Starting today, Ontario could completely de-carbonize its electricity system—i.e., reduce its electric grid CIPK to zero—by the end of the year 2024. That would put the carbon dioxide (CO2) content of every single kilowatt-hour of grid electricity in this province to zero. That would mean that Ontario’s electric power generation sector would make no contribution whatsoever to the concentration of CO2 in the global atmosphere. That concentration is today, July 3 2014, 400.44 parts per million; see Item A1 on the left. The current level is dangerously close to the 450 ppm threshold that climate scientists have warned us we must not approach, let alone cross. Through all of recorded human history we never hit even 400 ppm until April of this year, two months ago. At current rates of CO2 dumping into our atmosphere, we will reach 450 ppm in twenty years.
Forgive me for sounding naive, but it seems to me that societies that possess the means and know-how to reduce CO2 emissions in significant amounts ought to start doing so, and start now. Societies organized in a way that permits decisive action in decisive CO2-emitting sectors, like power generation, are, I would argue, obliged to take those decisive measures now.
It took Ontario roughly 15 years to build its first two nuclear plants, Pickering and Bruce. When they were complete, those two plants were cranking out 10,000 megawatts, night and day, for hundreds of days at a time. Could we add another 10,000 megawatts of ultra-high-reliability nuclear capacity to Ontario’s system? Hell yes. And we could get it done in 10 years.
Ontario represents such a society. We are indeed organized in a way that permits exactly this decisive action. Under the way Canada is constituted, Ontario and its fellow provinces have jurisdiction over most aspects of electricity. That means that Ontario makes the decisions regarding how Ontario makes electricity. Our electricity system was built and expanded in order to provide all the citizens of this province with inexpensive power: “power at cost,” as per the title of an excellent book on our electrical history. Initially, power at cost was made in hydroelectric plants.
But when Ontario really came into its own as an advanced industrial jurisdiction, beginning in the 1960s, and we needed much more power than the hydro plants could provide, we went nuclear. Within three short decades, the bulk of this big province’s power was coming from three tiny locations: two on Lake Ontario east of Toronto, and one on Lake Huron. Power at cost: our power remained easily affordable as the result of this transition.
Nuclear remains today our most important source of electricity. It is also our second-cheapest source, behind large hydro. Have a look at Tables A1 and A2 in the left hand sidebar. They show Ontario power generation by fuel type, in near real time. At any time of any day or night, you will see that nuclear is by far the biggest source of power; usually it is making more electricity than all other types combined.
You will also notice how much CO2 comes with all that nuclear generation: zero.
At eight a.m. today (July 3 2014), total Ontario grid output was 16,746 megawatt-hours, or 16.746 million kilowatt-hours. Our nuclear output was 11.05 million kWh, or 66 percent of the total. Yes, this is a coolish summer day across our big beautiful province, and 16.7 million kWh is unusually low for a summer weekday. Increase the outside temperature by five or ten degrees and the 16 million kWh quickly climbs to 20 million and more. With our current fuel mix, that is when combustible fuels would assume a bigger role in the grid. Right now they are contributing 12.7 percent of the 16.7 million kWh, and 100 percent of the CO2. On a day that is 10 °C hotter, their contribution would be twice that, and their CO2 would rise three- or four-fold. And our grid CIPK, which right now is 64.14 grams, would be over 100 grams.
Do we need to meet variable daily electricity demand with CO2-spewing combustible fuels? Look again at Item A1: today’s concentration of CO2 in the global atmosphere is 400.44 ppm. Should we contribute anything to that, especially when we don’t have to?
It took Ontario roughly 15 years to build its first two nuclear plants, Pickering and Bruce. When they were complete, those two plants were cranking out 10,000 megawatts, night and day, for hundreds of days at a time. Could we add another 10,000 megawatts of ultra-high-reliability nuclear capacity to Ontario’s system?
Hell yes. And we could get it done in 10 years.
If we did, we would have zero-carbon electricity. Others might notice, and follow our example. And maybe, just maybe, that figure in Item A1 would begin to fall.
Imagine Toronto’s electric subway, Ottawa’s (upcoming) electric LRT, Kitchener-Waterloo’s (hopefully upcoming) electric transit, and the electric GO Train across the Golden Triangle—running on zero-carbon electricity.