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Saturday, June 5, 2021

The IEA Roadmap to Net Zero: A critical review

As promised I read the IEA report carefully and listed some comments, questions and suggestions. The objective was to condense the 224-page document for a broader public and flag some concerns. A worthy objective... but the result, at this stage, is still 13 pages (excluding an Appendix for the layperson outlining energy units and some basic combustion chemistry). And while I am sure my readers are always fascinated by what I write, 13 pages is still a long read. So I have attempted to summarise my summary in a one-page Executive Summary. This is posted below; and the full document is available in PDF format by clicking here

The Executive Summary follows; I hope you enjoy reading, whichever version you choose, and I look forward to your comments and discussion. 

The IEA report “Net Zero by 2050, A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector” made headlines for stating that no new oil or gas exploration is needed if we hope to keep to +1.5°C by 2050. Essentially this saw the OECD agree with environmentalist’s calls to “leave it in the ground”. Other policies will upset environmentalists as much this has upset Big Oil. The world economy is assumed 40% larger in 2050 while using 7% less energy; the question is whether energy savings could be 10% or more?

Energy production and use emitted 33.9 Gt CO2 in 2020, about 75% of the total. The IEA predicts cumulative savings to 2050 of 460 Gt CO2, consistent with IPCC guidelines that we emit no more than another 500 Gt CO2.

Solar PV and wind power are commercial today and provide close to half these savings. But challenges remain with several other technologies needed. 

Biomass power allows stranded coal assets to continue running; it also displaces liquid transportation fuels and natural gas in pipelines. But carbon neutrality of biomass is under threat from unknown levels of new climate-driven emissions from forest fires, insect infestations, floods and desertification. Biomass for power generation contributes to grid stability, but other options could be reviewed. 

Carbon capture (CCUS) is essential for cement kilns, where emissions are not fuel-related, and for thermally-generated power; when the fuel is carbon-neutral biomass, CCUS generates a double-counting benefit. But CCUS requires pipelines to store CO2. Reduced hydrogen from natural gas and more rapid decommissioning of coal-fired plants would reduce the need for CCUS. (Direct air capture located next to CO2 storage would not need pipelines.) 

Nuclear power, which is expected to double, is needed to offload other technologies and to stabilise the grid. But stranded coal assets along with smarter grids and more interconnections will also contribute to grid stability

Energy efficiency increases as world energy use per capita declines from 80 GJ to 56 GJ. The IEA posits a rapid improvement to 2030, with smaller gains to 2050. Increasing efficiencies will be challenging, but small changes early in the process will have a large compounded impact later on.

Hydrogen is needed for industrial combustion, but distribution networks for road transport will be fraught with safety problems. Ideally hydrogen should only be used where it produced, not distributed.

Electric vehicles are more efficient than internal combustion by a factor of about 3, and contribute to transportation use dropping 22% to 80 EJ. A more aggressive approach to urban transportation solutions, driven by gridlock and not climate change, could reduce this through fewer private vehicles. Furthermore, the need for lithium and battery recycling technologies are huge challenges.

Housing space per capita needs to grow, especially in poor countries. But new floor space in urban settings may increase sprawl. Societal changes to reduce sprawl could reduce the average space per capita and the need for cars in suburbs in a synergistic fashion, especially in the developed world.

Overall, it is not surprising that the IEA, as an arm of the OECD, has not put a lot of stock in societal changes that might prove a difficult political sell. This is critical: as the best vaccine is the one in your arm, the best climate change policy is the one that gets implemented, even if it is not technically the best or fastest one, because it is better than no policy. A new publication (Mark Jaccard, The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success: Overcoming myths that hinder progress. Cambridge University press, 2020) describes this well, and is very highly recommended, whether the reader tackles the Roadmap or not.


Friday, May 28, 2021

The IEA roadmap to Net Zero: No additional oil or gas exploration needed

Wow, what a bombshell! The environmentalist community has been saying "leave it in the ground" for years now, but getting the same message from the policy wonks, economists and modellers at IEA makes it harder for governments to ignore it. 

