Reducing carbon emissions in Saskatoon or lowering utility costs: can we have both? Read on...
The City of Saskatoon is consulting with citizens on its Renewable Energy Strategy which will be presented to City Council in 2022. I received an email to provide input via a survey. Let's do some homework, then come back to the survey.
The Renewable Energy Strategy is anchored by Saskatoon's Low Emissions Community Plan (PDF), published in 2018. Let's highlight a few stated objectives and benefits from the Plan.
Lots of jobs and reduced expenses for residents:
And lower utility bills for residents and businesses:
Jobs and lower costs for residents? That's great! Right?
When you click on the recent survey link (which is available until July 12, 2022 on the Renewable Energy Strategy Engage page) the first question is "what is your level of support for the following city-led initiatives?"
Lots of these initiatives seem like positives. Saskatoon's landfill gas capture power generation system has been marketed to citizens as a big green-energy win, with a 9-year payback (source, see FAQ section). Solar is good (right?).
However, Question Three on the survey is essentially, "how do you want to pay for this?"
The options are we "may need to" do one (or more) of the following:
- Increasing property taxes
- Increasing utility rates
- Borrowing through low-interest loans [BN: how are these paid back? My guess is property taxes and/or utility rates]
- None of the above
Conclusion: The City is dropping some strong hints that this group of renewable energy projects will fail to reduce utility rates.
The question to explore:
Why might (some of) these City-led renewable energy initiatives fail to meet (some of) the objectives of the Low Emissions Community Plan, resulting in increased property taxes and utility rates for citizens?
Let's hypothesize and/or investigate why these initiatives would increase costs, one initiative at a time.
- Landfill Gas Capture. Until this afternoon, I thought this project was a green-energy win with its 9-year payback. Then I found this memo suggesting the 9 years (from 2014) payback is now 30+ year payback due to lower-than-predicted gas volumes, maintenance costs and expensive contractors, unreliable equipment, and operational challenges (see also: this PDF slide deck showing maintenance challenges like condensate lines frozen shut in winter).
- Combined Heat & Power. Skip: I haven't read anything on this.
- Utility-scale solar pilot. What I like: "Utility scale" - the companion doc from the survey says the plant is 2.2 MW. What I don't like: Solar, specifically PV (photovoltaic) solar (in contrast to concentrating solar, which are just big mirrors). Why would this increase utility rate and taxes?
- Solar is low energy density. This City PowerPoint PDF says 14 acres of land will be used. This page on Our World In Data helps illustrate how many meters-squared of land is used by different energy sources. If Saskatoon continues to build out utility-scale solar in City limits, we use up valuable land that could have been put other productive or social-good uses. We will spend more time and materials maintaining a relatively large footprint with a relatively low impact.
- Solar is intermittent. Solar needs to be backed up by dispatchable energy (e.g. gas, coal, hydro). The Background tab on the Engage page says Saskatoon is "ideal" for solar with 2,260 hours of bright sunlight per year. I interpret this as the effective utilization of a solar panel is ~26%. While the project documents talk about an 11-year payback and "cost neutral to ratepayers" (PowerPoint linked above), I hypothesize the City has not accounted for rising rates from SaskPower over the next decade(s) as the utility struggles to integrate renewables into their grid (book rec), and manage rising costs of natural gas and carbon (see my last post). If Saskatoon wants to pay for solar, they also have to want to pay for dispatchable energy to be on standby.
- The life of the plant is 30 years. I have not seen (but have not looked for) a decommissioning and/or recycling plan for these panels which are full of heavy metals and circuitry fused into glass and silicon. Is it illogical to think that in the future we will impose thorough (and expensive) requirements for decommissioning and recycling solar PV panels?
- Rooftop solar on City buildings. All of the points about the utility-scale solar above, multiplied by project management, engineering, planning, permitting, and installation costs for dozens of city buildings instead of one large utility-scale site. Capital cost per MW of generation capacity skyrockets. Operating and maintenance costs per installed panel go up (think: electrician travel time and per-building delays). That hits your utility bill.
- Solar at the Wastewater Treatment Plant. I've covered solar enough.
