Earth Day 2012: time for greens to walk the walk when it comes to clean energy

Clean energy is energy that comes with no air emissions, and that comes with low or no lifecycle environmental impacts. By that measure, what’s clean? This:

That public service announcement is from Energy Northwest, a public power utility in Washington state.

I was in Gatineau Park last Sunday. The day started sunny but by the time I was in the Park had become overcast. It was a thrill to see these painted turtles soaking up the residual solar heat. The one on the right is getting ready to escape; it doesn’t like the way I am moving in to get the photo.

Gatineau Park, for those who don’t know, is in Quebec, which is, in terms of geographical size, Canada’s largest province. Quebec is also Canada’s biggest electricity producing province; it typically generates roughly 180 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity every year. Quebec exports a lot of that electricity to the U.S. northeast.

Quebec generates most of its power with water. That’s physically possible only because the provincial authorities who built the hydroelectric system controlled an enormous swath of territory containing several major watersheds—i.e., areas with lots of water at the high points.

Quebec electricity is cheap. It costs consumers only around 7 or 8 cents per kilowatt-hour (in Ontario, where I live, electricity costs around 12 cents).

People think that hydroelectric power is cheap because once a hydroelectric generator is built, it’s essentially free to run—water is free, right? That’s true, if you don’t factor in messy and inconvenient issues like aboriginal land rights.

Quebec’s hydroelectric system, like Ontario’s, was developed in the early to mid part of the 20th Century. Back then, when the electric utility (in both Quebec and Ontario the electric utilities quickly developed into provincially owned corporations) wanted to divert water and/or make a dam, it went ahead and did it. If you were aboriginal and this was your ancestral territory, tough. You had two choices: move, or swim.

That is why hydroelectricity is so cheap today in Quebec.

If for whatever reason Quebec had waited until today to develop its hydropower resources, Quebeckers—and electricity consumers in other jurisdictions who are today customers of Hydro Quebec—would not be paying anything close to 8 cents per kWh. Quebec electricity would be far more expensive.

That is because governments across Canada are today required by law to consult with aboriginal groups when it comes to the use of ancestral aboriginal territory. This is the Crown Duty to Consult, put into Canadian law in 2004.

A cynic would say, how convenient for Canada to wait until 2004 to introduce the Crown Duty to Consult—after all the hydropower resources have been developed, after all the land has been permanently altered, after all the sacred ground has been submerged. He could be forgiven his cynicism.

Returning to Earth Day. When it comes to large-scale electricity, how should mankind proceed to supply it? The immediate answer is, in the way that has the least impact on the Earth.

That is certainly not hydro. Flow-managed waterways alter landscapes, and lives. Painted turtles like those in the photo above don’t tend to thrive in flow-managed waterways with dramatic and (for the animals) unpredictable rise and fall in water levels. Nor do humans. The National Film Board documentary Up the Yangtze is a heartbreaking account of one Chinese family’s experience with hydroelectricity. The story is a familiar one to millions of other Chinese in the case of the Three Gorges Dam, and to who-knows-how-many North American aboriginals in the case of hydro on this continent.

Wind and solar are not earth-friendly either, in spite of their warm and fuzzy PR. Both require massive backup from natural gas. Gas is a carbon-heavy fossil fuel, which in turn requires a gigantic network of pipelines to transport it.

The numbers are simply inescapable. The answer is nuclear.

Stewart Brand, one of the publishers of the amazing Whole Earth Catalog (I still love reading the early editions) and a founder of the Earth Movement, which inspired Earth Day, looked at the numbers and came to that conclusion. In an interview with InHabitat, Stewart says:

It’s sad that we have to keep saying “potential” with regards to solar. It’s been around for 40 years and should have proved itself by now. In terms of providing grid electricity at the scale of coal, it’s not anywhere close to that yet. Wind is starting to gain significant speed, but environmentalists are learning that just to get a gigawatt of electricity from wind, it takes about 250 square miles of landscape.

Two hundred and fifty miles of landscape, for a thousand megawatts of wind power. How many 1,000 megawatt nuclear plants would fit into 250 square miles (648 square kilometers)?

Well, Ontario has roughly 11,000 megawatts of nuclear capacity. These 11,000 MW are in three plants, Bruce, Darlington, and Pickering. The total area of territory occupied by the three Ontario nuclear plants is 2,340 hectares. That’s 23.4 square kilometers.

So: 1,000 MW of wind needs 648 square km.

11,000 of nuclear needs 23.4 square km.

Nuclear has eleven times the capacity, and requires less than three-fiftieths—or five percent— of the territory.

One of my favourite rivers is the Dumoine in Quebec. The Dumoine flows into the Ottawa River upstream of Rolphton Ontario, not far from the famous Chalk River Lab. It is also upstream of the Des Joachims (pronounced “de swisha”) dam, an OPG hydro facility with a capacity of 493 MW. Where the Dumoine enters the Ottawa, the Ottawa is around 3 kilometers across; it’s part of the upstream reservoir for the Des Joachims generators.

When Ontario Hydro built Des Joachims back in the 1950s, it displaced the Trans-Canada highway, a railroad, numerous farms, and God only knows how many Indians. All three nuclear plants could fit into the 3-km area at the mouth of the Dumoine.

If you really care about the earth, you have to support nuclear power.

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Maury Markowitz
11 years ago

“A cynic would say, how convenient for Canada to wait until 2004 to introduce the Crown Duty to Consult—after all the hydropower resources have been developed, after all the land has been permanently altered, after all the sacred ground has been submerged. He could be forgiven his cynicism.”

Cynicism? Maybe. Deliberately misleading and ill-informed? One should not suffer foolishness gladly”

“Crown Duty to Consult”

The Quebec Cree have been full partners in the electricity system long before this came into force. After all, they’re in the process of developing wind resources along the east side of the Hudson, one of the best onshore wind resources in the world.

“all the hydropower resources have been developed”

I have posted real numbers from actual engineers that demonstrate the falsity of this statement, yet you continue to post it as fact. Your only comeback to date has been to change the goal posts and made side arguments. One is led to believe this is wilful.