Nuclear power doesn't directly contribute to climate change or smog.
But the long term waste storage problem has yet to be solved.
In the United States the government is planning to ship nuclear waste
to a central storage location atYucca Mountain in Nevada. Because of
the extreme length of time this radioactive waste will remain dangerous
it has gone to the extreme length of hiring an anthropologist to work
on the project team. His task is to find ways to communicate with and
warn people who will be living 10,000 years from now about the dangers
posed by this waste repository. This is a far from trivial task. A piddling
four hundred years ago Shakespeare was writing plays that today's people
find hard to understand. Ten thousand years ago humans were experimenting
with agriculture using pointed sticks. Isn't it the height of arrogance
to believe we can safely predict what human society will look like hundreds,
let alone thousands of years in the future?
And although engineers claim that the Canadian CANDU atomic energy
system is safe, many times trusted technology has failed. (Space shuttles
are supposed to be safe too). Ultimately, we can only hope that specific
engineers are right in a specific context. .
One aspect of nuclear power is not open to debate, however. It has
proven very expensive. This has been masked, however, by a financial
sleight of hand. The provincial government has assumed the debt associated
with the construction of the nuclear fleet through the Ontario Energy
Finance Corporation. This means that Ontario Power Generation and Bruce
Energy have been left with the assets minus the mortgage. Not only without
the mortgage, but also without the cost of demolition and cleanup. This
is because they have not been forced to create the huge financial reserves
necessary to cover future decommissioning and waste storage. Once we
remove the cost of building the plants, taking them apart, and safely
storing the waste---nuclear power appears cheap. But this is simply
because the full cost is not being calculated.
In addition to the intrinsic problems mentioned above there are also
incidental issues associated with such an inherently complex and dangerous
technology. Even after all the years that the CANDU system has been
in operation it still seems to be difficult to accurately predict the
cost and length of time needed for major repairs. The 2000 MW Pickering
"A" plant was supposed to cost $800 million to refurbish and
the work should have been done by 2002. By now the latest budget estimate
is $2.5 billion and it is hoped that the final unit will be returned
to service in 2006.
Coal and Oil
Much more coal than oil is burnt in Ontario to create electricity.
It fuels 5 plants in Ontario: Nanticoke, Lambton, Atikokan, Lakeview,
and Thunderbay. Coal burning creates nitrogen oxide (NOX), a key contributor
to smog; sulfur dioxide (SOX), which causes acid rain; and carbon dioxide
(CO2), a greenhouse gas. Burning coal also releases other pollutants
such as mercury. (This is a potent neurotoxin that accumulates and concentrates
as it travels through the food chain.)
While scrubbers can be installed on coal plants to reduce nitrogen
oxides and sulfur dioxide emissions, carbon dioxide cannot be removed.
The coal industry often talks of "clean coal" but removing
the carbon dioxide would require overcoming some of the basic laws that
govern chemistry and thermodynamics. To be totally honest, the industry
really should use the phrase "less filthy coal".
Ontario's coal plants cannot even be described as "less filthy".
There are plans to install nitrogen oxide scrubbers on 4 of the 12 units
at Nanticoke and Lambton, but that would leave the remaining 8 units
without any controls. And installing this technology slightly reduces
thermal efficiency. This means more coal must be burned to achieve the
same output. This, in turn, increases the emissions of carbon dioxide
and other pollutants. Sulfur dioxide has been reduced by switching to
lower sulfur coals but electric power generation in Ontario still continues
to be the largest single emitter in the province.
Coal generators in Ontario cause roughly 20% of the province's emission
of nitrogen oxides. At high summer temperatures this reacts with other
chemicals in the air to create ground level ozone, a lung irritant that
has been associated with breathing difficulties and asthma. The Canadian
Medical Association estimates that every year approximately 2000 Ontarions
die prematurely from smog. Thousands more Ontario citizens have smog-related
breathing problems that result in a reduced quality of life.
Acid rain, smog, mercury, climate change---whenever we turn on a light
in modern-day Ontario we are substantially contributing to these problems.
Natural gas is less polluting that coal. The carbon dioxide emissions
from a state of the art Combine Cycle Gas Generator are half the rate
of coal. Sulfur and mercury emissions are non-existent, and nitrogen
oxide emissions are reduced by 90%. So natural gas is better than coal.
But there are still significant problems associated with its use.
