Return on R&D investment during a lethal heat wave: which public investments have paid off?

Earlier this week I posted about the performance of the Ontario nuclear fleet in the recent heat wave. Briefly, I emphasized that during that extreme event—which, tragically, killed people in the U.S.—Ontario nuclear reactors produced literally fifty times as much electricity as the provincial wind fleet. That works out to more than 1.8 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, which cooled and powered the province during that critical period. In terms of bang for the investment buck, the nuclear fleet produced around 162,000 kWhs per installed kW; wind only 22,000. Put another way, nuclear produced roughly 7.3 times as much actual electricity per installed megawatt as wind. Those ratios are fairly typical in comparisons between nuclear and wind.

We’re in the early stage of a new heat wave, so this is important. The nuclear plants, run by a highly trained and professional workforce, are about to repeat last week’s amazing performance.

Ontario’s 16 nuclear generators produced 1.8 billion kilowatt-hours of reliable, clean electricity during last week’s heat wave. That earned more than $100 million for their operators, and generated more than $13 million in sales-tax revenue. All without putting a single gram of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.

The superior nuclear performance last week was the result of perhaps the most successful research and development (R&D) program in Canada’s industrial history. In “Should the people of Canada care if Ontario buys Canadian nuclear reactors?” I chronicled the history of the CANDU reactor, which is the technology underpinning Canada’s nuclear sector, and the machine most responsible for keeping Ontario cool today. Canada decided, right after the Second World War was won in 1945, to develop peaceful uses of nuclear energy. It was not until the mid-1960s that that decision began to pay off, in the form of electricity generated by fissioning of uranium—the most efficient and cleanest way ever invented.

The crucial lesson from that is that, for fifteen years, Canada invested in a technology that was not immediately producing its planned benefit.

I personally am glad today that Canada’s commitment to the technology was so strong. I am, at this very moment (at nine a.m. on Thursday, July 12, 2012), personally enjoying the payoff from that investment. Because of that investment, my electricity is plentiful, reliable, clean, and safe.

That payoff was underlined in double-bold by last week’s nuclear performance, in which, to repeat, nuclear generators produced 1.8 billion kilowatt-hours of steady power—literally fifty times the wind fleet’s output.

Those 1.8 billion kWh, while providing power of incalculable value to Ontarians who had to stay cool in an oppressive heat wave, also produced wealth. The companies that run the nuclear plants made well over $100 million selling nuclear power during that week. Those $100 million in sales generated more than $13 million in sales-tax revenue for the Ontario and Canadian governments.

And, perhaps most important, those 1.8 billion kWh came with exactly zero grams of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the U.S. just blamed for killer heat waves in the southern U.S. last year. The current heat wave has proven that people need air conditioning just to stay alive. The most efficient way to cool air is to use electricity. If Ontario did not have the nuclear plants, which are the result of Canadian government R&D spending during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, it would have had to use coal or natural gas. Both coal and gas are heavy emitters of carbon dioxide.

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James Greenidge
11 years ago

Very good article on Canada’s shrewd nuclear move, and a tried-and-true lesson I hope Japan heeds instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Wayne SW
11 years ago

Wealth was produced in ways other than power sales. People working at those plants made good wages and paid part of those into the tax revenues, which in turn funded services provided by agencies benefitting from those taxes. Abundant and economical electricity allowed businesses to operate. I live in the part of the US that was damaged by the derecho in late June and was without electricity for about five days. I can tell you that businesses suffered greatly when electricity was lacking, as did individuals and families. If those 1.8 billion kwhrs of electrical energy were not available, it is likely that similar suffering would have ensued in Ontario and elsewhere.

11 years ago

This is not superior performance on the part of nuclear. Superior performance would be generation that is fully manageable and flexible. Nuclear is clunky and inflexible. This doesn’t mean there are other obvious sources to replace it with. Rather, it means we need to depend on a mix of resrouces, each with their own distinct strengths and disadvantages. Wind (when available) displaces gas, coal, and lowers carbon emissions. These are all good things. And it does so at a relatively low cost (which the private sector, rather than the taxpayer) are more than willing to pick up.

A big chunk of nuclear that can’t be adjusted to meet the demand curve is a problem, not a desirable condition that should be celebrated. IESO is fairly clear about this. Other people looking at “Canadian Energy Issues” should attempt to be clear about this as well.

Steve Aplin
11 years ago
Reply to  EL

Wind doesn’t displace anything. It REQUIRES gas or (even better, from a system dispatch point of view) coal. That’s why we’re overbuilding gas plants and de facto giving gas pride of place on our grid. If you think that’s a better idea than going with a proven zero-carbon source that is demonstrably cheaper than both, well then we’re arguing about two different things.

Wayne SW
11 years ago
Reply to  EL

Well, looking at the numbers for July 13, it appears that not only is wind clunky and inflexible, it is so because it produced an output of about 1% that of nuclear. Maybe having a “flexible” source that is 1% of another has some advantage, but I can’t see it being a very great one simply based on quantity. Do you really think that a source of capacity that produces 1% of what nuclear does can be “adjusted to meet the demand curve”? What percentage of the demand does that represent, and is it really meaningful in any practical way in terms of meeting demand during periods wherein reliable capacity is incredibly important?

11 years ago
Reply to  EL

Nuclear is not inherently clunky and inflexible, but wind and solar are inherently unreliable and weather dependent.

EL – we’ve had this conversation before. Nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers may not be in the forefront of public vision, but they certainly provide rather dramatic evidence that nuclear fission can provide the heat to some very flexible power generation systems.