Quirks and Quarks: Talks reality

The CBC's excellent radio show Quirks and Quarks had a guest who wrote a book "Physics for Presidents" and it got people in a bit of a tizzy. Listen to it in MP3 or OGG.

So much was the reaction, the host Bob MacDonald wrote about it in his blog.

Read it, then check the responses from people. My favourite:
Dave from Ottawa
"A kilogram of coal, on the other hand, contains about 1,000 times more energy than an equivalent volume of air blowing past a windmill."
Now subtract the energy it took to extract and transport that coal to the power plant.
My point is that energy density is a misleading measure. Update the article to compare net energy output of the sources.

My comment to Dave from Ottawa:
Now substract the energy it took to mine the iron, refine it into steel, bend and melt it into a turbine and alternator and transport it from Europe to Ontario. My point is that energy density is not the only measure but the single more leading indicator of a fuel's viability.

I repeat my theorem:
For an energy source to be viable, it must be produced from raw materials using only that fuel source.

If wind power is so great, produce more wind farms from raw materials using only wind power.

This test passes for coal, natural gas, petroleum, and nuclear power. It does not (yet?) pass for wind, solar, hydrogen, or ethanol. Biodiesel is on the fence.

Earth Hour - Consuption vs. Generation


Like this blog, I am here to present facts and explain them. In short - the public data shows no less Coal or Natural Gas was burned during Earth Hour. And yes, the Nuclear plants were still going full-tilt (in fact the Bruce-B Generator-5 increased production prior to the event).


It's great to "do our part" and not consume electricity. But we need to realize that less consumption does not always result in less pollution.

Sounds like anti-Earth propaganda doesn't it? Let me explain by using Earth Hour as an example.

The notion is if we turn off our lights and use less electricity, we make less pollution. Forget for a second that florescent lights in office buildings are much more efficient than the soft glow of incandescent lights typically in homes. And forget that lighting is a very small portion of the total electrical demand.

The Data

Think of how the electricity is generated. In Ontario there are 5 major fuel types being used for generation:
The Independent Electrical System Operator announced that during Earth Hour Ontario electrical demand dropped by 6% from the calculated expected demand.

And Here's The Catch...

Put yourself in IESO's shoes - you control the leavers that can crank up the generators.
  • Your Nuclear generators can be shut down in about 60sec, but take 3 days to get back up to speed - can't touch them since they're your work-horse generators.
  • Your Pulp&Paper and Wind generators produce a fraction of your capacity - don't bother turning them off.
  • Your Natural Gas and Goal generators boil large vats of water into steam to spin turbines. These monsters can turn on faster than Nuclear, but they still take almost an hour to reach full power. (NatGas is a more complicated than this, but you get the idea)
  • All you have left that you can control for this is to throttle down your Hydro generators which are very responsive to turn-off and turn-on commands (60sec!).


The irony is the fuel source perceived to be the cleanest - Hydro - is what gets turned off during Earth Hour because it's the only thing that can be turned on again as demand returns at the end of Earth Hour.

The graphs of the data provided by the IESO generators support this conclusion.

What would make IESO turn down the real polluters of its generation system? If Earth Hour was an all-day event.