Smoke-free at both ends: Toronto subway and its main power source are fighting carbon, possibly winning

Toronto’s subway trains carry thousands of passengers every hour through underground tunnels. This would be extremely difficult to accomplish if the traction power hurling the trains across the east-west line and up and down the north-south lines under the city were not supplied by electricity, which at its point of use is smoke-free. And from the viewpoint of our—mankind’s—treatment of the global atmosphere, it is a very good thing that most of the electricity hurling those trains is also smoke free. Our atmosphere has for too long been treated as a giant dump into which we humans daily throw literally millions of tons of carbon garbage in the form of fossil fuel exhaust smoke. It’s therefore good to know that no smoke gets dumped from the plants that make by far most of Ontario’s electricity. At six a.m. today (October 30 2013), more than two thirds of that electricity was coming out of nuclear plants. For the hourly contribution of nuclear to Ontario’s electricity, see Table 1 on the left-hand sidebar.

Toronto subway: the (almost) smoke-free ride. Electric-powered trains, at their point of use, are the only smoke-free way to travel underground. The electricity that powers them should also be smoke-free. In Ontario, it almost is. Most Ontario electricity comes from smoke-free nuclear and hydro plants; see Tables 1 and 2 to the left). All our electricity could and should be smoke free. It is up to us as a society to make that choice.

More Torontonians should know this. I would guess that most understand that the subway must be electric powered: most people intuitively know that it’s unwise to burn fuel in a confined indoor space, and that electricity is a smokeless “fuel” that is safe to use in such spaces.

And I would guess Torontonians would agree that the generating stations that make the electricity that is safe to use indoors and underground should themselves also run on smoke-free fuel. Especially if they knew just how dependent Toronto as a city is on electricity, and the sheer amount of work that electricity does for them hour after hour, day after day, year after year, decade after decade.

Well, then let me tell them the good news. Toronto subway (and streetcar) rider, your ride is ultra-clean. It is ultra-clean because it is almost smoke-free, at both ends. It is smoke-free at your end because it runs on electricity. And it is almost smoke-free at the electricity-generating end, because most of the electricity comes out of clean nuclear and hydro plants, which dump zero waste into the atmosphere.

Now, the bad news: your ride might become more smoky. That is because our province has decided to not build new nuclear plants (which dump zero smoke into the air) and will generate power with natural gas, a carbon heavy fossil fuel, instead. This will start in the year 2020; see article. This will surely happen, and Ontario power plants will dump more smoke into the air—unless that decision is reexamined, and the province decides to stay its course and go entirely smoke free in power generation.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been warning literally for years that humankind must halt its untrammeled dumping of carbon smoke into the global atmosphere. Ontario, since well before the IPCC was even formed, has been using smoke-free electricity to go about its daily business.

There are of course those who oppose smoke-free electricity: they are the anti-nuclear lobbyists who want Ontario to burn more natural gas. Some in this crowd are genuinely concerned about nuclear’s alleged dangers. But here is an interesting fact. Just as there are lobbyists today who fear smoke-free nuclear power, so there were lobbyists in the late 1800s who feared underground electric-powered trains. Benson Bobrick, in his brilliant book Labyrinths of Iron, chronicles the monumental political battles to build the early subways in London and Paris.

Bobrick notes that subway opponents may have been motivated by primal fear of darkness and the underworld, and that it was not fated that subways would be built. This is a sobering point. It is undeniably good that the Paris Metro and London Underground were built, and that they have made both cities more livable and functional. So it is good that the opponents, driven by primal fear, lost their war and entered the dustbin of history.

When the Toronto subway lines were constructed beginning in 1949, the world controversy over underground versus surface urban travel had become largely moot: subways were regarded as undeniably good and desirable.

But today, the other side of the smoke-free travel equation—the power source that provides the actual traction power for subways—remains subject to primal fear and prejudice.

There is no question that Toronto electric transit should be powered by smoke-free electricity.

Torontonians should be made aware of the connection between the power source and the electricity that carries them cleanly and cheaply and safely to and from work and home.

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7 years ago

As I wrote elsewhere, Ontario should be touting its stellar example to the world (especially the “green” nation of Denmark, which emits 10 times as much CO2 per kWh and is trying to get everyone to follow).  Ontario should stop apologizing to the world for saving the climate but “doing it the wrong way”.  Denmark’s way doesn’t work, and any way that works IS the right way.

7 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

Carbon emissions are the coin of the realm when it comes to modern power systems. Those jurisdictions with the lowest CO2 intensity per kilowatt-hour (CIPK) should be held up as examples for others to follow.

To judge from the commenters at Climate Crocks, the verbal ledgerdemain of the “greens” is to change the subject from CIPK to per-capita emissions, including industrial and transport.  Ontario currently lags Denmark on this measure, though it leads the USA immediately to the south.

Lacking in the arguments of the “greens” is the strategy going forward and any limits thereto.  There is an element of “crimestop” to their thinking which does not admit any role for nuclear energy regardless of the ultimate outcome.

I have yet to hear anybody at the IPCC bring this up.

I don’t follow the IPCC so I can’t say.

Others should know how we have achieved this low-carbon electricity system.

Not just that.  Others should know how the zero (or negative) net carbon system can be achieved.  Electricity is important, but it’s only part of the system.  It’s the total net carbon emissions that are ultimately important.  If you can achieve zero—or even negative—net carbon emissions, you can fix the climate.

7 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

Don’t argue with me.  Come up with something that’ll convince them.