At around three-thirty in the afternoon of Wednesday, September 19, unit 1 at the Bruce CANDU nuclear power plant near Tiverton put its first electricity into the Ontario grid since 1997. That is excellent news for the people of the province. Unit 1, like the other seven reactors at the Bruce site, is rated at 750 megawatts. Like the other 17 reactors in Ontario, it is capable of producing at or close to that 750-MW capacity 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for hundreds of days at a time.
When a big, reliable source of power becomes available on a grid, that causes problems for the people who own other generators, especially small and unreliable ones. When consumers have a choice between two identical commodities, they will naturally opt for the one that is cheaper. Nuclear reactors produce huge amounts of hugely reliable power, with zero carbon emissions. “Competing,” allegedly zero-carbon, sources like wind and solar produce only small amounts of very unreliable power. They cannot survive on a grid on their own, because they could never honour supply contracts with customers; they just never know when the wind will blow. So they must rely on generators whose owners can honour supply contracts.
Luckily for the citizens of Ontario, for whom electricity is a necessity of life, they themselves own 18 generators of this highly efficient and highly reliable kind: these are the 18 CANDU nuclear units. These machines have powered the province, night and day and weekends, for more than four decades.
Unfortunately, those who support the “competing,” allegedly zero-carbon, sources like wind and solar have achieved some political victories over the past few years. They have persuaded the provincial government to force electricity rate-payers to pay uneconomically high rates for wind and solar power, in order to entice investment in wind and solar. Without those guaranteed uneconomically high rates for unreliable sources, nobody would invest in wind or solar.
Imagine showing up on Dragon’s Den and asking Kevin O’Leary for some of his money to start a wind farm. Here’s how the conversation would go:
Wind power investor: Kevin, I need a million bucks to start a wind farm.
Kevin: Let’s see your revenue projections.
Wind investor: I project a 5 percent annual profit, provided my turbine is generating power at 100 percent capacity, 100 percent of the time.
Kevin: But any grade-school kid knows the wind doesn’t blow 100 percent of the time. If it did, I’d invest in wind-powered marine shipping and put my fossil powered competitors out of business.
Wind investor: Wait—I’ll go to the government and ask them to subsidize me!
Kevin: And then after the next election, the next government will cancel your subsidy and you’ll go bankrupt. I’m out.
Knowing that that is how the conversation would go with any investor who looks at wind power economics with a clear head, the supporters of wind and solar persuaded the provincial government to buy into this cockamamie scheme. The government bought in, but for political not economic reasons. And the government knows that as long as there are major cheap sources of power like nuclear and hydro that actually make the grid work, they can fiddle around at the edges with the overpriced but visible and politically correct sources like wind and solar that please the self-styled “environmental” crowd (who are really natural gas salesmen and saleswomen).
So the news of Bruce unit 1 returning to service must be a huge relief to the provincial government. Ontario had a record-breaking hot summer in 2012. We did not approach the all-time record for power consumption, which was set on August 1, 2006, only because this year’s heat came with uncommonly low humidity. Were we to get 2012’s heat combined with 2006’s humidity, we’d easily approach if not break the 2006 demand record.
In that circumstance, the provincial government would be glad for the new Bruce output. Because that is output you can take to the bank. We would’t want senior citizens trapped in elevators in Toronto high rises. And we certainly wouldn’t want the ones who are on fixed incomes choosing between electricity and food. With more wind and solar, providing PR cover for carbon-heavy and expensive natural gas, that is what we will get.