I've been reading it carefully and making some notes, and I'll be posting a summary here soon. Stay tuned! 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Peak pricing: Lessons learned so far

With 49 hours of peak pricing so far this winter (out of a maximum of 100), I've learned a few things. 

First, my basic consumption runs between 4 and 5 kW, as shown in the first two screen grabs from my account on Hydro's web page. The little bump every evening is likely hot water for the shower.

Second, I have been preheating the house prior to a peak event, possibly more than necessary. But the real cost is turning everything back up all at once, with peaks as high as 11 kW. This next screenshot illustrates an extreme example, where the average during the day was about 5.5 kW, but 8 kW in the evening. The 11 kW load right after the evening peak event was due to the house being quite cold, and I will probably not turn everything down so low in the future.

Third, the 2 kW impact of running an oven at 450F for 45 minutes at 18:00 is obvious in this next screenshot. 

Finally I have discovered that several of my thermostats and their associated baseboard heaters never really come into play, at least in the range of outside temperatures encountered so far this year. These are in rooms connected to my large open living area where the doors tend to be open. So rather than 10 thermostats, I really only need to worry about 5. These are the ductless heat pump; a convection unit in the living area; the heated floors in the kitchen and bathroom; and the study, which is in what was originally an unheated coal storage shed and which has two walls exposed to the outside. Leaving the others at 14C does not seem to impact the final temperature in those rooms; and furthermore I can simply shut the doors during a peak event and let the heat pump do it's job on re-opening. 

In other news I have been informed by a colleague of the existence of Hydro-Québec's Hilo program. This offers programmable thermostats that are controllable at a distance via an app on my smart phone. While not relying on Google or Amazon, I would be relying on Hydro's web services remaining functional. As well, it seems they do not yet have remote controllers for heat pumps or for convection units with built-in thermostats; and their system may not be able to control heated floors. So I may only be able to benefit for the single thermostat with baseboard, in the study area. I will dig and report. Stay tuned!

Friday, January 22, 2021

Stop the presses! Hydro-Québec starts thinking about peak pricing

Last fall, Hydro-Québec offered me the opportunity to participate in a pilot project to alter domestic power pricing depending on demand.  


For readers outside Québec: Québecers rely to a very large degree on electricity for home heating and domestic hot water. Modern construction frequently has ducted, forced-air heating systems that can run on a range of energy sources; but my 100-year old row house is typical of older urban neighbourhoods or farmhouses, with no ductwork in the walls or floors: there are baseboard electric heaters in every room. In my case these replaced the pot-bellied coal stove installed when the place was built in about 1920; and I have supplemented it with a ductless heat pump that also serves as an air conditioner in summer.  

Peak power consumption in Quebec therefore arises in the middle of cold snaps in mid-winter, and demand can approach capacity when temperatures are very low. Building new hydro-electric capacity is expensive and increasingly challenging as all the best spots for dams already have dams. (I'm thinking of Site C in BC...) And demand can only increase as reliance on electric vehicles continues to grow. In spite of this, domestic rates have been fixed year round.

New rates for peak hours

The traditional domestic rate, known as Tariff D, is 6.08¢/kWh for the first 40 kWh per day (averaged over a typical billing period), and 9.38¢ for additional kilowatt-hours. In summer, my typical consumption, excluding air conditioning, is well below 40 kWh/d, so my daily demand charge is usually less than $2.43. (There is also a flat fee for connection to the network). 

The new Flex D tariff offers significantly reduced rates from December 1 to March 31, at 4.28¢ and 7.36¢ respectively. But the tradeoff is that Hydro may ask me, in an e-mail prior to 17:00, to cut consumption the following day from 06:00 to 09:00, from 16:00 to 20:00, or both; my demand charge during those periods becomes 50¢/kWh. (The total hours of reduced consumption will not exceed 100 hours, so this won't be more than 14 days, if both periods are requested, over the 4-month winter period.)

Specifics of my home

Having now been through 35 hours of reduced consumption, I can provide some comments. 

