity factor is a qualifier that takes into account the fact that no facility is able to work at 100% capacity 100% of the time. As an example, a solar photovoltaic facility can only operate when the sun is shining and does not operate in the dark so if the unit can only operate at its capacity for 25% of the time then its capacity factor would be 25%. Multiplying a generating unit’s capacity, by its capacity factor provides an estimate of the energy that unit will produce (ref).

Depending on your reference, BC’s total energy consumption, inclusive of the energy required to create secondary electricity, was approximately 1,142 PJ in 2000 (ref) approximately 1,264 PJ in 2009 (ref) and/or approximately 1,070 PJ in 2010 (ref). I’m providing multiple numbers because, frankly, I don’t know which one to trust. For the purposes of this discussion I am going to rely on the median, the Globe Foundation number, of around 1,142 PJ of energy a year. This translates to approximately 317,500 GWh of energy. According to BC Hydro, in 2012 BC Hydro’s total energy requirements were 57,083 GWh (ref). This means that BC Hydro supplied less than 18% of the total energy used in BC and that renewable electricity component represents approximately 17% of our yearly energy needs. Now that we have addressed electrical energy that leaves over 82% of our provincial energy usage being derived from sources other than BC Hydro. Of that over 82% remaining energy about 33% (approx 380 PJ) was supplied via fossil fuels (excluding natural gas); about 26% (approx 300 PJ) was supplied via natural gas; about 20% (approx 225 PJ) was supplied via burning of waste biomass in industrial facilities; and the remaining was supplied via coal and coke (mostly for use in cement plants) (ref).

Looking at the numbers above, the simplistic solutions of many of the loudspeaker activists can do nothing but come crashing down. When they claim we can have a “fossil fuel-free BC” what they are saying is that we can somehow replace the almost 60% of our energy needs currently being met with fossil fuels through alternative sources. In order to do so we would need to essentially triple our current renewable energy supply and while that sounds doable (in some people’s minds) that ignores the fact that much of the most readily available hydro has already been built-up. To make it completely clear at how impossible this goal is let’s delve into the numbers some more.

Let’s start by eliminating the natural gas from the equation. We will accept, for the moment, that natural gas represents the cleanest of the fossil fuel sources of energy and go after the dirtier stuff first. Now according to the Globe Foundation, of the 380 PJ of petroleum products used for energy in BC, approximately 50% is gasoline, approximately 24% is diesel, approximately 20% is aviation fuel and approximately 6 % is heavy oil. To further simplify the math let’s now ignore aviation fuel and heavy fuel oil and stick only to the gasoline and diesel. In 2013 British Columbians consumed approximately 4.5 billion liters of gasoline and 2.1 billion litres of diesel fuel (Stats Can). With an energy density of 8.76 KWh/L (ref) for gasoline and 9.7 KWh/L for diesel (ref) converting that usage to pure energy needs translates to 3.942 x 1010KWh or 39,420 GWh for the gasoline component and 2.037 x 1010 KWh or 20,370 GWh. In total the gasoline and diesel consumed in BC in 2013 was equivalent to approximately 59,750 GWh. So if through some feat of magic we were able to convert all the cars and trucks in BC to electrical vehicles, and assuming 100% charging efficiency, you would need to essentially double the electricity supplied by BC Hydro to address the shortfall. Now consider that the Site C dam, once completed, is expected to generate 5,100 GWh of electricity (ref). So to replace the energy currently provided by gasoline and diesel fuels (ignoring natural gas, aviation fuel and fuel oils) we would need to find the energy equivalent to almost 12 Site C dams!

While I recognize that given improved transit and smart planning we may be able to reduce our energy needs for transportation somewhat I will note the following. The vast majority of British Columbia cannot be served by mass transit. There is simply not enough money available to give every driver in Creston, Invermere, Burns Lake, and Fort Saint John an alternative to driving. Heck even in the Greater Vancouver area we cannot seem to find the funds to send a single bus to the Gloucester Industrial Park in North Langley! The biggest new warehousing facility in BC with literally thousands of lower paid warehouse employees demanding bus service and they can’t get a single bus route. Moreover, all the transit in the world will not address the need for panel vans and light trucks. Contractors, suppliers and salespeople cannot use the transit system because they need their tools/supplies. Finally no amount of transit will reduce the need for the transport trucks that bring the groceries to market and supply the boutiques of Vancouver since the last time I looked it was pretty much impossible to move a pallet of milk on SkyTrain.

So let’s have a serious discussion here people. Given this generation’s technologies we are not going to be going cold turkey on fossil fuels anytime soon and if we are not going cold turkey then we had better find a safe way to transport those fossil fuels to where they need to be used. As I have written before, given our dependence on fossil fuels, I would prefer they travel in pipelines and via double-hulled tankers rather than on trains, barges or tanker trucks.

Author’s Note: In an outside conversation I have been asked to consider how many nuclear plants would be necessary to address our gasoline and diesel needs in BC. Since I wrote this post I came across the 100% WWS USA paper (discussed in later blog postings) which provides an estimate of the improved efficiency associated with electrifying the automobile industry. Based on their numbers, improvements in efficiency associated with electrifying automobiles and trucks could reduce the amount of energy required to operate our automobiles by as much as 32% (excluding losses associated to transmission, bad batteries etc…). Thus it could be argued that we would only need about 46,000 GWh of power to run our automobiles and trucks. This brings us down from 12 Site C dams to a mere 9 Site C dams.

