Carbon and cost: the real meaning of energy security in Ontario

Less than a month ago, the Power Workers’ Union published a supplemental article in the Globe and Mail on energy security. Energy security sounds like a wonkish term, but it packs enormous meaning especially on days like today (Monday, December 9, 2013) where temperatures across Ontario range from 1 °C in Toronto to -25 in Rainy River. Lose your coat in Rainy River and you will learn pretty fast what energy security means. You will literally not be able to go outside. As for indoors: lose your electricity, as hundreds of thousands did in the Great Ice Storm of 1998, and you are, within minutes, in a dire, life threatening emergency.

Ice Storm, 1998: a spectacular and terrifying glimpse of an act of God that can ruin energy security. High electricity prices present just as terrifying a picture, to those who cannot afford the high prices. Expensive electricity threatens energy security.

It’s not much easier outside in Toronto today, even though Toronto is technically not freezing. Any temperature below about 20 °C requires people to heat their homes using artificial (i.e., non-body) heat. So while not as dire as in Rainy River, losing your coat in Toronto today would still require you to stay inside. And if the grid were to go down, it would not be long before indoor spaces became uninhabitable.

I worked for the Red Cross during the Ice Storm, delivering supplies and chauffeuring Red Cross emergency personnel to stricken communities across the Ottawa valley. I will never forget that experience. Lack of energy security meant that people in these communities had to live in shelters. This was an emergency, of course, brought on by an act of God. As most emergencies do, it hit the poor hardest, and especially the rural poor. Restoring power to some of these areas took literally months. Imagine going for most of the winter without electricity.

The PWU in announcing their November Globe supplement said the following about energy security.

The International Energy Agency defines energy security as the uninterrupted supply of energy at an affordable price.

The people I helped to supply during the Ice Storm in 1998 knew what it was like for their energy supply to be interrupted. It meant many of them had to move to a shelter. Today, many of the very same people are about to learn the meaning of the term affordable as it relates to that uninterrupted supply of energy. They are not going to learn it in an academic way. They are going to feel it on their hides, just like you would if you lost your coat today in Rainy River.

Power prices are going up in Ontario. They are going up because we as a province have decided to follow Germany as our role model for showing the world that we are going green. Is it wise for Ontario to follow Germany? Not according to Jatin Nathwani of the University of Waterloo. Dr. Nathwani points out in an article in today’s Globe that Germany has some of the highest electricity prices in Europe. This is due to that country’s rush to prove to the world that it is the greenest of them all.

Dr. Natwani says that, ironically, Germany’s green rush is in reality little more than public relations. Because of the concept of energy security (see again the IEA definition that the PWU quoted, above), Germany is making sure its citizens actually have power by building more coal-fired power plants.

The upshot of the green rush in Germany, as I have pointed out before, is that Germans are today paying extremely high prices for power that is dirtier than it was before. A German looking at his French counterparts might wonder how his country has gotten it so wrong. Germany’s electricity is more than twice as expensive as France’s, and in 2010 it was nearly seven times dirtier. It is much dirtier than that today, because Germany decided to get out of nuclear, which is the only non-hydro source of baseload electricity that does not dump any carbon into the air.

An iron rule exists in modern power generation. That rule is: when nuclear generation is added to a grid, that grid’s carbon content per unit of electricity (the carbon intensity per kilowatt-hour, or CIPK) goes down. Take nuclear out of a grid, and the carbon content goes up.

The cases of Ontario and Germany since 2011 are a perfect illustration of this rule. Ontario added nuclear, in the form of refurbished reactors at the Bruce site, and our CIPK dropped, from 113 grams in 2011 to roughly 87 in 2013.

Germany reduced nuclear output beginning 2011. As a result its CIPK went up, from roughly 540 grams in 2011 to 570-600 in 2013.

As Dr. Nathwani says,

If renewable generation simply turns into a strong embrace of fossil fuels, then this clean energy pathway is fraught with danger.

The danger he is warning about is the danger of energy insecurity. Ontario may have an oversupply of electricity right now. But if fewer and fewer people can afford electricity, then the over-abundance means little. More people will be plunged needlessly into the nightmare of choosing between rent and electricity. In a modern, compassionate jurisdiction like Ontario, that is just not right.

Ontario is a a crossroads with its energy supply. We have kept the lights on for most of our electrical history by using proven technologies—first hydro, then coal, then nuclear. But as the PWU pointed out, energy security also means an affordable supply. Reliable technology means little to those who cannot afford the supply. It is urgent that Ontario revisit its long term energy plan.

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Steve Foster
6 years ago

Steve: how do we formally press the case that this plan and the Green Energy Act is a dangerous, delusional failure, and that:
– it is doing economic harm that will only get worse with time
– it is a disaster in terms of energy security

We need a new Plan that contains the damage and changes course as quickly as possible.

What if the wind turbines and solar panels, and gas plants never happened and we just built extra nuclear instead? Is there a neat way to package a cost analysis of what we got vs. that road not taken?

What tools are available to bring political pressure to bear to fix this disaster? I hate to just sit back and watch Ontario, the place of which I am a proud citizen, continue to run aground on this folly. Blog posts are awesome, but I think a lot more needs to be done!!!!

Ideas? (I’m not just asking you but anyone reading this post!)

6 years ago
Reply to  Steve Foster

Steve Foster
I agree with you and think we could start trying to reach decision-makers. I know I am starting The Energy Reality Project and also there is Environmentalists For Nuclear. These kinds of groups need to join forces.

Steve Foster
6 years ago
Reply to  Rick Maltese

Ok Rick, will send you a ping shortly…

6 years ago
Reply to  Steve Foster

What if the wind turbines and solar panels, and gas plants never happened and we just built extra nuclear instead? Is there a neat way to package a cost analysis of what we got vs. that road not taken?
The problem for you is that new, less unsafe nuclear is far more expensive than wind and solar (at least twice). Just analyse all costs and subsidies of Hinckley.

So that Green Energy Act delivers the most economic road.

And Germany shows that a substantial share of wind+solar also enhance delivery reliability to the customer greatly.
– far more distributed generation in small units. So a single outage has no impact (a sudden NPP outage has);
– better grid management with better predictions (24hrs in advance) regarding the volumes produced by wind+solar.

The total outage time for customer connections was halved when the share of renewable became substantial (now ~15min./year total. About 10 times better than USA)