The key concern with gas is availability and the environmental damage
created by expanding production. In the key producing areas of Texas,
Oklahoma, and Alberta productivity is in serious decline. The average
gas well drilled today is depleted by 50% within two years. In conventional
areas all the large wells have already been found. This means that today
the industry relies on constantly drilling new smaller wells in order
to keep the pipelines full. Anyone looking for market-based evidence
that natural gas is in short supply should consider the fact that the
price of gas has spiked during peak demand during the past 3 winters.
New sources of gas exist in Alaska or the McKenzie delta, but the wells
will be expensive to drill and have environmental consequences. Liquified
natural gas (LNG) allows imports from Algeria or Indonesia. But liquid
natural gas is extremely explosive which means that import terminals
would make very tempting targets for terrorists. And, again, the technology
The cost of generating power from natural gas is also an issue. At
today's price of $5 US /mm BTU, the cost of the gas alone is 5.5 cents/KWh.
Compare that with the 4.3 cent price cap that the government recently
imposed. Of course, a natural gas plant needs to cover its depreciation
and operating costs. This means that it would need to charge 7.5 cents
just to break even. The risk of building a gas generating station in
an unstable price and supply environment is very high. Escaping unburnt
natural gas (a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than CO2), escaping
sour gas (a very dangerous poison), and the extensive disruption of
the earth's surface caused by exploration and building pipelines shouldn't
be ignored either. So although burning gas downstream may be relatively
clean it shouldn't be seen as a universal panacea to our energy generation
Ontario's water power resources are relatively benign. Most of our
plants do not require large flooded reservoirs, and our two largest
stations, Niagara Falls and Saunders, are essentially "run of river"
facilities. The biggest problem we have with providing more power from
water is the limited number of sites left to exploit. But it is not
zero. The Beck tunnel proposal for Niagara Falls could supply 1% of
Ontario's power from a single project. And there are numerous redevelopments
that are either already occurring or that could occur with the right
policy environment. These could increase the supply of water created
electricity to 29-30% of the provincial supply from the current 26%.
Finding solutions to the environmental problems caused by how Ontario
generates electricity begins with price. We have seen that the current
4.3 cents/KWh price is insufficient to pay for generation using natural
gas. It is also insufficient to pay for nuclear---unless the government
assumes the debt burden and decommissioning liability. And most importantly
of all, it sends the wrong signal to consumers about wasting electricity.
The household sector uses about 30% of Ontario's electricity. Yet the
opportunities to reduce household consumption are considerable. Compact
fluorescent light bulbs use 75% less power than incandescent. New refrigerators
use 2/3 less power than models 13 years old. Indeed, a 13 year old refrigerator
uses 1000 KWh more per year (costing the consumer $100 extra per year)
and results in the emission of over 900 Kg of CO2. The consumer can
buy a new refrigerator, make a 10% return on the electricity savings,
and reduce emissions. (This is the high cost of Kyoto that the oil industry
complains about.) The Ontario government has announced a 1 year sales
tax holiday on certain energy efficient appliances which may encourage
some appliance replacement. Motion sensors on lights, insulating hot
water pipes, and set back thermostats all work well. Ground source heat
pumps (also called earth energy or geothermal) have a co-efficient of
production of 3 or 4. That means that they transfer 3-4 units of heat
into or out of a building for every unit of energy they use.
But price is a key motivator. Today's subsidized power makes the economics
of energy efficient investments far less attractive. In Denmark the
retail price of power is 30 cents/KWh which is principally an artifact
of high taxes. Compare this with Ontario's 9 cents (which includes the
transmission, distribution, and debt recovery charges). The average
home in Denmark uses half the power of the average one in Ontario.
The commercial sector uses about 25% of Ontario's power and has enormous
opportunities for savings. Let me illustrate with two examples. T8 fluorescent
light bulbs use 35% less power than T12's, but most buildings have yet
to switch to the more efficient system. (The payback on switching is
2-4 years, depending on hours of operation. T5's use even less power.)
Toronto's downtown core will also soon be utilizing water from Lake
Ontario to cool some of its buildings with a substantial reduction in
The industrial sector uses the remainder of the power. Variable speed
motors and fans, high-efficiency lighting, heat recovery systems, and
co-generation all offer major opportunities for efficiency gains. Again,
price is a key driver.
In total, improved efficiency should be able to reduce electricity
consumption by 10-20% in just a few years. But it will take the right
price for power. It will also take an aggressive education campaign.
And it will also take some targetted key investments (such as the Toronto
downtown cooling project).