First, my 1100 square foot flat in an urban row house is on the ground floor, with an unheated crawl space below and two flats above. So heat loss through the ceiling is low, but the floors tend to be cool. As well, the presence of other row houses on both sides means there are not too many outside walls open to the elements compared to, say, a farmhouse or suburban bungalow. Finally when I renovated a few years ago, I took the opportunity to insulate outside walls (there was nothing but several layers of wood structure and outside brickwork in the past). Post-renovation, the place is a single large open area, with a couple of bedrooms and an office behind doors. Outside doors and windows are 25 years old and were state-of-the-art at the time; one door needs new seals but otherwise it all works well. So the heat losses should be reasonably low. The photo shows the indoor portion of the ductless heat pump on the wall high above a doorway, next to the kitchen cabinets and facing the large open area. 


Being retired, and living alone, I have been able to push this as hard as possible. In the fall I established that the baseload in the absence of heating or cooling, which consists of refrigerator, laptop and screen, and lights (all LED since the renovations), is well under 1 kW. (The digital meter increases in 1 kWh increments, so it can take well over an hour for it to increment in this case.) This is illustrated below in an early attempt, where you can see the power use creeping up towards 20h00 as the place cooled down. (I didn't record the thermostat setpoints or temperatures on this occasion).

Maximum savings

By shutting all power to heat and hot water, and by eating prepared meals reheated in the microwave, I've established that I can drop my power level from about 5 kW to about 0.8 kW. Indoor temperature, keeping all doors closed, drops at about 1 degree C per hour. Essentially, starting at 21C, the temperature inside reaches 18C after 3 hours and 17C after 4 hours. This is with a temperature difference between inside and out of about 25C; with a difference of 35 degrees the rate of cooling is closer to 1.6C/h. Some rooms are cooler than others, and dropped faster; the small laundry room, with a large vent pipe connecting the dryer to outside, is a case in point. 

Realistic savings

This level of reduction, from 5 kW to 0.8 kW, is a bit extreme because the house is quite chilly at the end of it, and might not be acceptable to all family members. It also requires foregoing cooking using an electric range during the cold period. But it maximises potential savings which could be as high as $200 over the entire winter if Hydro-Québec wants the full 100 hours. A more realistic scenario is reducing to 1.1 kW, saving closer to $130 for the season, by maintaining some heating; I am also evaluating heating the house to 23C prior to reducing, which will increase my consumption in the cheaper period. I don't have data yet on this option but will evaluate and report the next time we get a really cold period.

Conclusions and recommendations

Overall some thoughts:

  • This works if you are at home to adjust thermostats. In particular, as a retiree, getting up at 05:55 to shut everything down was a bit of a pain, to be frank. 
  • Given the existence of individually controlled baseboard heaters in every room, I have a large number of thermostats (10, to be exact). So this involves running around setting each one; and given the relative thermal capacities and demands of each room, there is not a single setting that works for each. Being an engineer, I've worked up a spreadsheet for this...
  • Some kind of programmable thermostat would be highly advisable for a family where people are in and out. In fact, being able to slave all the thermostats to a single input would be really nice.
  • Using internet-connected thermostats would be helpful, but I recall reading recently that when Google went offline for a couple of hours, some folks with the Google Home app were unable to even turn on a light. How much control do you want to give to Google?
  • Frequent opening of outside doors will throw all this out. I had workers coming through to install a new garage door, and while the garage is a separate building, I still had to go in and out to let them in, supervise and so on. The temperature decline hit 1.2C/h even though the day was relatively mild. 
  • Hot water is potentially a hidden issue. If you take a shower at 05:45, then cut the heat at 06:00, the hot water tank may well be running for sometime after 06:00. Avoid large hot water uses at least an hour prior to the cut-off time, or kill power to it at the circuit breaker.
  • Of course a dual-heat system, with the ability to switch from electricity to natural gas, will help out. It won't help greenhouse gas emissions if the power supply is all hydro-electric, as it is in Québec.
  • As illustrated below, using the oven and a couple of stove-top elements for about 45 minutes to make dinner drove the power usage over that hour up to about 3 kW, for an average over the 4-hour period of about 1.35 kW. This turns out to be enough to just about eliminate any savings arising from the lower rate for the rest of the day; but there will continue to be savings from lower rates on other non-event days. 

The current cold snap being over, I'll have more data only once further cold events arise. 

