Waste disposal in Ontario: kilograms, litres, and oil barrels

At a meeting between oil executives and environmentalists in Alberta two weeks ago, it was, says CBC, roundly agreed that there should be a price on carbon and that everyone should pay it. Let’s look at how things would be, if there were a carbon tax on home heating.

There are many ways to heat your home. Almost all of them involve burning something, usually some carbonaceous fuel. Some of the well known “fuels” are:

  1. Heating oil.
  2. Natural gas.
  3. Propane.
  4. Wood.
  5. Electricity.

I put quotes around the word “fuels” because of the last item on this list, electricity. It is not strictly a fuel, but as consumers we use it like we use other true fuels. Plus, we can compare its “waste” product directly with the waste products from the true fuels.

The issue of waste from home heating is pertinent, because household waste in general is at the top of everyone’s mind. Our conception of household waste is confined mostly to garbage. We are intimately familiar with that kind of waste—it’s the stuff you generate in the normal operation of a household. Vegetable peelings, used coffee filters, packaging, burned out lightbulbs, old clothing. You take this stuff out of your home and place it in a designated area where someone else takes it away and brings it to a landfill.

The usual way of getting rid of garbage. This is actually a pretty compact space. We could not possibly store the garbage that is associated with energy production by fossil fuels. That is why we dump fossil fuel waste into the air.

The usual way of getting rid of garbage. Every day, each Canadian generates about 2 kilograms of this stuff. That works out to nearly three-quarters of a metric ton per year. Horrifying as that may sound, it is very little compared with the waste we generate through from energy use. We could not possibly store the garbage that is associated with energy production by fossil fuels. That is why we put fossil fuel waste into the air—effectively using our planet’s atmosphere as a garbage dump.

Then there is what I will euphemistically call liquid waste. It goes down household water drains and toilets. Enough said.

We all have a general idea of how much solid waste we generate; we are the ones who remove it from our homes. It is measured in the size of the (usually) plastic bag we put it in before tossing it. Mass-wise, in Canada it is about 2 kilograms per day for every man, woman, and child. It costs $104 to put a metric ton into my municipal (Ottawa, Canada) landfill, so my daily 2 kilograms of garbage costs about 21 cents. As for liquid: well, most of us in Canada each use on average about 200 to 250 litres of water per day—that is about 200 to 250 kilograms. Most of that goes back into the municipal sewer.

We pay for our solid and liquid wastes, mainly through municipal taxes. The solid stuff is usually included in the tax bill (sometimes as a specific item); liquid waste disposal is covered in your water and sewer bill. In Ottawa, my hometown, it costs roughly $1.64 per day.

Now, home heating: what waste is involved in that?

If you use any of the first four fuels in the list above, the waste is mostly carbon dioxide (CO2), the main man-made greenhouse gas. And how much CO2 comes with each of those fuels? In terms of CO2 content per kilowatt-hour of heat:

  • Light fuel oil (number 2): 253 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour. Enough to fill six 20-litre water jugs.
  • Natural gas: 188 grams per kWh. (A cubic meter turns into 1,879 grams of CO2 when burned, and there are roughly 10 kWh in a cubic meter of gas). That would fill five 20-litre water jugs.
  • Propane: 212 grams per kWh (NOT the 72 grams I originally stated; that was an error). You buy propane sometimes by the litre, and sometimes by weight, but each litre, which contains 7.13 kWh, and turns into 1,510 grams of CO2. That is 38 water jugs’ worth of CO2. Each kWh of energy from propane comes with enough CO2 to fill 5 jugs.
  • Wood: 302 grams. (See U.S. EPA Compilation Of Air Pollutant Emission Factors (AP-42) document, Section 1.6 “Wood Residue Combustion in Boilers.”, table 1.6-2) The waste CO2 from each kWh would fill eight water jugs.

Those quantities are pretty much fixed. If you want heat from any of those fuels, then their carbon content is the same for every kWh they produce (there is an efficiency factor; I will deal with that in a second).

Now, how much energy do you use? An 8-kilowatt (~27,000 BTU/hr) furnace might on a cold day run for 40 minutes every hour. Over a day like that, the furnace will run for 16 hours. So total energy use for that day would be 16 hours x 8 kW = 128 kWh.

So you need 128 kWh of heat over such a day. What are the “waste” implications across the range of fuels given above?

