Flawed engineering input to Ontario’s Long-Term Energy Plan

By: Donald Jones, P.Eng., retired nuclear industry engineer.

A condensed version of this article will appear in the 2014 March edition of the Canadian Nuclear Society’s BULLETIN. 
The input from the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE) to the Ontario government’s 2013 Long-Term Energy Plan (LTEP) included support for the government’s Community Energy Plan (CEP) program (reference 1). OSPE also wants more flexibility from the nuclear power plants so that their output can be reduced to accommodate wind (reference 2).

From the Ontario government’s News Release (reference 1) the main purpose of the CEP program is to assist municipalities and Aboriginal communities to reduce GHG emissions and promote conservation and clean energy. The euphemism “clean energy” means energy (thermal or electric) generated from frackgas, that over its life cycle is said to have about the same GHG footprint as coal. Not very clean. CEP seems just another way of promoting frackgas-fired power generation on the distribution grid, distributed generation or embedded generation that is supported by the frackgas/wind “clean air” lobby and now apparently by OSPE.

A typical urban municipal energy system promoted by OSPE could consist of frackgas-fired boilers supplying a district heating system to replace the many individual gas-fired furnace units in the district. These individual gas furnace units would be high efficiency furnaces/boilers which will make it harder for the district system to make GHG reductions. The frackgas-fired boilers could be augmented by waste heat from the frackgas-fired reciprocating engines of a combined heat and power (CHP) plant that could be generating some of the electricity to run the energy system. District cooling would be provided by heat driven absorption chillers, and by centrifugal chillers driven by grid power and by electricity from the gas engines. Thermal storage could make use of off-peak overnight power from the Ontario grid. Any possible net reduction in total GHG emissions from district heat/CHP operation compared to what was displaced would come from the waste heat from the engines that will reduce the amount of frackgas burned in the boilers supplying the district heating system and it will not come from the electricity generating portion of the CHP plant. This is because Ontario has one of the lowest GHG emitting power grids in the world since GHG free nuclear and hydro presently provide over 80 percent of its annual electricity, and a much greater percentage overnight. Even the combined cycle gas turbines (CCGTs) on the power grid supplying the balance of the demand have a GHG emission intensity (grams CO2/kWh) lower than that of the typical reciprocating gas-fired engines of the CHP plant supplying the energy system so it would make more environmental sense to use mostly grid power to run the energy system. Detailed analysis would have to be done to quantify reductions, if any, in GHG emissions bearing in mind Ontario’s power grid has an exceptionally low GHG emission intensity. CHP systems alone could be used for providing independent heat and power, say to hospitals, universities, government buildings and commercial/industrial facilities. However despite any possible GHG reductions a district heating system and CHP system that uses frackgas produces GHG emissions and leaves itself open to short and long term fuel shortages and to the inevitable increases in frackgas prices (references 3 and 4). If such systems rely on private sector investment and the profit motive consumers had better look out. On a smaller scale the CEP would also likely support community wind, solar, biogas, biomass.  Wind/solar would need frackgas/diesel support and biomass has been criticized by environmental groups about its GHG neutrality.  

OSPE “supports the government’s commitment to a balanced approach for an affordable, reliable and sustainable electricity system” (reference 2). Unfortunately the electricity system will not be affordable, reliable and sustainable (references 3 and 4). Also, “OSPE recommends improving the flexibility of nuclear units to enable effective use of additional variable renewables that have already been contractually committed”. OSPE has not condemned unnecessary, unreliable, and expensive wind (and hence gas) on the Ontario grid and accept it as a given that has to be lived with by reducing the output of vital nuclear stations so that more wind can be accommodated. At the very least OSPE should argue against more wind on the grid. Flexible nuclear stations should be used to accommodate more flexible nuclear on the grid not more wind (reference 5). Reducing low cost GHG-free output from nuclear plants to accommodate high cost wind generation makes no environmental, economic or technical sense. OSPE supports frackgas-fired district heating systems and CHP systems that will, supposedly, “relieve stress on the large electricity infrastructure”. This is doubtful since the heat load is supplied by frackgas anyway and electricity from the grid will still be used with the CHP generation. OSPE states that a reduction in the nuclear portion of the energy mix will cause GHG emissions to rise because of the need for “gas-fired backup that will be required to make renewables work reliably until cheap storage becomes commercially available”. However it will be a long time, if ever, before cheap storage on a large scale becomes commercially available in Ontario. It would make more sense that storage, if this silver bullet ever came, be used with the nuclear stations, rather than with unnecessary/unreliable wind/solar, so that nuclear could run at full power all the time.

