Twenty-four hours after president-elect Obama touted nuclear power as part of his incoming administration’s climate change action plan (see article), Canada’s federal government did the same in its Speech from the Throne. In case anyone accuses it of following rather than leading the U.S., Canada signaled its rather stunning ambition to supply, by 2020, “90 per cent of Canada’s electricity needs” with a mix of “non-emitting sources such as hydro, nuclear, clean coal or wind power.” This goes well beyond the federal U.S. renewable portfolio standard of 25 percent which Obama is being urged to propose.
Since the low-hanging hydro in Canada is already in service, and wind won’t ever play anything beyond a marginal role, success in meeting the government’s 90 percent goal hangs chiefly on Canada’s ability to put many thousands of megawatts of nuclear- and clean coal–based generation into service over the next 12 years.
This means bringing about a dramatic shift in power generation in six provinces: Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, New Brunswick, PEI, and Nova Scotia. All of these provinces use significant amounts of fossil fuel for power generation. The other four provinces—Quebec, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Newfoundland-Labrador—are mainly hydro based.
Of the “fossil” provinces, only two, Ontario and New Brunswick, use nuclear in their electricity mix. Ontario’s plan is to hold the line on nuclear and replace coal with natural gas. New Brunswick wants to add a second nuclear unit to its Pt. Lepreau station, and would benefit from federal help in doing so.
To meet its 90-percent-by-2020 goal, the federal government will have to introduce nuclear and “clean coal”—and by clean coal the government means gasified or pulverized coal generation, with carbon capture and sequestration—to Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia, in a big way, within 12 years.
Is this feasible? Yes, if the government is prepared to put real money behind nuclear and clean coal. The Throne Speech didn’t go into this. I have advocated loan guarantees, similar to those offered under the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005 (see article), for new nuclear projects as a good way to kick-start nuclear construction in Canada. Is this possible, given that the auto industry is asking for big government financial support?
And clean coal? Capturing coal-plant carbon emissions could be feasible if we could find some use for that carbon (other than pumping billions of tonnes of it underground, which is a fantasy). What about combining it with hydrogen to make synthetic liquid fuels? This would depend on finding a cheap source of hydrogen. As I pointed out in October, that white whale is now in our sights.