- Biogas use at the Wastewater Treatment Plant. This is the one item on the list I'm cautiously optimistic for. Biogas, like the Landfill gas project, should be a dispatchable (steady) source, or at least less intermittent than solar. The plan (see companion doc) is to use biogas for heating at the WWTP, which would offset natural gas usage. It may also be used for electricity generation.
- Purchase renewable energy credits through SaskPower. It should be obvious why this would increase utility rates and/or property taxes. This is a straightforward payment of cash to the provincial utility with nothing tangible returned to the City.
- Renewable energy storage. Pro: Adding a battery and limiting it to only storing renewably-generated energy would increase the effective utilization of renewable energy sources like solar and landfill gas. Con: Limiting the battery to charging on renewable energy may constrain useful functionality, e.g. charging the battery from grid/gas when it's dead may help mitigate local grid blips or brownouts. I suspect a high cost per MW/MWh at the scale the City might investigate. SaskPower is already investigating this at "grid scale" (see my last post) - maybe we should wait and see the results.
Is this guy against renewables? Get him!
I am not opposed to renewable energy. I am a huge and growing fan of zero-carbon energy and decarbonization in general. Renewable energy has a role to play in our energy systems.
I am generally opposed to (but open to exploring) small-scale renewable energy projects. As David C. MacKay writes in Sustainable Energy - Without The Hot Air, "every BIG helps!" Let's maximize the value of the time, energy, money, and raw materials by looking for big changes with big impacts.
I am mildly opposed to, perhaps hesitant is a better word, the idea of municipalities executing their own strategies for sourcing and generating energy. The Grid by Gretchen Bakke had a powerful idea which I'll paraphrase: grids are best run on a socialism model. They should be owned by the people and serve the widest public good, which should be delivering reliable, low-cost energy. Since energy sources added to any part of our provincial grid impact every other part of it (and every ratepayer), the more centrally and systematically our grid is managed, the better. Like healthcare. (compare and contrast to dysfunctional grids and health care systems in the USA running on free-market models - also covered in Bakke's book). The people of Saskatchewan should be having this conversation at the provincial level.
I am strongly opposed to deploying intermittent renewables like solar PV under the guise that they will lower utility rates and/or property taxes to ratepayers. I am not convinced this is doable (I've seen too many cost/benefit analyses with a positive benefit dragged 20 years into the future in Excel, missing risks, operations & maintenance costs, etc., to trust projections). Again: if we want to pay for solar (or wind, etc.) we have to also want to pay for dispatchable energy, or expensive energy storage like batteries, to be on standby. Paying to maintain and operate two parallel and redundant sets of infrastructure means costs go up.
The point is: we have to have a conversation about if we care MORE about reducing emissions (undoubtedly good) than we care about the costs of building and operating intermittent renewables and/or small energy projects that don't benefit from size/scale, and increase our utility bills, and increase energy poverty. What is the best environment/energy value per time or dollar spent for citizens of Saskatoon? Is municipal the right jurisdiction to build energy projects? What and where should our focus be, municipally and/or provincially?
I don't want to say we shouldn't also make small changes, innovate, and get experience with new technologies. But we should be really, really sure they are changes in the right direction. If the LECP was trying to deliver lower costs and reduced energy poverty, this recent engagement survey signals we are not moving in the right direction.
Last idea for now. Take a look at Page 12 of the Low Emissions Community Plan. The two most impactful initiatives Saskatoon can undertake to reduce carbon emissions, which are an order of magnitude higher impact than everything else on the list, are procuring renewable energy and renewable gas from third-party producers. Every other initiative is peanuts in comparison.
Call To Action
- Check out these resources:
- Renewable Energy Strategy Engage Page
- Low Emissions Community Plan (120 pages) from 2018.
- Renewable Energy Strategy Engagement Summary (35 pages) published June 27, 2022
Fill out the survey however you want, but if you're supportive of the renewable energy projects in Question 1, I hope you signal your support for paying for them in Question 3.
I've cited sources, provided links, and used words like "hypothesize" to indicate uncertainty where I've done less homework and reading. I'm committed to learning more about decarbonization so leave me a comment (moderated/delayed due to platform spam) or a tweet with constructive feedback or corrections.
2022-07-08: Minor updates for clarity.