Ontario nuclear fleet cracks 10,000 MW output as first serious heat wave of 2012 bears down: do 416 voters know what is running and cooling Toronto?

At six a.m. today (June 19), the Ontario nuclear fleet was providing 10,550 megawatts of electric power to the provincial grid. That works out to over 62 percent of the supply. Nuclear output has rarely been over 10,000 MW since last September, because of a combination of low demand (due to mild weather), a supply glut, environmental policies that favour natural gas over cheaper and more flexible coal, and system rules (designed to support the environmental policies) that give pride of place to inefficient and therefore expensive sources like wind. These factors have conspired to constrain nuclear output, which is far cheaper, cleaner, and more efficient than the allegedly green sources that are supposed to replace coal.

Why would the powers-that-be arrange things so that expensive, inefficient, and unreliable sources like wind get priority on the grid? Quite simply, because wind is “popular” among the interest groups whose opinions and demands the government feels it is necessary to heed. Somehow, through a convergence of circumstances, that electorally important constituency happens to occupy the exact same geographic ground to which the current government owes almost its entire existence. That ground is located in the core of the city of Toronto. It is euphemistically referred to as The 416 (see Fig. 1).

Fig 1. The 416 voting region of Ontario. For the Liberals and NDP, it is the Tree of Life. For the PCs, it is the Holy Grail (or White Whale). Click on image to enlarge.

The current Liberal government holds most of the seats in the 416; the NDP holds the rest. If either party were to lose any of their 416 seats, it would be curtains. So a lot of the game-framed rhetoric of both parties is developed with the 416 in mind, and in the current minority government situation at Queen’s Park almost all the rhetoric is game-framed.

Focusing on 416 is difficult when you consider there are other voting regions in the province. From the Liberals’ point of view, that is a particularly painful fact: they hold a very tenuous minority government (they used to hold majorities) precisely because they were forced in the October 2011 provincial election to choose between the 416 and a number of critical rural ridings on the issue of wind power.

The Liberals wisely chose to mollify the 416 on that issue. Attempting to mollify the affected and aggrieved rural ridings, where wind turbines had been foisted upon the local communities because of policies the Liberals themselves implemented, would have been a waste of time; the Liberals would have lost those seats anyway. And rhetorically backing away from wind would have been a bad signal to the core 416 voters. There is an amalgam of issues that 416 voters hold dear, and for some reason wind power is one of them.

So during the election campaign the Liberals went far out of their way to talk up wind power. They pretty much had to.

But what about nuclear? From the first paragraph of this post, it is obvious that while wind may be the talk of clean energy, nuclear is the walk. Voters in the 416 like wind, or so the organized pro-wind lobby would have us believe. But what do 416 voters think of the atom?

Wind may be the talk of clean energy. But on the actual criteria of clean energy—amount generated, emissions per unit generated, total emissions, physical footprint of the plant that generates the energy, physical size of the waste product—nuclear is the walk.

In answering that question, the government has played it safe and gone with the official “green” interpretation: 416 voters do not like nuclear power. (With the important and very recent exception of energy minister Chris Bentley; see article.) But that’s the self-justifying interpretation of a self-interested, professional, organized lobby. On a numbers basis, the professional “green” lobby is a tiny collection of people who feel qualified to speak for the vast silent majority of voters. What does that vast silent majority really think?

And, almost as important, what do voters outside of the 416 think about nuclear power? We know that most people who are immediate neighbors of nuclear plants love them: they are engines of economic prosperity wherever they are located. For those who are not neighbors, they probably don’t think much about the issue one way or the other. That would be most Ontarians, since there are only three nuclear plants in the whole province. Think of it: three relatively tiny patches of land hold the capacity to make more than half the province’s electricity. We could power the entire province from the same three tiny patches of land.

This points up the most critical factor when it comes to a new electricity policy: land use. In “Nuclear progress in Canada” I said

If your energy strategy involves somebody else’s real property, don’t be surprised if that somebody’s legal property rights trump your energy strategy.

The Liberals learned this lesson the hard way in the last election. They are lucky they survived the lesson. Now they know that nuclear energy involves by far the least amount of land use.

So, again—how do 416 voters really view the atom as an electricity source?

8 comments for “Ontario nuclear fleet cracks 10,000 MW output as first serious heat wave of 2012 bears down: do 416 voters know what is running and cooling Toronto?

  1. Tim
    June 19, 2012 at 18:30

    I would hope voters in the direction of Scarborough and Pickering would realize the laws of physics dictate the electricity they are current using is actually coming from the rather large nuclear plant down the street not some wind farm 100 miles away. To be fair to this area this is Brad Duguid’s territory whom I would view along with Chris Bentley as being fairly pro nuclear.

    • Steve Aplin
      June 19, 2012 at 18:35

      yes, Duguid was also great on the issue when he was energy minister, especially in the days immediately following Fukushima. I think he said his entire family lives in very close proximity to Pickering. There are not many politicians who said that at that time. German politicians totally lost their bottle and ran.

  2. C
    June 20, 2012 at 18:03

    Great read Steve.

