Interview published in The Toronto Star, December 18, 2008 by Tyler Hamilton
'Calls combo of wind, hydroelectric power `absolutely perfect'
Ontario could power itself exclusively on renewable energy one day if it thought differently about the operation and design of its entire electricity system, says the chief architect of Germany's green-energy law.
German legislator Hermann Scheer, largely credited for pushing through the policies that have turned his country into a renewable-energy powerhouse, said the biggest challenge is overcoming the belief that large, centralized power plants based on nuclear fission and fossil fuels are necessary for an electricity system to operate reliably."I call it the myth of indispensability," Scheer said during a phone interview from his office in Germany.
He points to the current structure of Ontario's electricity system, which has nuclear and hydroelectric generation supplying most of the province's base-load power needs – that is, the minimum amount of electricity required at any point in the day.
During the course of a day, as electricity demand climbs and then falls again, coal and natural gas generation is called into or taken out of service.
Natural gas plants also "shadow" wind farms by increasing output when the wind stops blowing, and vice versa.
Conventional thinking, said Scheer, is that renewables such as wind and solar could never replace base-load nuclear power because it's not consistent and reliable enough. As a result, renewables are treated as a forced appendage to an existing infrastructure, limiting their potential.
"We have to rethink this paradigm," said Scheer, adding that Ontario's vast hydroelectric resources give the province more flexibility than it appreciates.
Unlike nuclear and fossil fuel plants, hydroelectric facilities can be turned on and off quickly. Scheer argued that using hydroelectric generation to provide 7,000 megawatts of base-load power is the wrong approach if Ontario is serious about adding more renewable power to its electricity system.
His recommendation: Aggressively add wind, solar, biomass and new hydroelectric generating sources to the grid and use existing hydroelectric facilities as backup for intermittent renewables. In the meantime, modernize transmission and distribution lines as necessary and lower the province's per-capita energy use through conservation and energy-efficiency programs that have the dual benefit of making industry more competitive.
"The combination of hydro power and wind power is perfect, absolutely perfect," said Scheer.
"If there's enough wind you can easily stop the hydro power production. If there's no wind you can take the hydro power production. It costs no money and there are no fuel costs."
The mere suggestion may be blasphemy for some, but Scheer is convinced it's the right approach for jurisdictions that are blessed with the resources to do it. And he said getting there can be much faster than building a new nuclear plant, which can take 10 years.
In Germany, for example, enough renewable energy was added in 2007 alone to generate 16 terawatt-hours of power production – or about 10 per cent of all electricity generated last year in Ontario.
"If we could extend this annual installation rate we would reach 100 per cent renewable energy in 25 years," Scheer said.
"Nothing can happen faster. No other energy strategy."
What made this rate of deployment possible in Germany was the introduction of the Renewable Energy Act in 2001, or what's now known as "Scheer's Law."
The law gives renewables priority access to the grid, pays a guaranteed price for the power to create market certainty, and places no limits on the amount of renewable energy that can be added to the system.
Once introduced, the law kick-started both deployment of renewables as well as local manufacturing of equipment to support the market, creating tens of thousands of jobs in the process and turning Germany into a hub of solar, wind and bio-energy development.