Cost and effect of energy conservation

Last article I talked about the common claim that energy conservation is environmentally friendly. This is asserted as if it were natural law. But it is far from automatic. I demonstrated how a successful conservation effort to reduce Ontario’s annual total electricity generation by 5 billion kilowatt-hours—which is a power reduction of roughly 570 megawatts, the equivalent of removing one Pickering reactor (515 MW) and say TransAlta’s gas-fired combined cycle plant in Windsor (68 MW)—could dramatically increase our power-sector CO2.

There are vacuum building outages scheduled for later this year at the Bruce B and Darlington nuclear plants. That means at least 3,000 megawatts of power will have to come from other plants, for at least a month. Because of this, we are going to see how the environmental movement’s definition of energy conservation really shakes out, environment-wise. Just watch what happens to the CIPK in Table A1 on the right when the vacuum building outages are in progress. It is going to skyrocket. Why?

Because gas-fired power plants will pick up the nuclear slack. Not wind. Not “conservation.” Gas. And gas, might I remind you, is a carbon heavy fossil fuel. It is mostly methane (CH4), but also contains ethane (C2H6), propane (C3H8), and numerous other hydrocarbons. When you burn it, it creates massive amounts of CO2. Every cubic meter you burn turns into 1,879 grams of CO2.

But let me set that aside for a minute. Let me return to the issue of how exactly we might have achieved that grid-wide 570 MW reduction in average power.

Let’s say we did it by continuing to make electricity more expensive. We’ve been doing that for a number of years now, with time-of-use pricing. However, the trend lately has been price rises pretty much across the board. As Scott Luft has demonstrated in yet another excellent well-argued and well-demonstrated article, the difference between off-peak and on-peak prices has reduced sharply. But electricity prices at all hours are now higher.

So the signal that TOU was supposed to provide to prompt “better behaviour” has disappeared. The only signal an electricity consumer sees and feels is that electricity, the great social equalizing force that freed millions from medieval darkness and drudgery and firmly put an end to slavery in most parts of the world, is a commodity that is now too expensive, and that if she can get her kilowatt-hours of heat somewhere else cheaper, then she would be a fool not to. No matter how much carbon pollution comes with that kWh.

So our Ontario electricity consumer does what she has been prompted by high electricity prices to do: she switches fuels, to something cheaper. The only other fuel she can switch to is some sort of hydrocarbon, likely a fossil, fuel.

And, as I illustrated last time, our electricity system proceeds to dump more carbon, not less, into the atmosphere.

This is exactly what is happening in Germany today. Their power price has skyrocketed—it’s now the second-highest in the EU, behind Denmark—and their CIPK has not dropped at all, in fact it is going up.

High-priced electricity does not necessarily help the environment. Germany and Denmark have proven this. Will Ontario prove it too?

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5 years ago

This comes back to the CIPK of the marginal watt.  If the marginal watt is nuclear, substituting resistance heat for a gas flame cuts CO2 emissions; if the marginal watt is gas-fired, you’d need at least a heat pump.

I keep trying to think of a scenario where more nuclear (up to 100%) is not better, and I’m not coming up with one.  I’m usually good at devil’s advocacy.

5 years ago
Reply to  Engineer-Poet

Nuclear can’t be throttled very well as I’ve been told, but our hydro plants are perfect for load following. There are times of day if we (Ontario) didn’t export/import electricity we can cut all our wind and gas plants and just be left with nuclear and hydro. Could use a couple more reactors though just to be safe.