In closing...

Like other provinces, Hydro-Québec will likely be putting some sort of pricing mechanism for residential customers in place at some time in the near future. Let's hope the pilot program teaches them something about the issues, and how to make it more consumer-friendly. At this point, it seems to me that the biggest issue for most people without a dual-heat system will be installing programmable and possibly remote controlled systems so you don't have to be home baby-sitting your system, even if the objective is merely to break even and avoid excessive use during high cost periods.

Stay tuned!

Friday, May 15, 2020

What's coming, post-pandemic? (Assuming there is a post-pandemic...)

After 9/11, especially the following summer, I noticed (anecdotal data here) that cars with US license plates visiting Eastern Canada where I live, which used to be dominated by New York and Vermont with occasional cars from NH, Connecticut, Massachusetts or NJ, now included regular plates from farther away (PA, MI, OH, VA, KY, even Texas), implying these people were driving 15 to 30+ hours rather than flying. This died down after about a year and everyone calmed down and got back on airplanes. 

It will be interesting to see what happens this time around. If the consumer, who is now working from home more or less permanently, decides to stay home in their pyjamas and bake bread, there's going to be a huge shift in the retail market, with major impacts all the way back up the supply chain to raw materials and energy. This article (click here)serves to start the discussion.

Same old, same old? Or Brave New Post-Consumer society? The impact on the bio-products world is unpredictable. Simply making traditional products, but from a renewable raw material, may not be enough.

We certainly live in interesting times.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Long term inpact of the pandemic: Fearless Predictions

Recently I wrote about stability of systems, in the context of the current pandemic. How things have changed in that short time! And still no sign of stability on the horizon at this point... the marble is rocketing around the salad bowl (or maybe heading over the Event Horizon into a Black Hole).

With lots of time on my hands as I sit at home reading online newspapers, it's time to make some Fearless Predictions.

I recall that after 9/11, there were plenty of predictions of massive change in the airline industry. In the summer of 2002 I recall seeing cars with license plates from much further away than usual as I wandered around my home city; these were people who were intent on vacationing, and were prepared to drive 10 or 20 hours rather than risk a 2-hour flight. But as we all know, air travel recovered, and the only impact was annoying (and probably relatively ineffective) security measures that added an anxious extra hour at airports. Will this time be different? Here are some specific potential impacts.

Cruise ships
Ah, yes, cruise ships. also known as floating Petri dishes. It is easy to predict the end of the cruise ship industry, but recall the Norwalk virus that turned cruise ships into floating vomitoria in the late '70s. The industry seems to have recovered from that one. Perhaps customers simply forgot about the issue. Which brings us to:

Commercial aviation

Are airplanes flying Petri dishes? Certainly I always seemed to come down with my annual flu bug shortly after getting off a long-haul on my way home from a conference, but of course I may have picked it up at the conference, not on the flight. As noted above, the flying public eventually flocked back to airports after 9/11 as the fear of being hijacked into a building was alleviated by the appearance of security at airports. (I flew to England for a conference on 9/13). Really cheap tickets helped. Will the fear of sitting next to someone hacking and coughing for a few hours be alleviated by additional medical screening, even if it might be of doubtful efficacy, to go along with removing our shoes and belts and limiting our creams and lotions to 100 mL bottles? Hard to say but meanwhile a lot of flimsier charter or discount airlines will have gone under, and a lot of experienced pilots may well have decided to retire.

In any case the trends towards alarmingly youthful pilots will continue. Some of them don't even look like they are shaving yet! (I am talking about the men, of course.)

Hotels and AirBnB
The hotel industry faces some challenges in the short term. Businesses are going to be watching every penny for the foreseeable future, and will be sending people to actual physical meetings only where it can be shown that it is absolutely essential to meet a mission-critical objective. Conferences and other gatherings that use hotel ballrooms and kitchens will also dry up. As for the tourist, well, who knows; some are hardier than others and aviation was flying packed tourist flights again with a couple of years of 9/11. But cheap gas will encourage the American tourist to drive, and so there could be an uptick in demand for hotels before aviation recovers.