  • Light fuel oil: 128 kWh x 253 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour = 32.38 kilograms of CO2. That would fill 79 55-gallon oil barrels.
  • Natural gas: 128 kWh x 188 grams = 24 kilograms of CO2. That would fill 59 55-gallon barrels.
  • Propane: 128 x 212 grams = 27.1 kg (NOT the 9.2 originally stated). 66.4 barrels.
  • Wood: 128 x 302 grams = 38.7 kg. 95 barrels.

These figures assume perfect efficiency in the contraptions in which the fuel is burned. Perfect efficiency is physically impossible with such contraptions. Exhaust gases must exit the home, or the inhabitants will quickly die. Those gases contain some of the heat of reaction. Which means that the CO2 amounts just quoted are understatements.

That CO2 gets dumped not into a landfill nor down a drain. It goes into the great garbage dump we refer to as our planet’s atmosphere. In the atmosphere, it acts to trap heat energy. Rising levels of CO2 have caused rising surface temperatures on the planet. This has led to climate change, which is the greatest environmental threat facing mankind.

This is why some people think we should pay for the CO2 we put into our air. Maybe if we pay for it we will dump less of it.

So—let’s put a price on it. Let’s say it should cost say $100 per metric ton. A lot of people think that is high, but my hometown of Ottawa Canada charges $104 per ton at the local landfill. And garbage is garbage, right?. So let’s just see how it would impact the cost of heating on that one cold day.

Here’s what that one day of heating would cost:

  • Light fuel oil: 32.38 kilograms of CO2 x $0.10 (yes, ten cents) per kg = $3.23, for 79 55-gallon oil barrels’ worth of waste.
  • Natural gas: 24 kilograms x ten cents = $2.40, to dispose of 59 barrels of waste.
  • Propane: 27.1 kg x 10 cents = $2.71, for 66.4 barrels.
  • Wood: 38.7 kg x 10 cents = $3.87, for 95 barrels.

So you would add that amount to the cost of the fuel, and that would be your cost of heating with fossil fuel.

Now, let’s say you heated with electricity, instead of one of those carbon-based fuels. Unlike the fuels above, electricity’s CIPK is variable: it depends on what sources are feeding the grid that delivers power, and on the time of day. In Ontario so far this year, the CIPK of grid electricity has been 44.63 grams.

So: 128 kWh of electrical energy x 44.63 grams = 5,713 grams = 5.7 kg.

And 5.7 kg x 10 cents = 57 cents.

Ontario electricity kWhs are cleaner by far than the cleanest of the combustible fuels above (14 oil barrels’ worth of CO2, versus 59.5 barrels for natural gas). Not only that, Ontario electricity waste would also be cheaper from the carbon price viewpoint to heat your home.

Ontario’s grid CIPK could and should be lower than 44.63 grams. It could, and should, be zero. It could be zero if we added more nuclear plants. See Table A1 in the upper left of this page. It shows which sources are feeding the grid, and which ones are producing the current CIPK. Of the sources that have a zero in the “CO2, tons” column, nuclear is always the biggest and most constant.

As for waste, don’t worry about it. The cost of nuclear waste disposal is already included in the rate we pay for nuclear electricity. That is because there are roughly 3,500 kilowatt-hours of energy packed into these little pellets.

 

A uranium pellet the size of the black thing next to the Canadian quarter (which is roughly 24 millimeters in diameter) contains 3,500 kilowatt-hours of carbon-free energy. After it has released those 3,500 kWh, the pellet would look much like it does now: it would retain the same shape and size. No other fuel on earth offers this advantage.

A uranium pellet the size of the black thing next to the Canadian quarter (which is roughly 24 millimeters in diameter) contains 3,500 kilowatt-hours of carbon-free energy. After it has released those 3,500 kWh, the pellet would look much like it does now: it would retain the same shape and size. No other fuel on earth offers this advantage.

This means that the waste from releasing enough energy to power 384 typical homes, day and night, for 100 years is contained in each of the white casks shown in this photo.

That’s me, dead centre, with colleagues at the Darlington Nuclear Station Dry Storage Cask facility. Each one of those casks contains  384 used CANDU fuel bundles, all emitting copious gamma-ray photons. But because each cask is made of 63 tonnes of concrete and steel, not enough of the gammas hit me to cause a health problem. I probably was hit with more naturally occurring gammas on the drive from Toronto to the site.

