Fighting carbon with electricity: bringing the Third Electrification to Ontario

Ontario electricity-related greenhouse gases are at their lowest point in our modern history. This is because most of the electricity fed into our grid comes from zero-carbon sources, the biggest of which by far is nuclear. Nuclear in 2000 represented about 40 percent of total generation, and total generation-related GGHs in that year were over 41 million metric tons. In 2013 nuclear represented about 55 percent; GHGs in 2013 were less than 13 million tons. That’s a reduction of nearly 28 million tons per year. I believe it is the biggest single reduction in any industrial sector in any jurisdiction in the western hemisphere.

The fact that this achievement did not harm the economy is enormously important. It gives a spectacular example of how other jurisdictions can similarly cut carbon emissions.

But there are other enormous opportunities for Ontario. We are on the threshold of what I call the Third Electrification. Electricity as a ubiquitous energy source came to Ontario, first to the urban and then rural areas, in the fifty-year period from about 1910 to 1960. That was the First Electrification. In that period all the elements of the modern electricity grid were introduced: large alternating current generators powered with running water, voltage transformers, high voltage transmission lines, and local distribution networks. This was the technological foundation of modern Ontario.

The Second Electrification consisted of a major expansion in generating capacity. It occurred from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s, and featured the introduction of a brand-new technology based on a physical phenomenon that barely thirty years earlier no one had even suspected existed. That phenomenon was nuclear fission, a process which releases many millions of times more energy than the most powerful chemical processes. Fission was a breathtaking quantum leap beyond the most advanced technologies that existed at the time, and Ontario based the Second Electrification on it.

Within the span of twenty-five years, fission—from reactors invented and built in Ontario—was providing the bulk of the province’s electricity, from three tiny sites: Pickering, Bruce, and Darlington.

Fission was the natural extension of the hydropower that had formed the generation basis of the First Electrification. It allowed the provincial electrical utility Ontario Hydro to continue running the province, which had by now grown into a major industrial jurisdiction, with power that was clean, cheap, and reliable.

Fission today still runs Ontario. Have a look at Tables 1 and 2 in the left-hand sidebar of this page. These tables show the fuel types that fed the grid over the last hour and since midnight last night. As you can see, nuclear is by far the biggest contributor to our electricity supply. And as you can see in the “CO2, tons” column, nuclear emits exactly zero tons of CO2. It is by far the biggest reason why our power sector CO2 emissions, represented in the Total row in each table, are so low.

The First Electrification was a multi-dimensional, revolutionary development. On the technological level, it represented the harnessing and taming of one of the four fundamental forces of the universe, electromagnetism. To most people, however, it simply represented a shifting of energy sources for the work they do in their daily lives. Up to then, most work done by humans on this planet was done by animals or humans themselves. Electricity, actually grid electricity, changed that. It literally freed millions of people from physical drudgery.

Electricity can and should take over from other processes, today. That is what I mean by the Third Electrification. Take cars, for example. Ontario cars run almost entirely on gasoline. There are more than 7.3 million cars registered in Ontario. In 2012 they used 15.5 billion liters of gasoline. Those 15.5 billion liters of gasoline turned into 35.6 million metric tons of CO2.

Technology exists, and is commercially available today, that can power cars with electricity instead of gasoline. There are numerous manufacturers offering electric cars that can be fueled with electricity from the grid. These include most of the major automakers.

What if all of the light duty vehicles in Ontario today were all-electric? The average car in today’s light vehicle fleet in Ontario uses about 12 liters of gasoline to travel 100 kilometers. One popular plug-in electric car that is commercially available today, the Nissan Leaf, uses around 21.3 kilowatt-hours of electricity to travel around the same distance.

Well, let’s compare the two. The gasoline powered car, using 12 liters of gasoline for every 100 kilometers, will dump 27.6 kilograms of CO2 into the air. The electric-powered Leaf, using 21.3 kWh of electricity for every 100 km, will dump 1.8 kilograms. (I based that on my estimate of the carbon content of Ontario electricity in 2013, which was 86 grams. See article.)

i.e., the electric car’s carbon footprint is less than one-tenth that of the gasoline-powered car.

So if Ontario’s 7.3 million light duty vehicle fleet were all-electric, then the 35.6 million tons of CO2 the fleet emitted in 2012 would have been about 2.4 million tons. Reducing CO2 emissions in any sector by more than 33 million tons would be a phenomenal achievement.

You might argue that Ontario does not have much control over the technological development of the cars its citizens buy, and that the scenario presented above is not likely to pan out. In a sense that is true. But Ontario can, and does, and does, provide incentives to buy electric cars. Ontario can and should add more nuclear generating capacity, so it can lower the carbon content of its power even further (carbon content is reflected in the CIPK, or CO2 intensity per kilowatt-hour, in grams).

Most important, Ontario can and should go all-out in an effort to promote the electrification of the personal vehicle fleet.

There are other areas of the economy that should be electrified. Space heating is one. According to Environment Canada, commercial, institutional, and residential space heating in Ontario was responsible for 33 million tons of CO2 (see National Inventory Report 1990-2009, Part 3, p. 89). Most of that was from gas-fired heat. There are some extremely innovative and practical solutions to chopping those GHGs down radically. I will pick them up in my next post; stay tuned.

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