The political price of “green” energy in Ontario: why nuclear is the cheapest and best option

The former Ontario premier prorogued the Ontario legislature on Monday October 15 2012, 246 days ago. In those 246 days, up to one p.m. this afternoon (June 18 2013), Ontario gas plants dumped 6,875,997 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal greenhouse gas pollutant, into the atmosphere. Those 6.8 million tons are growing, by the hour; see Item 2 on the right-hand sidebar. This running total should be top of mind for anyone who is following the Ontario gas plant scandal. Emissions of CO2, from electric power generating plants, measured in metric tons, are the coin of the realm when it comes to any climate change policy. Unfortunately not everyone keeps CO2 top of mind. Many tend to glom onto certain routes, popularized in the press, to CO2 reductions. More on this later.

Carbon dioxide, or CO2, the main man-made greenhouse gas. Ontario gas plants have dumped 6,875,997 metric tons of this stuff, plus smaller but significant amounts of real air pollutants like carbon monoxide, into our air since the provincial legislature was prorogued in October 2012.

The Liberal government’s primary environmental aim, when it embarked on its green energy journey after winning power in 2003, was to reduce the emissions of air pollution, the overwhelming bulk of which is CO2, from Ontario power plants. And though I have been very critical of several high profile parts of that journey, I have always acknowledged that the journey has been totally successful. Ontario power plant CO2 emissions have dropped, spectacularly. They were more than 40 million tons in 2000 and were just over 16 million in 2012.

When he prorogued the legislature in October 2012, the former premier gave his party some breathing space and a chance to prepare for the public hearing that is happening right now at Queen’s Park. In that hearing, Ontario citizens are learning a bit about how elected governments sometimes make decisions. What are observers taking away from this hearing and all the coverage around it? I hope that the central takeaway is that revamping a power system is much easier said than done. And that one should approach radical recommendations with extreme caution.

As I have argued since beginning this blog, the Ontario Liberals could have achieved all of their CO2 reduction goals without closing even a single coal-fired generating plant. They could have achieved this simply by adding 2,000 megawatts of new nuclear capacity. This would have returned Ontario to the situation in 1994, when there were nearly 14,000 megawatts of nuclear capacity, providing about sixty percent of Ontario’s electricity. Provincial electricity generation-related CO2 emissions were about what they are today: around 16,000 metric tons annually.

This means that Ontario’s nuclear generating fleet was the Number One reason for the province’s stellar environmental performance in 2012 just as in 1994. And the Liberals knew that: that is why they approved the Pickering unit 1 refurbishment and continued to support the Bruce A restart.

The importance of the nuclear fleet to Ontario’s very existence as a viable economic jurisdiction and the world’s best place to live, might also have been why the Liberals codified, in their Long Term Energy Plan, adding 2,500 megawatts of new nuclear capacity.

They should have stuck to it. If they had, Ontario might not be in this situation of having to pay through the nose for gas plants that were never needed—and certainly never wanted by those who would have ended up physically cheek-to-jowl with them—in the first place.

The gas plants were the real part of the Green Energy Act. Wind and solar were the window-dressing—the visible, physical public relations, to convince Ontarians that the province was really going green. Because wind and solar cannot really power the province, a real power source was needed. Those calling most strenuously for green energy really wanted gas to supply most of the power, not nuclear.

So, back to the coin of the realm: CO2. Had the green energy crowd gotten their way, Ontario would be dumping upwards of eighty million metric tons of CO2 into our air every year.

The government should learn the lesson: revamping an entire electric power system is easy to recommend for gas-industry lobbyists and their environmental allies, who don’t have to face the wrath of rural and urban protests against windmills and gas plants. There is a much easier and more effective, and historically proven, way of reducing power plant CO2.

And that is to go with nuclear energy, the technology that brought Ontario power plant emissions back to 16 million tons, just like in 1994.

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