Ontario should be transitioning to a made in Ontario all electric future not a frackgas future that relies on an imported fuel with limited storage/transmission capacity, a fuel that is presently being used to heat Ontario homes and industrial/commercial spaces as well as for generating electricity. Having the same fuel provide heating and electricity through Ontario’s cold winters should be a life and death concern – furnaces need both gas and electricity to function. Instead, GHG-free electricity from nuclear and hydro stations must be used to drive  efficient ground source (or water source) heat pumps that could provide most of the heating in winter and cooling in summer to the same loads as the district heating/CHP systems being promoted by OSPE and the CEP program. Ground source heat pumps use a small amount of grid energy, in the form of electricity, to extract much more heat energy from the ground to provide space heating in winter. During the summer they provide cooling, extracting heat from building space and putting it back into the ground. Electrically heated boilers and centrifugal/absorption chillers would provide heat and cold to supplement the heat pumps if necessary and thermal storage for heat and cold could make use of low cost GHG-free nuclear/hydro electricity during the overnight period. During the cooling season some waste heat from the heat pumps could be used to provide hot water. Present nuclear electricity cost is much lower than that from the present frackgas-fired generators. Electricity from new build nuclear will be competitive in price and since nuclear fuel costs are a small fraction of operating cost, unlike that of frackgas-fired plants, it will be little affected by price increases in the uranium fuel, with plants operating for at least 60 years. Small Modular Reactors could supply heat and power to mining and refining operations in northwestern Ontario. Flexible nuclear and hydro electricity can provide all Ontario’s needs reliably, at reasonable cost and with no GHG emissions. With climate change likely to cause more extreme weather events Ontario needs its own secure long term electricity supply.

Any building of district heating systems and CHP systems that use frackgas should be discouraged. Ontario should be building more nuclear stations and strengthening its transmission and distribution infrastructure with modern equipment, reinforcement, redundancy and more remote monitoring of field equipment to make it more resistant to failures in order to get the power, from an expanded centralized system of nuclear power plants and hydro facilities, to where it is needed. The transmission/distribution grids should be robust enough to tolerate equipment outages due to failures and maintenance without significant loss of reliability and be more resistant to common mode events like extreme heat, ice storms and flooding. This would be the real “smart grid” not the one that is costing billions of dollars to tie in all those unnecessary wind turbines, solar panels and smart meters. The nuclear industry uses the defence in depth approach to safety, separation, diversity and redundancy.  Money and resources must not be diverted from this important long term task by short sighted, short term, dead end, planning. There is no long term future in gas and wind. Why ignore the obvious.

References

1. Ontario government News Release supporting local energy planning and promoting conservation and clean energy, 2013 August 21, http://news.ontario.ca/mei/en/2013/08/ontario-supporting-local-energy-planning-in-municipalities-and-aboriginal-communities.html

2. Policy Proposal Notice: Reviewing Ontario’s Long-Term Energy Plan, OSPE, 2013 September 16,
http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.ospe.on.ca/resource/resmgr/doc_advocacy/2013-09-16_ospe_ltep_submiss.pdf

3. Ontario’s electricity – greenhouse gases up, cost up, security down, Don Jones, 2013 December 21,                  https://thedonjonesarticles.wordpress.com/2013/12/21/ontarios-electricity-greenhouse-gases-up-cost-up-security-down-2013-december/

4. Dash for gas: Will Ontario repeat the UK’s mistake?, Don Jones, 2013 May 27,  https://thedonjonesarticles.wordpress.com/2013/05/27/dash-for-gas-will-ontario-repeat-the-uks-mistake/

5. An alternative Long-Term Energy Plan for Ontario – Greenhouse gas-free electricity by 2045, Don Jones, 2011 May 30,   http://coldaircurrents.blogspot.ca/2011/05/alternative-long-term-energy-plan-for.html

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