Ontario sleepwalking into more expensive electricity, more air pollution

In 3 short months, Ontarians will have the opportunity to participate in a public hearing on the future of the Pickering nuclear station. It is a very important hearing, and everyone who can participate should.

The hearing’s specific purpose is to decide whether Ontario Power Generation (OPG), the owner and operator of Pickering, should be allowed to extend the equivalent full power hour (EFPH) hold point for the plant’s reactors.

This relates to the state of the reactor pressure tubes after years of near continuous operation. The nuclear regulator wants to be sure the tubes can physically withstand more use or whether major components need to be replaced. That hold point was originally set at 210,000 EFPH.

In 2014, the federal nuclear regulator (CNSC) approved an application from OPG to extend that hold point in the case of Pickering unit 6 to 247,000 EFPH. OPG now wants the hold point pushed from 247,000 to 295,000 EFPH.

Why was the hold point moved in 2014, and why does OPG want it moved again? The answer is, data and experience. The original hold point of 210,000 was a guess, made back when there simply was not enough operating experience to predict the state of the pressure tubes in the future; so they played it safe and went with 210,000 hours. The reactors had in 2014 run for 31 years at an average lifetime capacity factor of 76.8 percent, according to Don Jones; they had neared the 210,000 EFPH limit by the time of the hearing.

Over the years OPG had scraped samples off the inner surfaces and sent the samples to Chalk River for analysis. The results of the analysis suggested the tubes were in good enough shape to withstand a few thousand more EFPH operation. More recent samples suggest the same.

OPG’s application is available here.

Briefly, the upshot of the hearing is whether Pickering will continue to put electrical power into Ontario’s grid after 2019.

If it does not, then Pickering’s electrical output will cease, and be replaced with natural gas.

Here’s how that could shake out. The charts on the left represent actual generation over the ten days up to around noon on February 6 (top left) and what that fuel mix would look like if gas were to replace Pickering (bottom left). The right-hand charts represent how those two fuel mix scenarios look cost-wise.

As you can see, the gas-replaces-Pickering scenario would have cost $53 million more than what it actually cost—which is pretty high already. Over a year, the gas-replaces-Pickering scenario could cost Ontario ratepayers an additional roughly $1.8 billion.

Notice how the proportional contributions of each fuel change from MWh generated to cost, i.e. that the thick dark blue (nuclear) and light-light blue (hydro) bands shrink in the cost chart, and how much the light beige (solar) band grows from generation to cost. This is because the costs of the different types of generation in Ontario’s system are roughly as follows:

  • Nuclear: 6.3 cents.
  • Hydro: 4.9 cents.
  • Gas: ~15 cents.
  • Wind: ~11.9 cents.
  • Solar: ~49.9 cents.

To be clear, these are estimates of the contracted/regulated costs per kilowatt-hour of energy from each major source, and they are based on figures from the Ontario Auditor General’s 2015 report.

And to continue being clear, they also represent only the generators’ side of the ledger. i.e., they represent an estimate of the average per-kWh monetary amount that individual generating entities received for energy, within each of the major generator types.1

They do not represent what the classes of ratepayers paid for that same energy. That is a different matter.

And CO2? Here’s how the picture could look, beginning as early as 2019:

As you can see, there will be a significant increase in CO2 emissions when gas replaces Pickering. Over the past ten days, had gas provided Pickering’s output the CO2 cost would have been over 373,000 tons—three times as high as it actually was. Over a year, that works out to over 13 million tons.

That’s right: slightly increase the thickness of the light blue (natural gas) band in the Actual scenario (i.e., produce the gas-replaces-Pickering scenario), and we not only triple our CO2 but also add $53 million to our collective power bills every 10 days.

What would happen if we added more gas than that?

From the generation costs given in the bullet list above, we can infer the effective cost of carbon dioxide (CO2) avoidance in power generation in Ontario, given that natural gas is effectively our only polluting generation fuel.

(The amount of “biomass” generation is so tiny that it is not worth mentioning and is not considered in this analysis—if you look very closely at the charts, you’ll see an extremely thin brownish layer representing “othren.” That stands for Other Renewable. i.e., biomass. Our system operator only reports it for political reasons.)

The cost of avoiding the emission of one ton of CO2, by fuel, is as follows:

  • Nuclear: -$233.
  • Hydro: -$265.
  • Gas: –
  • Wind: -$79.
  • Solar: $899.

