Ontario’s electrical future: another go at Darlington?

“Live better electrically.” Remember that slogan? It used to be how Ontario Hydro, formerly the world’s biggest electric utility, promoted its product,  electricity. With that slogan, Hydro promised customers a better life if they used more of its product. Though the slogan, together with the underlying concept, fell (and has till now stayed) out of fashion, Hydro delivered on that promise. The utility’s successors in the Ontario generation market, Ontario Power Generation and Bruce Power, are delivering on it as I write this.

How did “Live better electrically” fall out of fashion? It almost boggles your mind, but somewhere along the line somebody got the notion that electricity is bad. Even more astonishing, they got people in power to not just listen to them, but to implement their ideas.

If you don’t believe me, click here. You’ll see a photo of Maurice Strong, former OH chairman, with Amory Lovins, a man who can best be described as a relentless self-promoter in the area of energy policy and someone who possesses serious Green Kavorka.

The caption under the photo is worth repeating here:

Maurice Strong, left, and Amory Lovins. As the NDP-appointed chair of Ontario Hydro (1992–95), Strong transformed the giant utility from a money-losing albatross intent on building more nuclear and coal stations, to a profitable public asset committed to sustainable development. Strong often consulted with Lovins, the world-renowned energy efficiency expert and head of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Institute. Lovins coined the term “negawatts” to quantify the amount of generation capacity not needed as a result of energy efficiency measures.

That caption is itself a remarkable piece of relentless self-promotion. It comes from a book entitled Public Power, which was written by Howard Hampton, former leader of the Ontario NDP. Though it was Hampton’s former boss, Bob Rae, who had appointed Strong, and though Hampton (like most of his NDP colleagues) had bitterly fallen out with Rae over Rae’s ideological apostasy, Hampton still regarded Strong’s achievements at Ontario Hydro as positive. We’ll see a little later on that they were actually extremely damaging.

Hampton published Public Power just ahead of the 2003 Ontario provincial election, hoping it would resonate among those segments of the public who were concerned about the future of the provincial electricity supply. If it did, the resonance proved counter-productive: the NDP in 2003 lost two seats (they had only nine going into the campaign) along with their official-party status in the Ontario legislature.

Still, Hampton’s fond recollections of Strong and Lovins point up what can happen when good ideas, like “Live Better Electrically,” fall out of fashion. Strong, a former oil company executive, took the advice of Lovins, a consultant to oil companies, on a matter of crucial importance to Ontario: how to ensure a clean, stable supply of cheap electricity and create high-skilled jobs. Lovins is ideologically anti-nuclear, a fact which is painfully obvious to anybody who has ever read through the tedious and poorly formulated arguments in the promotional brochures he passes off as “studies.” Somehow this obvious prejudice didn’t matter to Strong. Possibly because Strong is anti-nuclear himself.

And what steps did Strong take to implement Lovins’s ideas and transform Ontario Hydro into “a profitable public asset committed to sustainable development”? He cancelled the Darlington B project, which would have (1) added around 3,000 megawatts of new carbon-free generating capacity alongside the existing Darlington reactors and (2) created thousands of high-skilled jobs—during a recession which his boss, Bob Rae, had pledged to get out of by… creating jobs. The new reactors would have come online in the late 1990s, just in time to offset the skyrocketing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions coming out of Ontario Hydro’s five coal-fired power plants.

Of course they didn’t come online in the late ’90s, because Strong had cancelled them, at Lovins’s urging, in the early ’90s. So Ontario grid power from 1999 to 2003 came with nearly twice the GHG emissions as it had earlier—and from the five coal plants Hampton claims Strong steered Ontario Hydro away from. That’s what Hampton means by “sustainable development.”

The Harris government, after winning power in 1995, decided to lay up the Pickering A and Bruce A CANDUs instead of refurbishing them. It was a relatively risk-free decision from the viewpoint of electricity supply. As I mentioned, there were five perfectly operational coal-fired plants, representing nearly 8,000 megawatts of capacity, ready to be pressed into service as baseload suppliers. (In fact, Harris could not have afforded the luxury of putting off refurbishing the CANDUs had there been no coal generators.)

It is important to note at this point that none of the shortfall from the loss of the Pickering and Bruce CANDUs (some 5,000 MW) was met by Lovins’s famous “negawatts.” That’s because negawatts is a bogus concept, designed as a cover to introduce more fossil-fired generation into power systems. No, the shortfall was met by megawatts, with an “M.” And not from some politically correct source. From coal. It turns out that people really do believe that life is better with electricity than without it.

Which brings us to today. The McGuinty government won power in 2003. One of its most problematic promises was to phase out all coal-fired generation by 2007. That didn’t happen, but only because the price of natural gas—which, according to the fossil-fuel advocates who had taken over from Lovins in advising the Ontario government on environmental matters, was supposed to replace coal—went into the stratosphere.

