Cheap carbon reductions in Ontario electricity: nuclear stepped up in the summer heat wave

July 2013 was a hot month. Air conditioners all across Ontario ran pretty much flat out for the whole time, keeping me and 13 million of my fellow Ontarians cool, comfortable, and productive. Almost all of those A/C units run on electricity, which means electricity was vital to cooling Ontario in July. And I am happy to report that that electricity was also extraordinarily clean. The table below shows the mix of energy sources that fed the grid in July, together with the carbon emissions that came with their output:

Ontario electricity generation, July 2013
Fuel Output (Mwh) CO2, tons
Nuclear 8,174,629 0
Hydro 2,868,967 0
Gas 1,743,515 915,741
Coal 548,488 532,322
Wind 227,743 0
Other 116,700 23,729
TOTAL 13,680,042 1,471,792

(You will note that the table above is simply a monthly version, focusing on July 2013, of Tables 1 and 2 in the left-hand sidebar.)

The table is ranked, as Tables 1 and 2 are, from largest MWh contributor to smallest (not counting totals). As you can see, nuclear is by far the biggest contributor, generating nearly 60 percent of Ontario’s electricity. That is the way Tables 1 and 2 are; I have never seen them show anything but nuclear at the top.

What is a bit alarming is the number associated with wind. The provincial wind generating fleet, much ballyhooed in the media, punched far, far below its 1900-megawatt weight in July. Though in theory it could have generated well over 1.4 million megawatt-hours (MWh), in reality it produced only 227,743 megawatt-hours (MWh), or 16 percent of its capability. Hence, it contributed not even 1.7 percent to Ontario’s electricity in July.

But that is just as well. Wind-generated electricity is incredibly expensive in Ontario. The cheapest wind fetches (actually, is mandated by the government to fetch) eleven cents per kilowatt-hour: that is more than double the rate for regulated hydro and nearly double the nuclear rate. Had the wind fleet not been taking yet another of its frequent vacations during July, Ontario rate payers—including single mothers and seniors on fixed incomes—would have had to pay wind turbine owners (many of them foreign-owned corporations) much more money for their low-quality power.

And here is the interesting thing. Many if not most Ontario utilities have moved to time-of-use pricing. This means that there are certain hours of the day, called peak hours, when electricity is more expensive. Summer peak hours in Ontario are from 11 a.m. to five p.m. During those hours, the price of electricity—at least the price charged by Hydro Ottawa, my utility—is 12.4 cents per kilowatt-hour.

And why is electricity so pricey during peak hours? Well, that is when there is the most electrical activity happening. Most people in the province are up and out of bed and working. They are doing stuff that requires electricity: taking elevators and subways and streetcars, making coffee, boiling eggs, working on their computers, listening to the radio, watching television—most of it indoors in buildings that require artificial lighting and ventilation. So, naturally, there must be enough electricity to meet that demand.

Our electricity system is set up so that at those times we call expensive and polluting fossil-fired generating plants into service. These plants were put into the system and made available for precisely this purpose—to provide power during peak hours. Because they are fossil plants they produce gargantuan amounts of CO2; as you can see in the tables, they dump the pollutant the order of hundreds, thousands, and, in the table representing July’s grid performance, millions of tons.

Carbon dioxide is an environmental pollutant, so it is regarded as bad. Power system planners therefore decided to punish people for using electricity during the peak hours when fossil-fired generators are called into service. Part of the 12.4 cents per kWh that I pay Hydro Ottawa for electricity that I use between eleven a.m. and five p.m. is therefore a de facto carbon tax.

At this point, you may wonder: why would we set up our power system this way? Why would we consciously and deliberately put fossil-fired generators into the system for peak power, then punish people for using them?

And especially when there are other generators we could use that put no carbon into the air? I am speaking of nuclear of course, and in particular the newest “classic” CANDU 6, which according to its marketer can provide flexible, i.e., rampable, power? And for a fraction of the cost of the gas-fired plants we currently use?

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robert budd
10 years ago

Yhe pathetic truth is at times when needed the most, wind actually turned into a load on the system. Total production repeatedly went below 50mw, sometimes as low as 8mw during the heat of the day. Right across the province turbines were being motored around with electrons from nuclear, hydro and fossil to keep blades from deforming and bearings taking a set. This is the predictable nature of Ontario’s weather. Thus it will ever be.
Peak capacity is what we will need more of in the future. You can dream of wind and solar doing it that, while in reality fossil will. Or as you point out Steve, new flexible nuclear can. Not a hard choice if you are concerned with the environment and public good.
I’m sceptical those interests are what is driving Ontario energy policy now though.

10 years ago

As a recent hire at a Mac’s convenience store, I can tell you, working in the private sector exerts significant negative pressure. Huge amounts of detail must be got right, fifty unmemorable things a day must be remembered, and if you get three of them wrong, you are wrong, wrong, WRONG. Also, no matter how you scramble, you won’t be able to keep up, as any normal person could.

Why is this relevant? Because public sector work, and quasi-public-sector work such as the — IIRC — $170,000-a-year job Arjun Makhijani does, doesn’t suck. Or nowhere near as much. In sucking terms, it is to private sector work as the lightning *bug* is to the lightning. (As Clemens said in comparing the nearly-right word to the right one.)

So you don’t have to ask me why the system is set up to “punish” people in general for burning carbon by transferring the associated revenue to the people who matter.

Surely it should be obvious: the more we tax bads, the more the people who matter will protect them, because tax revenue is what matters to *them*.

10 years ago

Peaking generation plants operate for short periods of time, so maintenance and amortization cost a lot per kWh delivered.  It makes sense to charge a lot for that power, if only to persuade consumers to time-shift such loads as they can and avoid the need to build more peaking plants.

I’m surprised that more consumers aren’t turning to ice-storage A/C to time-shift their cooling loads to the overnight hours.  That would shave the peaks of the demand curve and fill in the valleys, playing even more to the strengths of nuclear power.

10 years ago

Why would we consciously and deliberately put fossil-fired generators into the system for peak power

Because people demand lots of power at certain hours.

then punish people for using them?

Because those demands are expensive to serve, and those making the demands should pay the freight.  The characteristics of a low-duty cycle, high-peaking load are best met by low-capital cost systems even if the per-unit delivered price of power is high; a generator with high capital cost will cost even more.

And especially when there are other generators we could use that put no carbon into the air?

Would a CANDU be economical to operate at that wholesale power price and capacity factor?  I suspect not.  There may be other means of time-shifting demand or generation, but they’re not common practice.  Maybe they should be, but “is” and “ought” are two different things.