(For a fuller explanation of the above numbers, see this article.)

Ontario faces a CO2 future that resembles the lower row of the CO2 chart. This future could begin as early as next year—2019, the year that the current Pickering hold point of 247,000 EFPH is reached.

It will definitely begin in 2024, which is when OPG says it will take the plant out of service.

And Ontario has really only one option for further decarbonization of its economy. That option is nuclear power.

Which is to say, we must replace Pickering, and we must begin planning for it now. We really should begin building the new plant now.

There are absolutely no plans to do this. The Ontario government appears comfortable with making us ratepayers pay $899 to avoid dumping a single ton of CO2 using solar power. Even though we could save money avoiding the same ton with nuclear.

If you can, try to attend the CNSC hearings on OPG’s request to push back the Pickering EFPH hold point. A lot depends on how that request is handled.

Here is some information on the hearing schedule.

  1. My assumption of course is that the gas that replaces Pickering would be priced the same as in the list above, i.e. at roughly 15 cents. I know that gas is allegedly cheap today, and that it could be argued that the per-kWh rate would surely be renegotiated (downward) when the currently mostly idle combined cycle plants in Ontario become baseload providers to pick up Pickering’s departure.

    It could be argued that, certainly.

    But given the huge rates still being offered to wind and solar developers, how credible is it to base cost projections on the assumption that those negotiating allegedly on Ontario’s behalf would be any less generous to the purveyors of gas-fired power than they are with those of wind and solar?

    I’m assuming a replacement price of 15 cents, until I am proven otherwise. It really is the only information I have.

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5 years ago

The cost of avoiding the emission of one ton of CO2, by fuel, is as follows:

Nuclear: -$233.
Hydro: -$265.
Gas: –
Wind: -$79.
Solar: $899.

Had to do a double take on those. Too easy to miss the negative signs. Perhaps better to show in graphic form?
Does not compute. From the referenced article:

5 years ago
Reply to  Ike Bottema

Sorry didn’t realize that last line, which I wrote before my double take, was still there when I posted. LOL.

Jim Baerg
5 years ago

Is there anything helpful that people in other provinces could do?

5 years ago

I note you don’t mention Manifroza, but I’m assuming it’s more of the same.

New Brunswick — to its everlasting credit, NB bought a CANDU 6. If it bought another one, it would chop provincial powergen GHGs down to zero. It would need to develop export markets (i.e. New England) to take the surplus

New markets, but not necessarily export markets.  We need to think outside the box on this.  Coming up with new domestic value streams which can take intermittent electric power (from any source) is sufficient.

5 years ago

the two most obvious “new” domestic applications are heat and transpo, in the general shift from fossil — still electric.

We need to think further out of the box than that.  Heat isn’t going to help with seasonal-level load shifting.  It actually makes it worse.

I’m filing patent paperwork shortly on something to address this.  From my quick reading of the NB statistics it would be an ideal place to kick off something like this, and you could likely use the full output of 2 new CANDU 6’s.

NB with 3 CANDU 6’s could go carbon-negative.

5 years ago

I would be more than happy to.  Right now I am trying to get somewhat better terms from the patent law firm before I sign on as a client, so this is probably going to be a while.

Jim Baerg
5 years ago
Reply to  Engineer-Poet

Manitoba gets most of its electricity from hydroelectric, plus a little bit of combustion. See this

Andrew Jaremko
5 years ago

Steve – thanks for all the posts. I think you (and all the excellent commenters here) should have a look at Ontario Minister of Energy Hon. Glenn Thibeault’s speech at the recent Canadian Nuclear Association Conference 2018. The link is https://youtu.be/SvTnQBrgeoY . As I write this it only has 60 views.

He’s emphatic about the value of nuclear power and the nuclear supply chain industry to Ontario’s economy and decarbonization. I sincerely hope his Cabinet colleagues are taking him seriously.

I want our Alberta politicians and institutes to do the same, and amashamed of them (apparently) not noticing Ontario’s success yet. His speech might be worth a post here discussing what you see in his speech.

Keep up the good work. There are a lot more presentations to look at; I’ve only begun to watch them.

Pedram Mazaheri
4 years ago

a very interesting article,
I just wanted to know more information about this issue. what is the new policy of the Federal government regarding Pickering Nuke?
what happened on public participation? and what is your point of view regarding OPG by 2030?

I would be pleased if you could keep me informed about this subject.