By: Donald Jones, P.Eng., retired nuclear industry engineer – 2013 February
The present situation in Ontario, and indeed in all of north America, is reminiscent of that in the United Kingdom in the 1990s. Cheap natural gas discovered in the North Sea together with the fortuitous development of combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) generating stations effectively put a stop to any future nuclear build. The “Dash for Gas” had started. The last nuclear plant to be built in the UK was Sizewell B, a Westinghouse design, that started up in 1995 but planned follow-on units were cancelled because of the availability of low cost gas. However in North America, well at least in the USA, nuclear has not been stopped, just slowed.
Today the situation in the UK is much different. North Sea reserves of natgas are down and gas prices are very much up. In 2010 the UK grid was made up of 34,000 MW of gas (Ontario 10,000 MW), 29,000 MW of coal (Ontario 3,300 MW), 11,000 MW of nuclear (Ontario 13,000 MW), 4,200 MW of hydro (Ontario 8,000 MW) and 4,200 nameplate MW of wind (Ontario 1,500 MW). Imported gas will account for 75 percent of all gas consumed in UK by 2015, it was 50 percent in 2009. The government has set a limit on carbon emissions from fossil plants that ensures that only gas-fired units get built in the future, unless carbon capture and storage (CCS) becomes practical for coal-fired plants – unlikely.
All operating nuclear units, except for Sizewell B, will be retired by 2023 as well as a number of the worse polluting coal fired stations by 2015. All this is likely to lead to electricity shortages in the next few years unless something is done. The government’s plan is to proceed with a low-carbon energy mix of nuclear, gas and renewables. It will take many years to build up the nuclear and renewable capacity (for what good wind will do) and develop the CCS for coal. In the meantime the plan is bogged down by the need to get a price for electricity that satisfies both government and the low-carbon vendors. This means the government may be forced into increasing the proportion of gas-fired generation as a quick fix since that can be online quickly but electricity prices will be high due to high cost gas and it depends on a risky off shore fuel supply and it still produces carbon dioxide and other emissions. The government must now wish that it’s predecessor had only used natgas for space heating to replace those smog producing coal fires that kept British homes warm and not wasted it on electricity generation which should have been the task of nuclear.
Something like the UK of the 1990s, Ontario has lots of cheap gas but its mostly gas from shale deposits fractured by large quantities of very high pressure water, sand and chemicals and not conventional natgas. This means more climate change methane emissions right off the bat and those, combined with the carbon dioxide from subsequent combustion, makes frackgas as bad as coal. Despite the present historically low gas prices the electricity from the gas-fired plants is significantly more expensive than that from Ontario’s nuclear plants. Frackgas prices will surely rise because well depletion rates are high and drilling rigs are moving on to more lucrative oil exploration, reducing supply and putting electricity generating costs even higher. The market price of frackgas is lower than its production costs, a situation that can’t last.
Something like the UK of today Ontario is facing a decade of nuclear shutdowns, for refurbishment, and shutdown of all it’s (unlike the UK) perfectly good coal-fired stations by 2014. This could put Ontario in an energy crunch before 2020. However, unlike the UK, Ontario has time to get new nuclear units up and running at Darlington B without the need to expand precarious frackgas-fired generation. Even better, Ontario has four large coal-fired units fitted with flue-gas clean-up systems that can be used for meeting peak loads, at low operating cost, if the government would reconsider its closure mandate. All the non-electricity generating uses of north American frackgas, including future LNG exports and expansion into transportation, will lead to increased gas demand, put a strain on pipeline capacity, and, like the UK, make Ontario dependent on a fuel for electricity generation that has long term risks in price and availability. CCGT plants are virtually parachuted into the province from the US and provide a minimum of construction and operating jobs. A Canadian EC6 nuclear plant would have a Canadian supply chain and provide thousands of highly paid trade and professional jobs and the cost of the plant spread over the 60 years operating life would provide relatively low cost electricity.
With nuclear and hydro and limited use of “clean-coal” the Ontario grid would be immune to the inevitable increases in frackgas prices, be independent of imports and be one of the lowest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world. Or does Ontario want to follow the UK example and make the same mistake that it made 20 years ago?