Alternate Energy Sources
Energy can be gathered from wind turbines, solar photovoltaic cells,
burning biomass, and adding additional water power sources. Would these
allow Ontario to stop using fossil fuels? Could they replace nuclear
power plants? How much would they cost?
Wind energy is one of the most abundant resources in the province.
A US study of the potential for offshore wind in Lake Erie indicated
that it had the potential to generate 144 TWh of power per year. (This
is equal to Ontario's total current consumption.) Clearly, an electricity
system cannot be fully dependant on wind without back up capacity or
some means of storing energy for non-windy days. But it is clear that
the power is there if we want to use it. Wind is a cheap alternative
to present energy sources. If utilized on a large enough scale it could
be available for about 8-9 cents/KWh. The cost of wind energy has been
dropping as turbines have increased in size and as production facilities
expand in scale. Germany has installed 10,000 MW of wind based power
plants in the past 8 years. A similar investment would supply 13% of
Ontario's power needs and cut our fossil fuel use in half. In fact,
Ontario has 3 times the land mass and better wind potential. This means
that it would be probably be easier to implement large-scale wind turbine
use here than in Germany. We simply need to create the economics climate
for the wind developers. If the Germans can do it, so can we.
Solar photovoltaic is too expensive for consumers who are already connected
to Ontario's electrical grid. However, in places where no such connection
exists---such as communications towers, construction projects, island
cottages, remote communities, etc---solar can be the cheapest source
of electricity. It is very reliable and needs little maintenance. The
cost of photovoltaic electricity has been steadily dropping as the numbers
of systems installed has increased. Ontario's solar climate is not optimal
(about 4.5 peak sun hours per day as compared to 8 hours in the US southwest).
But as the cost of photovoltaic cells continues to drop solar power
may well begin to contribute on a broad scale. Costs will probably decline
significantly over the next 10 years.
Biomass energy includes collecting methane produced by landfills. While
clearly this source of power is limited, it has been initiated at the
Keele Valley, Pickering, Kitchener, and other sites. The gas is collected
and burned in a gas turbine, therebye generating electricity from municipal
waste. The province could increase its electricity from this source
of supply to 1-2% of its requirements with the cost being around 6-7
cents/KWh. Biomass from forest or agricultural waste can also be used
to generate electricity. (Care must be taken in plant design, though,
as the combustion can have nasty emissions.) Properly designed, such
systems could offer a renewable energy source and be climate neutral.
The Role of Voluntary Green Power Markets
In some jurisdictions consumers have the option of purchasing environmentally-friendly
"green" power from their electricity supplier. This allows
consumers to voluntarily switch off of coal or nuclear and instead choose
a cleaner source of power. Sadly, Ontario's market design has failed
miserably in making this option available. Local Distribution Companies
(LDC's) like Toronto Hydro or Hydro One are only permitted to sell the
standard power pool product. They cannot offer green power. The market
was designed like this in order to ensure that LDC's did not take any
risk. (The bankruptcy of the Pacific Gas and Electricity Company in
California was on the market designers' minds.)
The hope was that green power would be sold by retailers. These are
the companies that did door to door campaigns (calling usually at the
supper hour) to try to get you to switch to their fixed price contracts.
Only one of these retailers ever planned to offer green power and they
have been largely shut down since the province announced the price cap.
The result is that there is no retailer yet which offers a premium green
option to the consumer.
There is one organization that is trying to get around this difficulty:
Green Tags Ontario (www.greentagsontario.com). They separate the electricity
purchased from the environmentally-friendly elements of production.
These elements are then sold to the the consumer at the rate of $75/1000
KWh. The effect of buying a green tag is to pay extra for green power
on your electriciy bill. This means that Ontario Hydro is then forced
to purchase electricity from an environmentally-friendly source, which
displaces production for a fossil fuel generator.
Can Ontario phase out coal-generated electricity at reasonable cost?
The answer is an unequivocal yes. It starts with charging the full cost
of production and educating consumers about how to improve efficiency.
Then we must pay wind, water power, and landfill gas developers a fair
price for their power and encourage them to ambitiously expand their
part of the market. As well, public sector projects such as the Beck
Hydro-electric power tunnel and the Toronto downtown cooling proposal
should be costed-out and funded where the numbers justify the investment.
Once the creative energy of the province is unleashed in the drive to
replace and eliminate coal use, the momentum created will also lead
to the eventual phase out of nuclear.
Glen Estill is the President of the Canadian Wind Energy
Association (CanWEA) and founder of Sky Generation Inc.,
an Ontario based windmill development company.