By: Donald Jones, P.Eng., retired nuclear industry engineer, 2014 September 24
This comment by Kim Warren, VP of Operations and Chief Operating Officer at The Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), under the title “Powering Ontario Through Energy Literacy”, appeared in a sponsored feature by Mediaplanet in a “Green Living” supplement to the Toronto Star of 2014 September 24, “There are distinct advantages to having diverse fuels. No system operator likes to see all of their eggs in one basket because every fuel has its advantages and disadvantages, and behaves differently in certain seasonal or weather conditions.” Right, except for nuclear!
Wind obviously depends on the weather. So does solar and both are expensive on a $/kWh basis. Only a small fraction of the installed wind capacity is credited by the IESO to be there when needed at peak times and even then there are no guarantees. Wind can be plentiful when not needed and in short supply when it is needed. Embedded solar tends to fade when needed during the late afternoon peak demand and needs more ramping capacity from generators on the grid. Wind can do the same during the morning peak. People living near the huge wind turbine installations will continue to object to their presence. Despite what the IESO says wind puts a lot more stress on the system operators who have to juggle output from other generators on the grid to compensate for wind’s irregularities. If these are gas-fired units it increases greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions above what might have been expected from the reduction in gas-fired MWh due to the wind generation.
Weather conditions affect the demand for gas. The price of gas is volatile especially so when demand for it spikes because of weather extremes, hot or cold. Ontario’s gas-fired generators use more and more frackgas from the US rather than conventional natural gas from Alberta. There are GHG concerns with the production, transmission and burning of natural gas, more so for frackgas. Using gas for home heating and electricity generation poses a risk in Ontario’s cold winters if most of the supply will be coming from the US. Supply for electricity generation would be reduced in order to supply home heating needs. Gas is non-renewable and has many uses in the petrochemical industry and should be conserved for future generations.
In Ontario hydroelectric generation comes from run-of-the-river sites and from small storage sites. The run-of-the-river sites depend on year to year lake levels and the storage sites on the weather, weeks of drought affecting storage levels. There is limited capacity for more hydro in Ontario. The big unknown will be the effect of climate change.
Nuclear fuel does not behave differently in “certain seasonal or weather conditions” and has few, if any, disadvantages. The irradiated fuel storage issue was resolved technically years ago but still remains a societal one and an emotional one. Concerns about hypothetical risks from nuclear “waste” many thousands of years in the future is nonsensical when compared to the destruction threatened by climate change in the coming decades. The so called “waste” will likely have been used as fuel for the next generation of fast neutron reactors anyway and the “real waste” from these reactors decays very rapidly, of the order of a few hundred years. The only diverse fuels Ontario needs are uranium and water and only nuclear is for sure. Nuclear presently generates about 60 percent of Ontario’s electricity and hydro about 20 percent without producing GHG emissions. There must be more nuclear new build to replace GHG emitting gas. Unreliable wind can be dispensed with right now since there must already be sufficient generation on the grid to meet demands when the wind is not blowing. Wind will only hinder a nuclear/hydro grid and provides no environmental advantages. Fuel costs have little effect on nuclear generation $/kWh prices so costs will remain stable well into the future. This cost includes decommissioning costs and irradiated fuel and material handling/storage costs. New nuclear units like the Enhanced CANDU 6 (EC6) are extremely flexible in operation and can cater to any change in demand from sudden to long term. People living near nuclear generating stations generally welcome new build on the site. New nuclear may cost a lot to build but since it will operate for over 60 years the $/kWh costs will be competitive and stable well into the future, something that industry likes to hear.