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Dispelling The Myth That Wind and Solar power Need Natural Gas Backup

It's time for innovative solutions

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Power Sources in Ontario

In the last few years, we have increasingly relied on renewables. Alternative energy allows us to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, which, in turn, helps battle air pollution and climate change and improves public health. Clean energy seemingly has no downsides, and yet, like with everything in life, it’s not that simple.


Wind and solar energy are intermittent, meaning they cannot always provide a consistent supply of electricity to meet the demand. That’s why many areas have been using natural gas plants to compensate for the unpredictable nature of wind and solar power.


In fact, there’s a widespread misconception that renewable energy, like wind and solar, needs natural gas backups to function due to its sporadic nature. Today we want to put a stop to this misconception. There are other options that are much better for the environment.


What are they?


Why Gas?


Traditionally, we have been using natural gas plants as complementary power sources to wind and solar because they can react quickly. After all, to function correctly, the power grid must be balanced continuously, and the demand for power and the supply of energy must be very closely matched to maintain stability.

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It’s extremely hard to predict solar and wind output, so there needs to be a “fast backup” power source to maintain balance in the grid. And nothing beats natural gas in that regard; according to a recent research article1, natural gas power generation allows wind and solar to be deployed at a rate of 1:0.88 due to the requirement for a fast backup power source.


If not gas, then what?


What are other Countries doing?

It’s quite ironic that renewables actually increase natural gas consumption. And while that is true, it really doesn’t have to be this way. If we look at Germany, it has shown us that it’s entirely possible to increase renewables while decreasing fossil fuels and nuclear.


Yes, they are still planning to increase their natural gas backup capacity from 90 TWh in 2020 to about 120 to 150 TWh in 2036, but they have also taken the foresight to make backup plants hydrogen ready. So, in theory, hydrogen can become the new backup fuel, allowing Germany to move away from fossil fuels entirely. Fossil fuel consumption will decrease to about 20% of electricity production. Renewables will be the rest. This is an overall decrease for Germany: today, it uses fossil fuels to generate about half of its power.


Renewable Usage in Ontario

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But Germany is Germany, and while we can approve of their plans to decrease fossil fuel consumption, we also have to think about our home. And in Ontario, the situation is difficult: while wind and solar energy sources are 19% of the grid capacity, poor planning has led to only 50% utilization of installed renewable capacity. This means ½ of the wind and solar capacity we have already built and installed to generate power is left unused. Most likely because they are intermittent and require the unwanted natural gas as a backup [7,8]


What is Ontario’s Plan?

Ontario released a directive in late 2022 related to expanding the power grid: the provincial government has recognized the need for increased electrification. Despite that, rather than mandate innovation in backup technologies that could be used to complement wind and solar, Ontario is requesting proposals for more natural gas plants. Unlike Germany’s plan, Ontario has not required natural gas plants to be constructed to be hydrogen ready.

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The increased number of electric vehicles and general increase in demand from the grid is coming and Ontario’s government plans to expand the power grid to meet the increased demand. And yet, instead of mandating innovation in backup technologies that can complement renewables, they have requested proposals for more natural gas plants. This will only increase Ontatio’s greenhouse emissions.

For now, the province needs to find new ways to back up solar and wind power, as well as find ways to expand the capacity.


On a positive note, there’s an upper limit to the amount of natural gas power that can be built, even though this will still increase Ontario’s greenhouse emissions from where we are today.


What we need is the opposite — a complete moratorium on natural gas in Ontario. Is it even possible? It absolutely is, but achieving it will not be easy. According to the IESO report, a moratorium would be feasible in 2027 [5].


Right now, there is no like-for-like replacement for natural gas.

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There are various options — like power storage. We can store intermittent power for later use, smoothing out the peaks and valleys in generation and making it much easier to balance the grid. The technology for it exists, and it seems very promising. In fact, this is how we can solve the energy dilemma here and now without thinking of future theoretical alternatives.


Dealing with Intermittent Solar and Wind Power

One possible solution is called pumped hydro storage, where water is pumped uphill during periods of low energy demand and then released downhill to generate electricity during periods of high demand [2]. Storing energy in the form of hydrogen is yet another possibility [3]. And the final option is compressed air storage [4], where air is compressed and stored underground until it is needed to generate electricity. In fact, Ontario has already piloted compressed air storage. Various battery technologies are also available and being actively developed.


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The Cortes La Muela Pumped Storage Hydropower Plant is the largest Pumped storage power plant of Europe in Spain.


Final Thoughts

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Saying no to natural gas is possible and preferable, but Ontario needs new innovative ways to back up existing solar and wind while finding ways to expand renewable capacity. A complete moratorium is a future possibility; for now, we need to wait and see what proposals are made and what the final plan looks like to see if Ontario will be headed in the right direction. One thing we know for sure: it can be done.



References



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energy-storage-plant-comes-online-in-ontario/



bruttostromverbrauch-2018-2030.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=2




Contributors


Researchers

Mauro Aiello, Ph.D.

Axel Doerwald


Lead Author

Denis Koshelev


Lark Scientific Financial Support

Axel Doerwald


Graphics

Adri Poggetti


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