Small power, big pollution: why the Samsung wind deal is bad for Ontario

At first glance, the Samsung wind deal appears a viable and “green” way to replace Ontario’s coal-fired power plants. Wind is free, and comes with no pollution. Why would anyone object to that? They would object because wind actually comes with lots of pollution. Wind provides intermittent power; coal provides on-demand power. For wind to replace coal, you really need another on-demand source to “supplement” wind. That means natural gas. The Samsung turbines will, effectively, emit 8.4 million tons of carbon dioxide every year.

Why did I put quotations around the word “supplement”? Because wind doesn’t blow all the time. In fact, it blows far less than half the time. In Ontario, the organization that runs the power grid assumes, for forecasting purposes, that wind will produce power only 30 percent of the time.  This means the “backup” source, natural gas, will actually run 70 percent of the time. Wind is the supplement, not gas.

Now, under the Samsung deal the Korean firm will build 2,500 megawatts of wind capacity.  Why 2,500 MW? Presumably, because Ontario will need 2,500 MW of energy some time in the future. But remember—capacity does not equal energy. Capacity is the equipment; energy is the electricity that the equipment generates. Over one year, 2,500 MW of capacity would generate 21.9 billion kilowatt-hours of energy—if it were running every hour of every day of that year.

Since Ontario’s electricity system operator only forecasts that wind will blow 30 percent of the time, we can realistically expect the Samsung turbines will only generate under 6.6 billion kWh every year. Since we need 21.9 billion kWh, the wind turbines leave a shortfall of 15.3 billion kWh (21.9 billion kWh minus 6.6 billion kWh). Where will those 15.3 billion kWh come from? From the “backup” natural gas generators.

Well, even the most efficient natural gas generators emit 550 grams of carbon dioxide, CO2, for every kWh of electricity they generate (see Environment Canada’s Electricity Intensity Tables). This means that the 15.3 billion kWh of gas-fired generation will come with more than 8.4 million metric tons of CO2 every year.

The only thing “green” about this is the greenish plumes of off-gas that have been reported coming out of gas-fired facilities like the brand-new Portlands Energy Centre in downtown Toronto.

The $7 billion Ontario will pour into the heavy-emitting wind turbines is $7 billion that won’t go toward the planned new reactors at the Darlington nuclear station. I mention this because we should compare the CO2 emissions of a wind strategy and a nuclear strategy. Wind, as I’ve demonstrated, is really gas, and 2,500 MW of wind capacity will emit 8.4 million tons of CO2.

How much CO2 would 2,500 MW of nuclear capacity come with? Nuclear generators have high capacity factors, above 90 percent across a fleet of generators. Assuming 90 percent, the 2,500 MW of nuclear capacity would generate over 19.7 kWh in one year. Now remember that we need 21.9 billion kWh of electricity from the 2,500 MW of capacity. Our nuclear strategy would leave a shortfall of just under 2.2 billion kWh. Assuming we got those 2.2 billion kWh from gas, our nuclear strategy would effectively result in 1.2 million tons of CO2.

Here’s the comparison side by side: wind effectively comes with 8.4 million tons of CO2; nuclear with 1.2 million tonnes. i.e., the wind strategy would emit seven times as much CO2 as the nuclear strategy.

This begs an obvious question. If nuclear is so dramatically superior to wind as a CO2-reduction technology, why is Ontario so hell-bent on going with wind?

I think it’s a good question. I’ll explore it in further posts. As you will see, nuclear is not just a superior CO2-reduction technology. It is also far less expensive and far less land-intensive. Stay tuned.

3 comments for “Small power, big pollution: why the Samsung wind deal is bad for Ontario

  1. Lynne
    February 11, 2010 at 19:54

    Mr. Aplin, you are going ruin the great green buzz that Dalton McGuinty has going if you examine the Samsung deal from the standpoint of a cost/benefit analysis. As someone who has been writing to this government for the past three years over the folly of their energy supply plan, trust me when I say that the more you examine this, the worse it looks. If the McGuinty government had just put scrubbers on the coal plants, perhaps built a few gas generating stations to reduce coal usage and constructed a new reactor, Ontario would have had a promising future. Instead, we appear doomed to repeat the mistakes of Great Britain. There seems to be an agenda at play here that does not take the best interests of the citizens of Ontario as its primary consideration. If this is indeed the case, then we have a very serious problem, as the cost and availability of Ontario’s energy supply define our quality of life and constitute the lifeblood of our economy. Since the Samsung announcement, it seems that Vestas also want to play Let’s Make a Deal with Mr. McGuinty. One has to ask where the money is coming from and when will this stop?

  2. February 11, 2010 at 22:46

    Lynne, I trust you: this does look worse the more you examine it. There certainly is an agenda at play. This is the takeover of coal-fired power by gas-fired power. From a strict emissions point of view, and comparing only coal and gas, then yes gas is about half as emission-intensive. But of course gas is not the only alternative. Compared with nuclear, gas is needlessly emission-intensive. And it is expensive.

    We could have chopped Ontario power sector GHGs—and bona fide pollution—in half just by shifting more baseload to nuclear. We wouldn’t have to close a single coal plant to achieve this.

    Interesting that “green” lobbyists support the gas takeover wholeheartedly. They complain about the oilsands, where the emissions derive almost entirely from the use of natural gas, but support gas in Ontario. I understand the Ontario Clean Air Alliance—they’re funded by Big Gas. But the others? I wonder how many of them receive the same funding. There could be a money trail here, and it would be interesting to see an enterprising journalist look into it.

  3. Lynne
    February 12, 2010 at 11:11

    On Feb. 12, Brent Hunsberger in The Oregonian posted an article about Vestas laying off 114 workers due to a reduced interest in renewable energy projects. Vestas also recently closed its only plant in Britain. My concern is that Dalton McGuinty is signing long-term contracts with an energy sector that is not economically viable, and that the Ontario ratepayers will be obligated to support these industries. We are essentially closing down productive supply (coal) and replacing it by building capacity twice, renewables backed up by gas generation. This does not even take into account the necessary upgrades to transmission, or the inefficient use of grid capacity by reserving line space for intermittent sources such as wind. Ontario will still have to make the necessary investments to maintain the level of baseload nuclear. The entire situation is bizarre, to say the least.

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