Smashing a perfectly good… coal plant: a case study in hugely expensive carbon reduction

Why, in this time of fiscal constraint, tight budgets, iffy economic prospects, and persistent unemployment is Ontario throwing away two perfectly good billion-dollar electricity generating plants that have already been paid for and that are capable of generating huge amounts of cheap, reliable electricity?

Like probably every computer owner on the planet, I sometimes fantasize about inflicting serious structural damage on the machine. That is usually when I cannot get it to do what I want it to do. I have never acted on the fantasies: my computer is simply too valuable. The same goes for the less-emotional longer term decisions about investment in computers and software. Sometimes these longer-term issues relate to the operating system, in which case my solution has been to replace bulky OSes like Windows 7 or Mac OS X with lighter and more nimble ones like Linux Mint or Peppermint, which do the same job faster and more cheaply. But I have never thrown a computer out, or wantonly wrecked one.

The Lambton coal-fired generating station, on the St. Clair River near Sarnia in southwestern Ontario. Though it is in perfect operational order and capable of very quickly generating cheap, grid-scale power, this plant is being decommissioned for environmental reasons. The replacement? Generators that run on natural gas, which emit slightly fewer carbon dioxide.

This kind of attitude ought to inform decisions about major public infrastructure, and especially critical infrastructure like electric power generating plants. This equipment is utterly indispensable, because our society could not survive without it. So why then, in this time of high concern over public fiscal deficits and the fear of inflation, is the Ontario government getting ready to throw out two perfectly good electricity generating plants?

The Nanticoke and Lambton coal-fired electric power generating plants, on Lake Erie and the St. Clair River respectively, represent nearly 5,000 megawatts of capacity. Either or both of them can quickly ramp up from zero to full power, making them hugely useful during summertime high load periods or after a general blackout. The produce ridiculously cheap electricity: Ontario Power Generation, which owns and operates them, sold their output for just 2.6 cents per kilowatt-hour in the first three quarters of 2012.

It is true that the cheap electricity from these plants comes with nigh carbon emissions: about one kilogram of carbon dioxide (CO2) per kWh for Nanticoke and 0.988 kilograms for Lambton. [The post originally implied that Lambton’s per-kWh CO2 output is 988 kilograms, which is obviously off by three orders of magnitude. Thanks to Michael—see comment below—for pointing this out.] But my car, a Volvo V-70 XC, also runs on a fossil fuel (petroleum-derived gasoline) and for this reason also dumps CO2 into the air, along with other, true pollutants. It is also a perfectly good car, and I am going to keep it until it is no longer perfectly good.

Moreover, it is possible to run Ontario’s electricity generation system cleanly, without closing the coal plants. Back in 1994, there were more than 8,000 MW of operational coal-fired capacity instead of today’s 5,000, and the CO2 emissions from grid-scale electricity were around 16.5 million metric tons. For those who remember the Kyoto Protocol, that agreement would have required Ontario to cut annual power generation CO2 emissions to just shy of 25 million tons, meaning that in 1994 Ontario’s electricity CO2 emissions were nearly nine million tons below the Kyoto target!

I estimate that thermal non nuclear power generators in Ontario emitted 16.1 million tons of CO2 in 2012. Most of that CO2 came from the gas-fired plants that have been built since the turn of the century. Those plants were built to replace the coal plants, which are being phased out for environmental reasons.

So after all that environmental grandstanding, all the exorbitant Feed In Tariff rates for wind, solar, and all the secret deals to private companies to build gas-fired plants—all in the name of reducing electricity CO2 emissions—Ontario in 2012 managed to beat the excellent 1994 performance by only 400,000 tons.

Ontario achieved the excellent performance in 1994 for one reason only: our amazing nuclear generating fleet. In 1994, there were 20 operating nuclear generating units: eight at the Pickering site, eight at the Bruce, and four at Darlington.

This historical record proves that Ontario could continue to have clean, cheap electricity without getting rid of coal. We wouldn’t get rid of a perfectly good car, so why should we get rid of two perfectly good coal plants?

The two biggest power-sector labour unions in Ontario, the Society of Energy Professionals and the Power Workers’ Union, have been making this point for years. More people should listen to them: they are the men and women who perform the essential hands-on work of making and delivering electricity, every hour of every day, 365 days a year. They know what they are talking about.

More people should also think of Nanticoke’s and Lambton’s very real potential as clean energy centres. As I mentioned recently, both could play a central role in building a new low carbon hydrocarbon fuel (LCHF) manufacturing industry right here in Ontario.

7 comments for “Smashing a perfectly good… coal plant: a case study in hugely expensive carbon reduction

  1. seth
    January 11, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    Er’ cus coal kills folks – lots of them. Maybe you haven’t heard?

    That .8 GW of coal can be nicely replaced as a part of the new nuclear build at Darlington at a far lower cost than continuing to run the filthy coal plant.

    • January 11, 2013 at 3:55 pm

      Seth, not even the Ontario Liberals actually believe that. Otherwise they would have closed the plants down in 2007 as they originally promised, and the province would be paying endless settlements to the alleged victims. The problem with the latter is that there are no victims — just a bunch of pseudo statistics that were originally trotted out to justify the plant closures.

      Sure, new Darlington reactors could replace our coal-fired capacity. But there are no new Darlington reactors yet. In the mean time, we will need electricity.

  2. Michael
    January 14, 2013 at 10:18 am

    “about one kilogram of carbon dioxide (CO2) per kWh for Nanticoke and 988 for Lambton”

    Surely there must be an error in that statement 1 kg vs. 988kg ?

    • January 14, 2013 at 10:32 am

      yes, the 988 should have been 0.988 — thanks!

  3. Heather
    January 14, 2013 at 11:27 am

    You can’t just power up and power down a plant. Plants need people to run and people can’t be idled as power needs would dictate. The plant might be cheap to run, but re-training and resourcing gets expensive if you don’t run near capacity.

  4. January 15, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    Steve I usually agree with your thinking. I am divided. I do think timing does matter and you make that point in your response to seth. The phase out of coal was a great idea. But where should we exert our personal energies trying to accomplish change. Do we support an “all of the above” approach, which I know you do not advocate, but we are significantly immersed in that reality, or do we support what we know is best. Seems to me you think we are rushing the coal plant phase out because we need time to bring the nuclear industry back to a sure footing economically and politically. And public support wouldn’t hurt.

    • January 16, 2013 at 4:16 pm

      Rick, thanks. Yes, we’re already immersed so much of this is crying over spilt milk. That’s why it’s a cautionary tale. The essential point is that we could have reduced GHGs just as much and more, without closing coal — if we had simply committed to nuclear refurbs and new build. Coal’s role would have subsided just like now, only without the government-mandated ratepayer subsidies to help renewables stay economically afloat. And also, I might add, without secret contracts to the gas generators that have to provide the real electricity for when the renewable sources cannot.

      My most recent electricity bill charges me an effective rate of 17 cents per kWh, for power that is only marginally cleaner than it was in 1994 when there were 8,000 MW of coal capacity at the ready. Back in ’94, I was paying much less than 17 cents.

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