Visualizing PEI-New Brunswick Energy Interchange

Yesterday I pointed you at the New Brunswick System Operator page that shows real-time information about how much energy Prince Edward Island is pulling from (or sending to) New Brunswick.

While it’s great that this information is made available to the public, when information is locked inside a static web page like this it makes it hard to use it elsewhere, like to make graphs and other visualizations, or to see historical data. Things like this:

Graph of PEI Energy Interchange with New Brunswick

To work around this, I wrote some code (available here for you to look at and build upon) that would take that data and make it available in formats that are suitable for reuse elsewhere. Using my code you can get the NBSO data as XML, JSON, or in a format suitable for feeding to Pachube.

Pachube is a sort of clearinghouse for digital data like this, and when you send data to Pachube you have the benefit of being able to use tools that others have built to visualize the data. Like the graph above, which comes, live, from Pachube, so it’s always up to date. Or through widgets like this, also from Pachube:

What this data tells us is how much energy is coming over the cable from New Brunswick to Prince Edward Island. Or, when the wind is blowing and demand here on the Island is low, how much energy we’re sending to New Brunswick.

The “peak demand” for electricity on Prince Edward Island, we learn here from the province, is 220 megawatts. That’s the theoretical maximum amount of energy we’ll all use at any given time. So you can consider the number on the graph and widget above as being, in a sense, “out of 220.” Although obviously it’s not really that, because the peak demand only happens rarely.

Although it doesn’t tell us everything we need to know to built a “smart grid,” this data is likely enough to use as a good starting point. Let’s say you want to do some energy-intensive activity, and you want to have a greater chance that it’s powered by wind energy: just watch the number on Pachube until it turns “negative” – a sign that we’re sending energy to New Brunswick because we have a surplus and are meeting all of PEI’s energy needs from wind – and use that as a trigger.


Nathan's picture
Nathan on March 30, 2011 - 20:27

Your benevolent landlords are considering using Bullfrog Power to power our server room (and thus this server) with clean power all the time. Power from Bullfrog would be 80% wind from West Cape and 20% hydro from St George NB.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on March 30, 2011 - 22:20

One of the valuable lessons I’ve learned this week about energy is that there are two separate but overlapping concepts involved in energy: the energy itself and the billing for the energy.

When you say that 20% of the energy for 84 Fitzroy Street will be coming from St. George, NB, what that really means is that a certain amount of power will go into the grid in St. George that you, through Bullfrog, will pay for. The power itself, however, will never reach Prince Edward Island: 84 Fitzroy Street will continue to powered by the same combination of local wind and imported power as it always has been.

Separating the “energy” and the “money” parts of the equation is, I imagine, one of the more complicated aspects of Bullfrog’s corporate life. It doesn’t mean that what they’re offering as a broker isn’t a valid service, and it doesn’t mean that the fictional “clean power” isn’t a good idea, but it does make explaining the ins and outs of what’s actually happening more challenging.

Nathan's picture
Nathan on March 31, 2011 - 15:11

The AC power we use is really electrons being pushed an pulled back and forth sixty times a second on the wires that make the “grid”. Technically, none of the electrons ever travel very far along the wire from any generation source to any load. Energy from coal-fired plants doesn’t “reach PEI” any more or any less than hydro power from St George. Generation has long been separate from distribution (what you call “money” above) and is not really new to Bullfrog. The new part is for an energy trading company to be contracting directly with consumers so we can have control over how the energy we use is generated. With the right business arrangements, it gives us as electricity users the flexibility to buy from the generation source we prefer without having to change any of the physical wiring. It’s like the difference between buying bandwidth and having a fiber line into the building.

Martime Elec is sourcing our power from the cheapest sources. The PEI mix is currently about 15% from the public wind farms on PEI and 85% from NB. It wasn’t long ago the split was 5%/95% and yes it’s fantastic the province is developing wind farms and changing our overall power source mix in such a substantial way. But there’s another wind farm on PEI in West Cape which is selling it’s power off-island to markets willing to pay more for clean power.

By contracting with Bullfrog we get access to the power from West Cape. It’s not just a idealist scheme like carbon offsets by planting trees in South America. We pay Bullfrog a premium per kwh and they buy power from West Cape and sell it to Martime Elec at the same lower rate Maritime Elec would be otherwise buying power from NB. This in turn creates a local market for West Cape and will encourage and fund more wind farm development, both locally and in the markets previously buying West Cape power.

Since the wind doesn’t always blow, Bullfrog is also purchasing hydro power from St George NB. While this power does flow through the NB system and is “mixed” with other power from the various generation sources in the NB system mix, it really isn’t any different than power from West Cape. It’s still relatively local power generated in a clean way, and by paying a premium for it through Bullfrog we are making it a more valuable generation source and encouraging continued operation and further development of clean energy. I wouldn’t call this “fictional” clean power.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on March 31, 2011 - 16:41

If I ask my friend Olle across the ocean in Sweden to give his wife Luisa a tomato and tell him that I’ll pay him later, you could say that I’ve “given Luisa a tomato.” But I never had the tomato, and the tomato didn’t need to cross the ocean. But it’s still a tomato, and Luisa still received it.

So the “fiction” here is simply the idea that when I say “I gave Luisa a tomato” I actually had a tomato in my possession that I handed to Luisa.

It might have been better for me to have called the clean power “virtual” rather than “fictional,” for, in the same was as the tomato, there is clean power being generated on your behalf via Bullfrog.

But that doesn’t make it any less confusing for the layperson to understand.

Rob Lantz's picture
Rob Lantz on March 31, 2011 - 18:28

Great explanation Nathan. We should have brought you into City Hall to help explain to the rest of council. Lots of head scratching going on when we signed up City Hall for Bullfrog Power.

Everything you said is true, but I think you can also explain it this way: green power generators have a fixed capacity (wind is variable, but predictable over the long term). Bullfrog ensures you “own” a portion of that capacity by purchasing Green Power Certificates (aka Green Energy Certificates , Green Power Credits) from the generator on your behalf. Bulldog’s auditors conduct annual audits to ensure their generators do not oversell capacity. If Bulldog has sold the entire capacity of their partner generators, there’s nothing left on the shelf… in order to grow the generators have to reinvest in new green energy capacity with the premiums paid by their customers. It doesn’t matter where your electrons originated. You own a portion of the capacity from the source. By purchasing green power through Bullfrog you can legitimately claim you have reduced your carbon footprint; your GPCs entitle you to LEED certification points.

Nathan's picture
Nathan on March 31, 2011 - 19:10

I get the tomato example as a clarification of “fictional”, but it’s a poor analogy for the electricity system: you’re just paying remotely for a tomato for Luisa, you’re not consuming any tomatoes yourself, and there are many tomato distributors.

Just because we have a single electricity distributor for practical reasons, that doesn’t make the generation any less “real”. If anything the abstraction is damaging, allowing all of us to look at a coal-fired power plant and say “that’s not my power source.”

Ideally I’d pay Maritime Elec only for the distribution and then pay one or more generators of my choosing for the power I consume. Any layperson consumer who has ever switched long distance providers is already familiar with such an arrangement.

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