As for AirBnB, well, it's toast. I hope. It's one thing to occasionally rent out a spare bedroom, quite another to take on loads of debt to buy apartment buildings with a plan to fleece travellers. These folks are facing bankruptcy wherein the real estate will be repossessed; hopefully all those flats can be returned to the rental pool permanently where they belong, without contributing to another subprime mortgage crisis. Which is what the forthcoming wave of AirBnB-related bankruptcies will be, even if the rates are not subprime this time around.

Commercial rental real estate
In urban areas, armies of office workers have left their cube farms in downtown high rise buildings. Having been handed a laptop and a cell phone on the way out, they are now working from home. Companies have been loath to encourage telework, perhaps because of concerns about employees goofing off if not supervised every instant of the day, but I suspect the average cube farm dweller manages to goof off even when "supervised". So if efficiency remains the same, why pay for all that expensive Class A downtown office space? Save the rental costs and transfer office expenses to the taxpayer via income tax credits for home office expenses. 

So where does that leave owners of commercial office space? Ouch.
Oil and gas: Supply, demand and prices
OK, this one is a tough one, given the chaos a couple of wingnuts named Mohammed and Vladimir can wreak. Last time Saudi Arabia tried to kill off the US shale oil industry by opening up the taps, they failed after burning through hundreds of billions of dollars taken from their cash reserves. This time, with help from Vlad (increasing supply) and the pandemic (cutting demand), they might just succeed. Hopefully they will kill off the Alberta oil sands as well, causing Alberta to swing to development of massive green energy systems, because we know Alberta does massive energy systems really really well, but I'm not holding my breath on that one. So once the competition is decimated, Saudi Arabia and Russia will reduce production and hope to drive the price up again, in order to fix the damage to their treasuries. I am sure they are hoping that demand will be growing again by then, as the US tourist chooses to drive 20 hours to Niagara Falls rather than fly to Buffalo. 

Recognition of the value of critical services
Nurses, doctors, heat and power plants, water and effluent treatment plants, garbage collection ... and undocumented immigrant farm workers, truckers and grocery clerks. (The US has been giving papers to undocumented, illegal migrant workers who are facing deportation. The papers state they perform an essential service and are allowed to break lockdown rules. Where is Cesar Chavez when you need him?) Hopefully these folks, who are belatedly getting some recognition for their contributions, can maintain some of the increased salaries and social security benefits that are being offered to keep them from quitting and taking advantage of government subsidies to people put out of work by the pandemic. The wealthy don't realise the importance of the proletariat who support their life styles. And yes, I count myself as wealthy, even if I'm not a millionaire. 

Toilet paper and other "away from home" products
Manufacturers of tissue and towel (the fancy name for toilet paper and other absorbent papers) have switched capacity from the so-called away-from-home market (brown papers used in public restrooms, hotels and restaurants) to the consumer market where fluffier, whiter grades are needed. No big change here. But apparently the drop in milk consumption in institutional settings such as restaurants, hotels and (mainly) schools, has not been matched by an increase in home use. It seems that dairy producers in the US and Canada have been sewering milk that they can't sell, because the cow cranks it out regardless, to the tune of 3% of production. Now 3% sounds small but this is still millions of litres. Some has gone to increased cheese production, but that's also a market where there is only so much cheese that the world wants; making more isn't going to help. I would not have expected this, which raises the question: what other industries sell to both markets, and what might be the impact on them? 

Local production of critical emergency material
In the Western world, several decades of cost-cutting have led to lots of things being made offshore in jurisdictions with cheaper labour. Americans shopping at Walmart have saved a pile of money, which is a good thing because their well-paying manufacturing jobs have all gone offshore and they are making less money in the service economy. But we are finding that pharmaceuticals, medical masks, gowns and specialised equipment such as ventilators are increasingly being requisitioned by the countries where the products are made. You don't see the US Department of Defence outsourcing production of ammunition, let alone fighter jets, to China... there will be opportunities for each country (or state, given the way the US is forcing states to compete with each other) to build up internal capacity for the next pandemic, with resulting new manufacturing capacity required. 

Because there will be another pandemic.That's not a Fearless Prediction. That's a Fact.