Leading up to the 2023 Alberta provincial election, United Church leaders are writing a series on the Politics of Jesus, looking at current issues and our faithful response. This is the sixth in a series of seven articles. Read more at ChinookWindsRegion.ca
By Dr. Kevin Dorma, PhD, P.Eng, LLWL
We need to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. Does our Christian background provide any guidance on the conservation of resources? The Jewish traditions in the Old Testament describe how animals are honoured before slaughter. We are taught to respect the blessings that God provides us, which include the resources that keep us warm, light up our homes and permit us to travel. However, Jesus does not have much, if anything, to say about resources and was more focused on compassion for marginalized people.
Let’s take Jesus’ teachings in a different light. Jesus was insistent on making decisions based on evidence and observations rather than simply agreeing with the directions given by our leaders [example Luke 13:14-17]. We will approach this topic as scientists. We will simplify the analysis by looking at Alberta’s consumption and production of electricity. References and data sources are provided at the end of this text.
Our residential power consumption varies a lot during the day . Minimum consumption occurs at night and then picks up in the morning. Consumption drops off over the afternoon, rises sharply at 4:00 PM and peaks at 8:00 PM. This is when households are cooking meals, washing dishes, doing laundry, and relaxing.
Next, we apply a fundamental law of physics: the conservation of energy. The supply of power to the Alberta grid always balances the demand from homes and businesses. When we turn on the electric stove to cook dinner, there is a power plant that produces more electricity.
Our power grid is supplied by diverse sources of electricity :
Natural gas-fired sources made up about 75% of the total, coal 8% and wind 11%. Of the 75% from natural gas-fired sources, half of this comes from dedicated power generation equipment (providing about 3500 MW of power). The rest comes from Cogeneration: facilities that produce electrical power as a by-product of producing heat needed to run their business.
Some of these power sources produce a relatively constant supply of power (such as cogeneration), some are cyclic over the day (solar) and some are random or seasonal (wind). There are only two sources that provide power on an as-needed basis to ensure that supply matches demand: natural gas-fired generators and large-scale hydro.
In Alberta, it is the natural gas-fired turbines and boilers that are responsible for most of our on-demand power. These are the facilities that fire up when we all decide to cook dinner in the evening. One consequence is that any renewable power added to the grid reduces the load on a gas turbine or boiler and reduces the CO2 emissions for the province. This is why people that install solar panels rightfully claim they are reducing global CO2 emissions. Conversely, any new demand on the grid (such as charging a new electric vehicle) increases the load on a gas turbine power plant and increases the CO2 emissions for the province.
Another consequence is that using opportunistic renewable power (which is dependent on the wind blowing, the sun shining or the water flowing from the mountains) is dependent on gas turbines and boilers to ensure that supply matches demand (when the wind isn’t blowing, the sun isn’t shining, or the water isn’t flowing from the mountains). Natural gas-fired power generation is necessary for us to use opportunistic renewable sources of power. Gas-fired equipment is needed for our electrical grid to be reliable.
What about large-scale hydro? This power source can also produce electricity on demand. Our region has the small Oldman River Dam, which can produce 32 MW of power during spring run-off, but typically 8 MW outside of this peak.
We could replace the 3500 MW of power from dedicated gas-fired power plants with 400 – 500 small hydroelectric dams. This type of project would be ambitious, but not impossible. However, we need to consider other aspects of hydroelectric power. Our history with the Oldman River Dam is one example.
The Oldman River Dam and reservoir were proposed for agricultural purposes rather than for hydroelectric power . Between the 1970s and early 1990s, the construction of the Oldman River Dam was the focal point of mistrust, hostility and violence. There was poor cooperation between the Indigenous stakeholders and both the provincial and federal governments. Promises were not kept. Rights and privileges pertaining to the use of the land and the river were revoked. The hostility culminated with the discharge of firearms and one person serving four years in prison. This story follows a very rocky path but ends at an agreeable destination. Power-generating turbines were installed in 2002 as a partnership between ATCO and the Piikani Nation.
We need to consider the people that use the land and rivers when large dams are proposed. These people do not have a loud voice when confronted by governments or power companies. These are some of the marginalized people that Jesus was teaching about.
We need to be careful with the path that we take for changing our electricity production. We need to reduce our CO2 emissions from natural gas turbines and boilers, but we must also accept that large dams cause permanent destruction of rivers and impact the people that rely on the rivers.
As my father would say, we are between a rock and a hard place.
Jesus also dealt with rocks. In Matthew 4:3 we have the story of the Devil testing Jesus by taking him to the desert and teasing him,
“If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
Stones are analogous to the bad things in life. Bread is analogous to the good things. The words from the mouth of God are the things that are truthful. People cannot go through life and expect only good things. We cannot magically change bad things into good things. We need to deal with truthful things. We need to deal with rocks.
I hope we can work cooperatively with the stakeholders for the construction of hydroelectric dams. In the meantime, I am grateful that we have efficient natural gas-fired turbines and boilers to keep our lights on.
Dr Kevin Dorma is a licensed Professional Engineer in Alberta and Manitoba and has been an engineering consultant for over 25 years. He is also a Chinook Winds Region licensed lay worship leader. Kevin lives in Calgary with his wife Tamra, two children, and a very cute rabbit.
Please share Kevin’s article with others through your social media and newsletters.
You can download a PDF of the full article, Jesus’ Politics: Energy Consumption and Production. You are welcome to print copies of this series for your community of faith.
References for Energy Consumption & Production Residential Load Profiles, MSA Report, April 28, 2004, Microsoft Word – ResidentialLoadProfiles042804.doc (albertamsa.ca).  AESO Annual Market Statistics Report, https://public.tableau.com/app/profile/market.analytics/viz/AnnualStatistics_16161854228350/Introduction  James Daschuk and Gregory P. Marchildon, Historical Chronology of the Oldman River Dam Conflict, Microsoft Word – HistoricalChronologyoftheOldmanRiverDamConflict.doc (parc.ca)