Ontario is set to mothball a hugely valuable asset, in the form of eight perfectly operational coal-fired generating units. With a combined capacity of 4,000 megawatts, the Nanticoke generating plant is one of the biggest of its type in the world. Run as a baseload electricity provider, with a capacity factor above 80 percent, Nanticoke could generate more than 28 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in a single year. That’s close to a fifth of Ontario’s annual demand. It’s also worth over $1.1 billion, if the power sells for 4 cents per kWh.
Of course, those 28 billion kWh would come, as things stand today, with about 28 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal anthropogenic greenhouse gas. For that reason, Nanticoke is being mothballed, by 2014, in favour of generating plants that run on natural gas. Gas-fired generators emit somewhat less CO2.
You’d think that with all the talk about the paramount importance of reducing anthropogenic CO2 emissions, Ontario’s sacrifice of a perfectly operational coal-fired generating plant capable of earning $1.1 billion per year from the sale of cheap electricity would bring better than “somewhat” lower CO2 emissions. After all, a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report warns that we—the world—have no hope of meeting the Copenhagen Accord CO2 reduction target without “unprecedented” cuts in CO2 emissions. Gas-fired power does not offer anything close to “unprecedented” cuts. It offers CO2 emissions that are only somewhat lower, at a high cost.
However, the plan to mothball Nanticoke and replace it with gas-fired generators has run into enormous problems. In a nutshell, the rush to gas has led to the downfall of the current premier of this province, and could well lead to the end of his political party’s stint in government.
Moreover, the catastrophic effect of Hurricane Sandy underlines both the urgency of slashing CO2 emissions instead of just trimming them down and the fundamental importance of electricity to modern societies.
Nanticoke is an enormously valuable station, and has served Ontario well in the past. So what can we do?
The answer: turn Nanticoke into a clean energy centre, which produces low-carbon electricity, zero-carbon hydrogen, low carbon motor vehicle fuel, and low-carbon chemicals. This would involve the following three things.
- Convert the eight generators at the plant to fire using the oxy-fuel process. This burns coal in the presence of pure oxygen (not air, which is mostly nitrogen), resulting in a concentrated stream of CO2, which is then far more easily and cheaply captured than current CO2-capture processes, which must separate dilute CO2 from nitrogen.
- Make hydrogen by splitting Lake Erie water using the energy from a high-temperature gas-cooled nuclear reactor, such as Areva’s ANTARES, which is similar to the HTGR that is the technological basis for the Next Generation Nuclear Plant. Water-splitting produces both hydrogen and oxygen; the oxygen would be used in step 1, above.
- Use the captured CO2 and manufactured hydrogen to make carbon monoxide (CO). On its own, CO is an extremely valuable precursor chemical; when mixed with hydrogen to form a synthesis gas, it is the carbonaceous raw material for the manufacture of Fischer Tropsch fuel, including gasoline and diesel.
The foregoing would represent the biggest, most ambitious, and most innovative application of the Three Rs—reduce, reuse, recycle—the world has ever seen. Ontario would become the centre of a new fuel manufacturing industry, one that is tied not to the world price of petroleum but to the price of coal and water.
It would also represent, finally, a practical use for pure hydrogen. Pure hydrogen is notoriously difficult to store and use in a normal-size car. But locked in a molecular bond with carbon, it forms liquid hydrocarbons, which are the most versatile, practical, and portable fuels ever invented.
I admit, this is an ambitious, huge plan. But I live in the right jurisdiction. Ontario is already home to some of the biggest energy centres in the world. Let’s not forget that in ten short years, Ontario converted its electricity system from coal and hydro to mostly nuclear: that nuclear fleet is providing 55 percent of our power as I write this.
And Canada, because of the oil sands, is the world leader in synthetic fuel production. This would open a whole new industry.