That’s me, dead centre, with colleagues at the Darlington Nuclear Station Dry Storage Cask facility. Each one of those casks contains 384 used CANDU fuel bundles, all emitting copious gamma-ray photons. But because each cask is made of 63 tonnes of concrete and steel, not enough of the gammas hit me to cause a health problem. I probably was hit with more naturally occurring gammas on the drive from Toronto to the site. Photo courtesy of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization.

17 comments for “Waste disposal in Ontario: kilograms, litres, and oil barrels

  1. June 4, 2015 at 12:30

    I think you need to re-calculate this figure:

    each litre, which contains 7.13 kWh, turns into 1,510 grams of CO2. That is two water jugs’ worth of CO2.

    • June 4, 2015 at 13:35

      good grief… where would I be without readers. You are right — it is more like 38 jugs worth. Thanks Poet

      • June 4, 2015 at 21:17

        Without readers you’d have no reason to write anything would you? 😉

  2. June 4, 2015 at 13:48

    let’s put a price on it

    Let’s be very careful here. If revenue from a new carbon price goes to government, perhaps offset by reduced taxation on things generally considered good such as salaries, why won’t government seek to reduce employment and increase carbon-burning?

    Is it not rather likely that agencies of a carbon-funded government would be very aggressively obstructive towards attempts to curtail its carbon revenue?

    Mr. Aplin, you can multiply real-world examples easily enough, I think, because in the real world there are already multiple prices on carbon, and all Western governments derive several percent of their sustenance from them.

    Some carbon price advocates seem to dimly glimpse that the carbon revenue they would legislate into being would have badly motivate governments, and so they say “-and-dividend”. “Fee-and-dividend”; “tax-and-dividend”.

    Where they really blow it is in appearing unable to imagine that the proposed dividend might be put forward all by itself, implicitly to be applied to existing fossil carbon tax revenues, that this would be very attactive to voters, and that — if enacted — it would change government behaviour very much for the better.

    Right?

    • June 4, 2015 at 15:09

      good points. My aim was less “let’s put a price on carbon” than “let’s see how things would shake out in home heating if there were a price on carbon.”

      Yes, somebody — either the government or the recipients of the dividend — would get addicted to that revenue, which carries good potential to scupper the original aim, which is to reduce carbon. No emissions, no revenue.

      We don’t need some convoluted taxation/market scheme so we can make believe we’re weaning ourselves off fossil. We need nuclear.

    • Vangel Vesovski
      March 26, 2019 at 15:29

      Does anyone really think that voters want carbon taxes to fund more corrupt government activities? I think that they are sick and tired of the progressives getting in the way of voluntary activities and trampling on our natural rights. It is governments and the ridiculous greens that have stopped nuclear power generation. It is governments and the ridiculous greens that have introduced virtue taxes in the form of uneconomic recycling programs that make ordinary taxpayers poorer and less well off. What is wrong with letting the markets work with the bureaucrats on the sidelines only looking for instances where direct harm is done to someone’s person or property?

  3. Oscar Archer
    June 5, 2015 at 04:17

    Great article Steve. May I say, you are an example to energy bloggers for constantly bringing the subject back to emissions intensity of energy use choices.

    Maybe it’s because I’m a chemist, but how about this for a wholistic, fundamental pollution fee scheme: a stepped fee, going from lowest for disposal of solid waste, through liquid, to highest for gaseous waste. Each state of matter attracts a severe multiplier surcharge for the proportion of organic and organically-derived matter contained there-in. This would serve to reward solid, easily encapsulated mineral waste (and especially if it is ultimately recyclable- maybe waive the fee entirely), and liquids that can be economically rendered into such a form. It would also penalise wastes for emitting volatile organic materials which are more often than not GHGs (fugitive NG emissions, evolved methane from landfill). It would most heavily incentivise the capture or phase-out of combustion gasses.

    As you say, waste is waste and I don’t see the rationale for having utterly unrelated agencies overseeing different forms just because they are different states of matter, or derived from different compounds, or vary in their ease of recycling.