So McGuinty went into a Plan B that he hadn’t pushed in the 2003 election: nuclear power. The laid-up CANDUs at Pickering and Bruce represented 5,000 MW of capacity. Against skyrocketing natural gas prices, refurbishing them was starting to look like an excellent idea.

So McGuinty moved the deadline for coal phaseout to 2014, and approved the refurbishment of the laid-up CANDUs. And, since OPG had decided not to refurbish Pickering units 2 and 3, he also approved new reactors: the Darlington B station that Strong had killed.

But, politics being politics, short-term factors confounded that too. In 2008 the world plunged into the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. That coincided with unusually mild weather during the summers of 2008 and 2009. Demand for peaking power was low, meaning demand for natural gas was low. The price of gas dropped. Suddenly, gas—the fuel of choice for phoney environmentalists—was viable again as a replacement for coal.

The competition to choose the reactor design to build at Darlington was held in the middle of the low-gas-demand period, i.e., in  the first and second quarters of 2009. Three vendors put in bids: Atomic Energy Canada Limited, the maker of the CANDU; Areva, the French light-water giant; and Westinghouse, the Japanese-American light-water giant. AECL “won”—i.e., it had the best levelized cost per kilowatt-hour—but its bid included a huge estimate of the cost of schedule delays.

The McGuinty government, spooked by that estimate, shelved the competition. And it has been on the shelf ever since. AECL’s offer has long-since expired. So here we are today, back to debating once again how to replace the 6,000 MW of coal-fired capacity by 2014.

If we had known in the early 1990s how decisive a role a Darlington B station could have played in the late 1990s, would we have built it?

That is precisely the question we have to answer now.

12 comments for “Ontario’s electrical future: another go at Darlington?

  1. Lynne
    October 14, 2010 at 20:08

    Well, it’s a fine mess, and one that is going to be difficult to clean up. Tim Hudak spoke yesterday at an energy association meeting and made a commitment to get started on nuclear. I don’t know if he made any statements about his intentions regarding the Green Energy Act. The public consultations for the wind projects have become a farce. If you want to see something that will make your blood boil, check out this video of citizens arriving for a public meeting and being bullied.

    http://windconcernsontario.wordpress.com/2010/10/14/public-consultation-under-ontarios-green-energy-act/

  2. October 15, 2010 at 09:48

    Lyne,

    John Spears of the Star covered the meeting:
    http://www.thestar.com/news/ontario/article/875212–hudak-vows-flat-rate-option-for-electricity

    Hudak is critical of the Green Energy Act, but doesn’t say exactly what he will do about it. It’s probably safe to say he won’t expand it.

  3. Sean Holt
    October 15, 2010 at 11:26

    Be it nuclear, fossil, water or “alternative” energy, the time for “more of the same” is over!

    Yes, nuclear is the only sensible answer.

    However:

    Megalithic neutron moderated reactors like all of those mentioned are horrendously expensive and problematic for the simple reason that they are inherently unsafe and insanely inefficient. The amount of “redundant” engineering required to make them safe (no amount can ever make them efficient) is why they are so expensive. We need to scrap this wasteful, unsafe garbage and build ultra safe, super efficient, factory built, modular Integral Fast Breeder Reactors. Mankind really has nothing that can compete with this decades old technology and there is nothing in the foreseeable future that can touch it either. Doing anything else is simply a waste of time and resources and postponing the inevitable perhaps at the cost of the planet and us along with it.

    The current fiasco with the electrical system in Ontario is the direct result of foolish political pandering to vested interests in a futile effort to appease the ignorant, as is almost certainly the case throughout the industrialized world.

    After the more then two decades I have spent as an ardent student of all things energy, I am certain of what I speak. I also fear that my words are falling on the ears of the deaf. This causes me great concern for the futures of my two young children. Apparently Dalton cares not for the futures of his!

    With truth and respect…

    Sean Holt.

  4. October 15, 2010 at 13:07

    Reactors in which the neutrons are moderated have a nice thermal self-levelling feature because the moderator becomes less effective as its temperature increases. This is illustrated here.

    When the moderator is heavy water, control is also made easier because the time between one neutron generation and the next is exceptionally long. This is secondary to the reactor’s having no bad habits in the first place, but if it did, it would tend to be slow to show them.

    (How fire can be domesticated)

  5. Sean Holt
    October 15, 2010 at 16:26

    Yes. At the time, the NRX was a 10MWth reactor. Unfortunately Doppler broadening did‘t help this reactor much in 1952 when It suffered a partial core meltdown. Although this was caused by operator error, why design a reactor where it’s safe operation is operator based rather then physics based? The fundamental design of the CANDU is fatally flawed. As a result it contains 9KM of plumbing not found in any other reactor design of similar power output. Yes I am aware of all the reasons why the CANDU is designed the way it is, however, many of these are no longer scientifically valid as is the case for all reactors employing a thermal neutron spectrum . Don’t get me started on the CANDU!

