The Nanticoke Energy Centre: Ontario’s hub of clean electricity, motor vehicle fuel, and high value chemicals

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.

The Nanticoke coal-fired generating station, on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie. Today it is called the biggest polluter in the country. But with some far-sighted planning and execution, it could become the biggest source of clean energy in the world.

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 face of modern affluent society, in cold weather without electricity: survivors of Hurricane Sandy at New Dorp Beach on Staten Island, making do with the only energy source available. This photo was taken on November 7, 2012, nine days after Sandy struck the U.S. east coast. Click to enlarge. Photo courtesy of ABC News.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

    The Next Generation Nuclear Plant, which runs on graphite-moderated enriched uranium and is cooled with helium gas, can generate outlet temperatures above 800 °C, ideal for converting carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide

  3. 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.

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7 years ago

This basic scenario would also be a way to turn nuclear into peaking power, without wasting the capital expenditure by idling the reactor.
To do this the thermochemical or high temperature electrolysis installed would be throttleable, as would the electric turbines. The energy from the reactor would be split between the two processes in the ratio that keeps the grid supplied, and the remainder go to make hydrogen for the synfule process. Even longer term biomass could be used instead of coal. The advantage for this kind of gassification of biomass is that thy type of biomass does not matter, and every carbon atom ends out in the product. Unlike fermentation where only half of the carbon in the sugars end out in the product, and nothing of the rest.
It would also be a good service to implement a LFTR type reactor in.

7 years ago

Sounds like we need this technology. The world needs this technology. The idea of Ontario becoming a world leader in experimental reactors could be happening. I think McGuinty gave renewables a chance and we have learned that it is a waste of money. The LS-VHTR is also an interesting design using a molten salt coolant concept. The process that makes coal cleaner and usable without producing dirty air and CO2 is very important. Natural Gas is not a big enough transition. If the technology is reachable why not pursue it. Look at Hitachi who is ready to take build new reactors in the UK. They can build ABWRs or PRISMs so the new generation reactors are ready to start.

Michael Homsi
7 years ago

Rick’s argument is that renewable energies are a waste of money. I don’t think they are. Renewables count for 50% of Norway’s Energy. It may cost more to build it, but it is there forever or until some one finds a way to charge for the Sun Rays and Wind.

7 years ago
Reply to  Michael Homsi

Norway has excellent hydro power and they use it for almost all of their electricity productionWiki-link to Norway. Few countries have that possibility, so it’s not a model that can be exported just like that.

Because they sell so much of it in the open European market, their actual use of hydro-electricity is much lower, and large parts of it are produced by fossil fuel and nuclear in neighbouring countries.

I don’t know the situation in Canada, but what I’ve read about it is that effective hydro (not to far away from where the power will be used, not at a low in high-demand seasons etc) is mostly already in use. Other renewables are only useful if they’re implemented very carefully, and not as a part of a political tug-of-war. Which they mostly are at the moment and which counts (IMO) for a lot of their ineffectiveness.