    I live in Rural Ontario (near Darlington Nuclear) but do most of my work in downtown Toronto. It is like Night & Day. The core of downtown Toronto has this image that Nuclear Plants are like what you see on The Simpsons and Wind is this beautiful, warm & fuzzy, feel good energy. When the truth is there are so many good jobs out of Darlington where the workers are happy, live in great communities and make good incomes to provide for their family, the energy is reliable AND causes no real problems to anyone in the community. While the wind farms they plan to put up near Orono have put neighbors and friends against eachother becuase only the land owner gets paid. As well, people talk about the illness and destruction done by installing them.

    I have also heard, but am not sure, that when the wind doesn’t blow you must burn gas to cover the lost energy? IS this true? cause if so, then they are really not Co2 free either, due to the fact the wind does not always blow, especially on hot hot days like today…not even a breeze outside.

  3. robert budd
    June 23, 2012 at 02:13

    Pretty good analysis of the situtaionI think. I live in Huron County on Lake Huron’s east coast. It is ground zero for much of the land use battles over wind development in Ontario.
    If I heard that the wind developments(close to 500 turbines proposed now) were cancelled and instead a new nuclear plant were proposed, I’d do a dance.
    The area around Bruce nuclear has the highest income and education levels in this region. Solid across the board property values and population stability. Nuclear appears to “lift all boats” in the area. Its even one of the better birding sites around and most people don’t realize its where our now healthy Bald Eagle population got its foothold.
    On the other hand..our own area is seeing population and job losses. Proposed turbine development is rewarding a small percentage of the landowners (mostly the larger ones with multiple farms)and residential and recreational property values are being impacted negatively.
    The job creation potential from wind appears to be pathetic. NextEra which is building 4 projects on the coast here are a classic example. Big US corp. with an office in Burlington. Almost no local presence. Contruction crews will be in and out US based outfits again and monitoring of the turbines once built will be done from Florida according to their rep.
    Maintenance crews will likely move amongst their various projects so if you actually have people employed within the actual development project it will be pure shit luck.
    Regardless of whether wind is a usefull addition to On. supply mix (clearly its not from a technical perspective)it’s being done really badly here. And yes it is a self deluded, technical understanding challenged 416 area that is allowing it to happen.

  4. Tim
    June 24, 2012 at 01:42

    I would say its a little more complex than many people might think. I would argue one but not they only reason the current government jumped into wind is that nuclear is in fact from a political standpoint nuclear is perceived to be too much of a Toronto Ottawa industry whereas with wind the government saw an opportunity to generate manufacturing jobs in places like Windsor and London related to wind turbine manufacturing.

    In retrospect though none of this has quite turned out as planned. For one thing while certain high level administrative positions in the nuclear industry are based at AECL in Mississauga and Nordion in Ottawa(along with CNSC) the bulk of the employment is at the plants themselves in Bruce, Darlington, Pickering etc. While Pickering in borderline 416 Darlington is in area where many of nearby legislature seats are up for grabs while Bruce is very much in rural Ontario.

  5. EL
    July 13, 2012 at 20:26

    If you can find me a nuclear power plant that provides the same flexibility as natural gas or hydro (and with none of the associated large scale risks), then by all means give it a go. But this is not nuclear as we think of it today. Ontario already has enough nuclear. What it needs more of is flexible resources. And in today’s reality, one dictated by minimal taxpayer expenses, high private sector involvement, and quick construction turn arounds, that means renewables matched with natural gas capacity (operating at low capacity factors). The public appetite for taking on large capital expenses driven primarily by public sector spending just ain’t there anymore (even in Toronto). This means nuclear, even it it could be seen as flexible and adaptive, would likely face an uphill battle, and significant headwinds from nearly every angle.

    Is this website about Canadian Energy Issues, or a promotional site for nuclear (and an ideological screed about everything else)?

    • Steve Aplin
      July 13, 2012 at 21:02

      Which associated large-scale risks are you talking about? Gas and hydro kill more people per TWh! Plus gas is a carbon-heavy fossil fuel, and hydro requires flooding thousands of hectares.

      You point up the alleged necessity of flexibility only because that criterion favours your preferred power sources. Somehow we’re supposed to forget that wind and gas cost more and put more carbon into the air, and screw up the grid.

  6. Tim
    July 26, 2012 at 03:49

    While somewhat unrelated I do have to note there are some very interesting things going on in Canadian energy policy right now. First what everyone is talking the traditional alliance of the four western provinces on energy issues going back to 1988 and free trade is breaking up if not has already broken up over the Northern Gateway pipeline with BC opposed and AB, SK, and MB supporting. Second though is the very real possibility of Ontario under Dalton McGuinty seeming to come into much closer alliance with the prarie provinces(and implicitly the Federal Conservatives) over energy policy for the first time since the Diefenbaker era. This is key because BC can’t actually stop the Northern Gateway legally they can only inflict political damage on the Federal Conservatives in BC. However, the possibility exists that the Conservatives could immunize themselves from political fallout in BC with expanded support in Ontario especially if McGuinty were to come out in favor of Northern Gateway. Now the question is what does McGuinty get from Alberta and Ottawa for doing so. Is it a greater commitment from the Federal Government for nuclear power in Ontario or something else.

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