As described in the original documents Site C is anticipated to have 1,100 MW of installed capacity and our newly calculated equivalence would represent a need for approximately 9,920 MW of capacity. Each of the CANDU reactor units in the Darlington nuclear power plant in Ontario is rated at approximately 881 MW of capacity and Darlington has four units (3512 MW of installed capacity). So to meet our gasoline and diesel energy requirements using CANDU reactors would take the equivalent of approximately 3 Darlington nuclear generating stations.

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28 Responses to Starting a Dialogue – Can we really get to a "fossil fuel-free BC"?

  1. I think you can replace fossil fuels with 36 nuclear power plants and a wind turbine kit = to 3 times the hydro capacity.


  2. So …. in light of your enlightenment above … would I be correct (for want of a better word) in following my (admittedly non-science based) instincts by voting “No” to the (4 envelope … and how many trees were sacrificed for this, I wonder!) “Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite”?!


  3. Blair says:

    In order to reduce our fossil fuel use we need to enhance usership of transit and thus a “yes” would be the vote if climate change is your concern.


  4. crf says:

    There are a few mistakes or inaccuracies in your post (But keep up the good work!):

    * ” Killowatt/hr (KWh), Megawatt/hr (MWh)and Gigawatt/hr (GWh) “

    It's Kilowatt-hr , Megawatt-hr and Gigawatt-hr
    (It may look to readers that you are saying to divide kilowatts by hours (kW/hr), but it should be clear that you multiply them. A watt is 1 Joule per second, and so multiplying this by unit of time will give Joules, a unit of energy).
    Also it is usual to write kW (small k).

    * “Household energy is measured in KWh (1000 watts)”

    You may wish to write:
    “Household energy is measured in kWh (1000 watt-hours)”

    And correct the similar problem with MWh and GWh.

    Finally, I'll just do the calculation for however many GWh are equivalent to a PJ. It is just algebra, but even simple things, like the difference between a Watt and Joule, is lacking in public commentary about energy in popular culture and newspapers.

    GWh = 10^9Wh = 10^9(J/s)(h)(3600(s/h))=(3.6)10^12 J

    The prefix Peta means 10^15 and Giga, 10^9.
    How may GWh in a petaJoule? Let this be X:
    X GWh = 1 PJ
    X(3.6)10^12 J = 10^15 J
    X = 10^15 / ((3.6)(10^12) = 1000/ 3.6 = 10000/36 = 277.777…


  5. Blair says:


    Given the multiplicity of possible conventions, I chose the one preferred by our local regulator in their documentation and on their web site.


  6. P@J says:

    OK, my turn for a picky point. the equivalent of 59,750 GWh of transportation fuel may have been consumed, but how much of that energy was actually used for transportation? A quick look at LLNL data and about 80% of transportation fuel energy is rejected through the various limits to internal combustion efficiency, even after 100+ years of improvement to the technology. Current electric vehicles are more than 60% efficient, and it may be assumed that this number will increase with battery technology. So your 60,000 GWh becomes morel like 20,000 Gwh. Still a crazy number, but Site C alone could supply 1/4 of it.


  7. Blair says:


    Based on the research, the estimate is an improvement of about 30% when going from liquid fuels to electrical. So the number goes down to about 41,000 Gwh and that ignores charging efficiency and transmission loss for vehicles. I included the refined numbers in my HuffPro blog.


    • There is one VERY important missing calculation in the conversion of gas and diesel cars to electric powered ones that you have completely left out. EVs are extremely efficient and don’t require nearly the amount of power to run. Also, MOST of the gas/diesel consumed is wasted (mostly in heat, idling, etc) so only 20%-30% goes to propelling the vehicle forward (or backward). EV batteries, on the other hand are extremely efficient — between 80%-90%, so a comparison for internal combustion engine for same amount of energy is like comparing an LED lightbulb to an oven. Now make that recalculation for accuracy and you’ll find we can make that magic conversion without even building 1 Site C dam. Chargers are also very efficient so there is very little loss in the charging of the vehicles as you state. There’s WAY more loss in extraction, transport, refining, transport and transport again to the gas stations and then measure the average loss from spillage — all coming from outside BC. Our clean electricity is home-brewed with a little loss on transmission lines in comparison. It also supports our local BC utility and economy without relying on OPEC or the oil sands.


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  26. biletubes says:

    I think I it’s great to clarify the facts about total energy consumption because I agree most people aren’t aware of the energy mix in BC. But when you start making conjectures about alternative consumption it’s important to get those numbers right to. When you calculate the electrical power needed to displace gasoline and diesel in transportation you use the energy content of the fuels rather than the useful end-use (motive) power generated which means your comparison is out by a factor of about 3 (1/efficiency of an internal combustion engine). So your conclusion that “you would need to essentially double the electricity supplied by BC“ is quite wrong. It would be a substantial amount of power generation for sure but not double if you account for the efficiency of energy conversion in both conventional vehicle engines and electric batteries and motors.


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