    • June 5, 2015 at 14:03

      Oscar, thanks. I say waive the nuclear fee entirely, since we’ve already paid through our electricity bills for the permanent storage of nuclear “waste.” While we’re on the subject, rename the Nuclear Waste Management Organization to Nuclear Fuel Management Organization (NFMO), to reflect the further reduction of an already-minuscule amount of “waste.”

      Carbon fees, for electricity anyway, are a moot point when people realize the clear superiority of nuclear power.

      • Jaro
        June 5, 2015 at 16:52

        Interesting suggestion, to “rename the Nuclear Waste Management Organization to Nuclear Fuel Management Organization (NFMO)”
        I could live with that.
        Realistically though, when we look at the actual content and ease of handling of CANDU SNF, and compare it to the vast reserves of natural uranium, to depleted uranium from enrichment plants, and to SNF from LWRs, it seems pretty clear that CANDU SNF would be the last in line for re-use.
        That being the case, the “waste” moniker seems acceptable — for at least the next few hundred years…..

        • June 5, 2015 at 19:06

          you’re right of course. I was just indulging in some armchair entrepreneurship with other people’s nuclear fuel. CANDUs burning reprocessed and reblended uranium from the U.S. cycle. There’s enough there to run our current fleet for decades, which is the time they’d need to get their act together on fast reactors. Of course this would depend on us getting our act together before they do, which isn’t a sure thing.

          • Kyle
            June 6, 2015 at 15:38

            What would you think of fast spectrum molten salt reactors? We could be making our own ignition plutonium (hopefully not for bombs) and it would be cheaper to avoid solid fuel reprocessing.

        • June 6, 2015 at 10:27

          I don’t know, Jaro.  What’s the value of reclaimed Pu vs. enriched U as the starting fuel charge for an FBR?  What’s the value of separating the FPs from the U and TUs?  It might be worth pyroprocessing the CANDU SNF for those reasons alone.

          Pondering a question here… FPs include a number of platinum-group metals.  Would the radioactivity of some of these make it impractical to put them into industrial use?

          • Jaro
            June 7, 2015 at 08:16

            Sure, pyroprocessing may become worthwhile fairly soon.
            My point is that when it does, which feed material will we go after first? CANDU SNF or LWR SNF?
            That is actually an easy decision, since LWR SNF contains about five times the concentration of U235 and three times the plutonium of CANDU SNF.
            U235 concentration in CANDU SNF is actually very similar to that of the huge stocks of DU (depleted uranium from enrichment plants), and it’s in a nice pure fluoride form, so you don’t have to deal with ceramic UO2 loaded with radioactive fission products and encased in radioactive zircalloy cladding.
            Another easy decision.

            https://www.facebook.com/493843777362196/photos/pb.493843777362196.-2207520000.1433682324./790279354385302/

          • June 19, 2015 at 11:32

            > Would the radioactivity of some of these make it impractical to put them into industrial use?

            JNFL is the only one to put any serious effort into this. They were supposed to be extracting Ru at Rokkasho, but I can’t verify they ever started.

            COGEMA and Cameco don’t, for what it’s worth.

  4. June 19, 2015 at 11:14

    Where’s the part where you subtract out the CO2 when you grow another tree?

    • June 21, 2015 at 19:07

      that part stays out. Fungal respiration, not humans burning stuff, is trees’ CO2 source.

  5. Vangel Vesovski
    March 26, 2019 at 15:23

    The issue of waste from home heating is pertinent, because household waste in general is at the top of everyone’s mind.

    Actually, it isn’t. The ridiculous concern about waste does not afflict the average reasonable person who just wants to live his/her life and be left alone to forms social attachments as they are desired or required. There are plenty of landfill sites to take our waste at a lower cost both in terms of capital AND money than it takes to recycle those materials. In fact, recycling leads to wasting energy as does giving such a big chunk of the economy to government employees who have no incentive to worry about such things as the cost of electricity or heating.

    And correct me if I am mistaken but isn’t Ottawa very cold for a big chunk of the year. Even if CO2 were making the planet warming and solar activity and natural causes had no effect don’t you want the planet to be warmer so that we can get higher levels of biodiversity and biosphere growth? Do you really think that we would be better off if Ottawa was much colder and Canadians had to burn much more energy (that you would want to tax) just to survive? There are many poor people out there and wasting resources just so some smart people can signal their virtue and feel better does not seem to me to be a wise thing.

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