Ontario grid expansion, 1960s: why developing countries will decarbonize electricity using nuclear energy

The developing world, i.e. the world outside Europe, North America, and Russia, is now responsible for nearly three-quarters of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) going into the earth’s atmosphere. The central question for climate change policy is: how can this group of countries, which is much larger and more populous than the developed world, continue to develop without emitting CO2? Here is how it was discussed yesterday on PBS:

The two experts have it exactly right: the recent Warsaw climate meeting was about procedure more than about how to reduce CO2. This is why the meeting was so frustrating for observers. As Brandon Wu from ActionAid USA points out,

… we have a scientific reality [global warming] where we need to deal with this problem urgently, and then we have a political reality where we can’t. And we need to shift that political reality.

Part of the shift to a different political reality where things happen faster is acknowledgement of a central fact, which is driving the skyrocketing CO2 emissions from the developing world. That fact is: people need electricity.

China is building coal-fired power plants not because it loves to dump CO2 into the air. It is building them because it has a billion citizens who need electricity. Most Chinese citizens do not have even the basic electrical amenities enjoyed by us here in the west; see article. China has, according to the World Coal Association, more than a quarter of the world’s coal-fired power plants. Coal is still the Number One component in the Wealth of Nations. Had the steam engine been invented a bit earlier, Adam Smith would have likely devoted an entire chapter of his seminal work to coal.

Ontario experienced in the 1960s, on a much more modest scale, what China is experiencing now. Our economy was still in its cosmic-scale post-World War II expansion. Electricity demand had skyrocketed, beyond the capacity of the hydroelectric generators on which we had based our early grid. We scrambled to meet demand with new coal-fired plants, notably the Lakeview station in Mississauga. But that was barely enough. Grid planners opted to meet the exploding demand with a new technology: nuclear power.

Notice that at no time in Ontario’s 20th Century electrical history did the province opt for wind or solar power. Why not? It wasn’t because we weren’t aware of the force called wind or that it could be harnessed to do work for us. Of course we were aware of that, just as humans from time immemorial had been aware of it and used wind to move them in sailing ships across oceans. James Watt and Thomas Newcomen were aware of wind when they invented their steam engines.

No, there is another reason, directly related to sheer common sense, why Ontario’s electricity system planners did not give wind a second thought when they were deciding in the 1960s on how to expand provincial generating capacity. This reason is exactly the same one that marine shippers the world over used when they transitioned, through the 1800s, from sail-powered to motorized marine transport. Wind is a very unreliable and dissipated power source to use for work.

This characteristic of wind means that wind-powered electricity generation will be inefficient, and therefore costly. Ontario grid planners, like grid planners everywhere else, were charged with the mandate of delivering reliable electricity at rates that were affordable to society’s poorest members. This instantly ruled out wind. Electricity, as I have pointed out elsewhere, was regarded as a public good. It was a literally emancipating force when it first entered widespread use. I would argue that it was the greatest social equalizing force in human history.

This is why Ontario’s electricity system planners in the 1960s decided to use nuclear energy to meet the exploding demand in electricity. They were utterly successful in this. Within two decades, Ontario was making most of its electricity with atomic fission. Nuclear fit easily and seamlessly into the regulated public utility electricity service delivery model.

That model, or something very much like it, is the basis on which electrification is proceeding right now through the developing world. People, all people rich and poor, need electricity. It is not fair that only the rich should get it. Therefore it should be brought to everyone via a viable financial service delivery model. The regulated public utility model proved itself in the 20th century in rich countries; it or something like it is expanding the grid in poor countries.

Is this why China and India are building so many coal-fired power plants? Partly. Coal is dirt cheap (it is, after all, quite literally combustible dirt). But there is another reason. Coal-fired power can do what wind cannot: provide reliable power 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But Nuclear technology, which could do coal’s work with zero CO2 and a fraction of the effort (each nuclear fission, after all, releases literally millions of times as much energy as a combustion reaction) has not gained as fast a foothold in poor countries. Why is that? Because of the politics in rich countries that Brandon Wu talked about in the PBS interview above.

Those politics have produced the spectacle of a Germany that has, after hectoring the world for decades about the urgent necessity of reducing CO2 emissions, opted to increase CO2 emissions after a tsunami in the Pacific Ocean caused a nuclear meltdown in Japan, nearly nine thousand kilometers away. That meltdown occurred 4585 days ago. Nobody has died from nuclear radiation. Nobody has even gone to the hospital. Germany is still phasing out nuclear power because of the meltdowns in Japan.

With large, otherwise confident world powers like Germany running like rabbits from a safe technology after a harmless non-event like the Fukushima meltdowns, is it any wonder there has been so little transfer of nuclear technology from rich countries to poor countries?

Hopefully that lack of political leadership does not afflict China or India. Both are expanding nuclear in their electricity systems. None too soon.

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9 years ago

Very good observations Steve. The average person in the west can’t imagine what living without electricity would be like or how miserable it would be to have constant year round blackouts due to electricity shortages. Coal is a hard habit to break and there’s no stopping the third world’s hunger for electricity. Telling them they can’t have nuclear or coal must seem like insanity to them. That’s what the World Bank recently announced. No funding for nuclear energy. It makes it seem like there’s some kind of conspiracy to keep the third world in poverty?

9 years ago
Reply to  Rick Maltese

It may be more of an agreement to keep the coal, oil and gas interests rich.  Given who has most of the money in the world and controls things like the WB, that seems more likely.  As always:  cui bono?

9 years ago

Then again there are other fossil fuels to compete with coal that produce greenhouse gases. Did anyone mention the methane is far worse than CO2? If it gets into the atmosphere it takes nearly three decades and is a stronger warming agent. Nuclear has a number of coordinated regulatory organizations but does Natural Gas have a worldwide network of regulators. Is every greedy gas company playing it safe to prevent leaks of methane into the atmosphere? Does that make some fracking wells worse than coal?

But nuclear has zero emissions. Have we said that often enough?

James Greenidge
9 years ago
Reply to  Rick Maltese

Exactly Rich:

That’s why the top question must be put to governments, the U.N. and evironmental groups; Is global warming chopped liver or a has been peril or a never was? If you’re SERIOUS about climate change, what’s your excuse not to use nukes — and I don’t mean as a part of some lame “mix”!

James Greenidge
Queens NY