It is strange how one of the most pervasive things in our lives, electricity, is something we only take notice of when it’s unavailable. A black-out makes us completely aware of how indispensable this form of energy is to us. In our everyday lives though, we rarely question how it’s used and the impacts it has on the world around us. Looking into this topic more closely uncovers some interesting trends.
Our consumption of electricity has grown from 367.91 B KWh(Billion kilo watt hours) in 1980 to 566.28 B KWh in 2003. This equates to an overall growth of 54%, making for an average of 2.3% growth per year. Our breakdown of electrical generation during this period was:
Generation Breakdown by Type:
Generation in Billion KWh:
It is interesting to see that Alternatives (Geothermal, Wind, Solar and wood) have seen the highest growth of 589%, but still only account for 1.5% of our overall generation. Both nuclear and thermal (coal, oil, and natural gas) have seen growths of over 90%. The hydroelectric sector has seen the smallest amount of growth at only 32% but has added the most power, 81 Billion KWh, to our overall generation. Thermal was a very close second, adding 74.7 Billion KWh.
Looking at conventional thermal in more depth from the period of 1990 to 2003, a notable trend emerges towards the use of natural gas, where it has grown from supplying 3% of overall generation to 9% in 2003. This comes as a result of switching from coal and oil to a cleaner burning fuel with comparable costs, a trend that is now threatened by the dwindling supply of domestic natural gas. To compensate for this, a shift towards the importation of LNG (liquified natural gas) is beginning to take center stage, a shift that has been accelerated due to the shortages caused by the hurricances Katrina and Rita, which so far has resulted in the loss of 12% of the annual production of natural gas in the Gulf of Mexico.
Looking into the demand side for the same period (1990-2003) shows a disturbing trend in space cooling (air-conditioning). Growth in residential sector electricity use was 13%, and of that, the single largest growth component was a 113% increase in energy consumption for space cooling. Likewise, electricity consumption growth in the commercial/institutional sector was 32%, with the single largest growth change also in space cooling, which increased by 93%. The amount used for space cooling still only accounts for 4.5% of electricity use in Canada. We are much below what the US uses for space cooling. Roughly 30% of their overall electricity consumption goes towards air conditioning. But the trend is a huge growing concern for the world nonetheless.
The air-conditioner can be viewed as the SUV’s of the electricity world. They consume enormous amounts of power and are often used when not required. A small window air-conditioner unit draws more power in a summer than a fridge does for the entire year. A central air unit is far worse. It is akin to the combined power required to run a fridge, stove, and clothes dryer during a typical year.
Adoption of space cooling can be referred to as a positive feedback system. Due to hot summers (global-warming) more Canadians are adopting air-conditioning to keep cool. This in turn requires more electricity to be generated, which causes more greenhouse gases to be released, causing further warming, thus causing more air-conditioning and the vicious cycle continues to reinforce itself.
Positive feedback loops in engineering terms are a form of amplification, and when left uncontrolled, lead to a circumstance called saturation. This is the point where a maximum is reached and held. This result is normally an undesirable outcome.
As we become witness to global warming how will we collectively react? Will it be in ways that reinforce positive feedback systems like this and accelerate the warming rate, or will guidelines and laws be put into place to stop such things from occurring. To date, the latter does not look promising.
The demand for electricity has always been a growth industry and still continues to be. Much of the new growth is coming from the developing countries. Power corporations within the industrial world are looking towards these new growth prospects in the hopes of adding value for their shareholders.
The world has some very tough decisions to make on how this growth will be met. As the price of natural gas increases, other “dirtier” fossil fuels, such as coal and heavy oil, become cheaper alternatives again. The pollution effects from these become directly noticeable and felt. Both nuclear and hydroelectric are viewed as “clean” alternatives, even though their long-term environmental effects are still not clearly understood nor are they completely visible at first. The other renewable alternatives (wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal) are not considered adequate enough to make any real significance in the overall picture, as evidenced by the fact that only 1.5% of our generation comes from these sources. Conservation efforts are slowly being ramped up and marketed but still have not effected the amount of electrical devices we continue to bring into our households. Nor has overall population growth slowed, which continues to add more and more energy consuming households every year.
An example that drives these issues home is the involvement of Fortis Inc in building a hydroelectric dam in the remote jungles of Belize. Fortis is a Canadian conglomerate headquartered in St John’s, Newfoundland. They are also the majority shareowners of the Belize Electricity Limited company and have funded, along with help from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), a huge dam project on the Macal river deep within the central American country of Belize. This development has received so much opposition that it landed in the Privy Council, the highest court in England (Belize is a British Protectorate) and became the first environmental case ever to be heard before the council. Fortis ended up winning, but the case was shrouded in controversy. A number of documents came forward proving that Fortis and BEL had been withholding information about the project from the onset.
The dam has since been constructed, and according to Fortis, is operational. Local witnesses claim that there are some disconcerting problems with it, one being that the reservoir has not filled with any water. In fact, the river was at such a low level in January 2005 it could be walked across.
Part of a jungle has been destroyed by a Canadian company with the prospects of supplying more electricity to a growing economy. The environmental effects are now visible and the overall damage is slowly being realized. What’s worse is that the entire project may have been a complete failure.
Stories like these are the ones that need to be understood, for they will be writing themselves over and over again in the years ahead as we desperately try to deal with meeting our energy demands. Currently, these stories are not being brought to the public eye.
Fortunately, a Canadian by the name of Claire Welch is working hard to see that this happens. She is currently living in Vancouver and leaving for Belize to finish filming her documentary, “Naked Beyond Belize: Mother Nature is being stripped of her clothes,” the story of damming the dammed. She has already interviewed leading experts on the issue, such as Robert F Kennedy Jr, and Prof John Kirton, Director of Political Science, U of T, among others. Depending on funds, the documentary should be on the film festival circuit in the beginning of 2007. It will be one of the first in-depth accounts of the ill-effects of globalization as we try to meet our ever-growing energy demands.
She does need help in order to complete this film in a timely manner. If interested, please visit her website at www.nakedbeyondbelize.com.