Natural Gas Versus Hydro

Blog, Energy, Les Routledge

The energy debate in Manitoba is slowly getting around to looking at a proposition I advanced when I was with the Manitoba Sustainable Energy Association that involves deploying scalable natural gas systems as an alternative to large, long lead time hydro dams.

In my opinion, there is a need to move towards a more distributed model of producing energy in this province.  As I described in 2009, it is possible that moving towards a combination of a distributed energy generation and smart grids could…

  • improve the security of supply of energy across Manitoba;
  • distribute benefits associated with electrical energy production more equitably throughout Manitoba;
  • encourage the adoption of combined heat-and-power energy systems in agricultural, commercial, industrial and institutional settings;
  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions and negative environmental impacts associated with energy mega-project development;
  • create a platform to implement demand-side energy management systems and time-of-use rates;
  • more fully utilize existing electrical transmission and distribution assets throughout Manitoba.

When I expressed this opinion in the past, the stock response of the “hydro authorities” was it could not work because hydro was less expensive.  However, recent experience has indicated that the cost of hydro plants and associated transmission lines continues to increase  and the demand for energy from those very large investments is questionable at best.

Do we really need a new north-south transmission line to improve energy security.  Is it possible that the benefits associated with billions invested in that line could be replaced at lower cost with natural gas facilities located in southern Manitoba?

Do we really need to bet the farm by investing $30 billion on new hydro dams to serve a questionable market demand that may or may not emerge 10 to 20 years in the future?  Can natural gas facilities be deployed in incremental steps to respond to expanded energy demand?  Can hydro and government authorities really accurately predict costs, demand and competition that far into the future?  So far, their track record on producing accurate forecasts of costs suggests the answer is a resounding NO!

Has anyone looked at the potential benefits associated with wind and combined heat-and-power systems that could be deployed to complement expanded natural gas electricity production?  How many millions of dollars of payments to ag producers and rural municipalities are being lost due to a fixation on constructing dams in remote northern Manitoba using expensive unionized labour?

What about the potential lost benefits of deploying combined heat-and-power systems at farms, factories, commercial/civic buildings and rural communities?

  • Could processing manure at hog farms produce superior benefits to hydro dams by providing heat to the buildings, reducing odours, generating electricity, and potentially even enabling improved management of phosphorus nutrients?
  • Could more factories secure space and process heat by deploying bio-mass combined heat-and-power systems that are not dependent on vulnerable grid and pipeline connections?
  • Could rural communities create their own defacto emergency power and heating system using combined heat-and-power systems to provide energy to commercial, civic and personal care facilities?

What we need in Manitoba is an immediate pause on all new investment in northern power production and transmission facilities so we can have an open, thoughtful, and comprehensive discussion about how to shape our energy future in Manitoba.  I am convinced that responding to our future energy needs could be done in a manner that produces superior benefits than continuing down the existing path of investing scarce financial resources in what could become massive northern white elephants.