    I’m not aware of any such test being done on a commercial CANDU or any other commercial
    neutron moderated reactor for that matter. At least, not one that was successful, Chernobyl notwithstanding. But then I don’t claim to be an expert, just a student whose knowledge base is still expanding.

    A similar experiment was done twice on the same day that the decidedly larger (65MWth),
    20 year old Experimental Breeder Reactor 2 (EBRII) on April 3, 1986. Additionally, I understand the Doppler resonance effect works equally well in pebble bed reactors. However, where only a very limited number of isotopes will fission with thermal neutrons, in a fast neutron spectrum, the fission probability of all actinides is roughly the same. This increases the energy extracted per unit volume of fuel by almost two orders of magnitude and makes “spent nuclear fuel” a contradiction in terms. The MOX route currently in use in France and proposed for the US can only double energy extraction. In order to do that PUREX is used which serves to create high grade plutonium. For IFR reprocessing, only fission products need be removed. Fissile isotopes and even isotopes with high decay heat can remain for reuse as fuel.

    Like I said; no amount of engineering can ever make a thermal neutron reactor efficient. As for safety, the NRX is a very bad example.

    Sean Holt.

  6. Lynne
    October 15, 2010 at 19:30

    http://www.ontariopc.com/news-releases/remarks-by-tim-hudak-at-ontario-energy-association-breakfast/

    This is the speech Tim Hudak gave at the OEA. Sounds pretty reasonable.

  7. Scott
    October 16, 2010 at 03:12

    Sean Holt,

    We would all love for the IFR to be reborn. However presently we need to focus on deployable reactors, rather than paper reactors simply because it would likely take 15 years for the IFR to be commercialized.

  8. October 16, 2010 at 11:10

    Sean,

    The US DOE has teamed up with SFR developers in France and Japan; see http://nuclear.energy.gov/pdfFiles/20100930_Joint_Statement_on_Trilateral_Cooperation.pdf. So the dream is definitely not dead. However, I don’t see much enthusiasm in the current administration/congress for anything that resembles the back-end of Bush’s GNEP.

    Scott makes a good point: nuclear advocates have to look for the near term wins, and the only prospects at this time are with water-cooled and -moderated reactors. If we make the perfect the enemy of the good, nobody wins.

  9. Sean Holt
    October 18, 2010 at 11:44

    Scott:

    “However presently we need to focus on deployable reactors, rather than paper reactors simply because it would likely take 15 years for the IFR to be commercialized.”

    Then I strongly suggest we get cracking! Why humanity must continue to do the wrong thing in perpetuity is a mystery.

    As for deployable, there are a multitude of fast reactors designs currently working their way
    thru various government approval processes. They are actually easier to build then their thermal counter parts. The Russians are under no such illusions having used fast reactors commercially for almost half a century. They still do (BN600). I understand they have now offered up their BN800 for international commercial sale.

    It will be interesting to see who builds it first. It certainly won’t be us!

    Personally, I have an aversion to ANY megalithic nuclear reactor be it thermal or fast. Factory built quality and modularity beats site-built megaliths every time for obvious reasons. Load following and demand balancing is far easier as well.

    As I have stated already, we are just postponing the inevitable…

    Sean.

  10. October 19, 2010 at 09:48

    Sean, now you’re talking real turkey. You are right about the imminence of smaller units that are centrally manufactured—the mPower and NuScale are at the forefront of this, and as you mention the Russian SFR (not to mention the lead-cooled one that used to power the Alpha subs).

    mPower and NuScale will be the quickest here in North America. (Note that these are both water-moderated and -cooled.) I know some developers in Argentina are also working on their version of a light-water SMR, and there are others.

    It would be interesting to see AECL dust off the CANDU 300; hopefully the new owner can make that happen. If Babcock and NuScale can get sales soon, that ought to jolt AECL into action on the small front.

    And let’s not forget the Indians. They are probably the ones with the most experience with small reactors. Didn’t they recently cut a deal with Kazakhstan to sell a PHWR (i.e., a CANDU knockoff) in the 200 megawatt range?

  11. Sean Holt
    October 19, 2010 at 13:40

    That is what I’m talking about!
    (except for the neutron moderated part. I have an aversion to unnecessary waste like that!)

    For everything you never wanted to know about small nuclear reactors (current as of Oct 12, 2010) go here: http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf33.html.

    These make large scale reactors and energy distribution networks [read “grid”] nothing more then monuments to our collective stupidity! You know, much like industrial wind turbines!

    The only things all these designs need now is standardization for commercial implementation. The sooner the better.

    Sean Holt.

  12. Sean Holt
    October 19, 2010 at 15:50

    My apologies everyone…

    The link I provided above works far better with the “period” removed from the end.

    Unfortunately, correct punctuation is no replacement for correct syntax.

    Sean.

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