Carbon content of electricity, Ontario vs. Germany: a cross-jurisdictional comparison

On September 10 2013, the smart meter data for my office indicated I used a total of 13.36 kilowatt-hours of electricity. I calculate that those 13.36 kWh came with a total of 1,885.9 grams, or 1.886 kilgrams of carbon dioxide (CO2). Is that a big amount of CO2? A small amount? My office is in Ontario, Canada, and I used electricity from the provincial grid. How does the carbon content of Ontario grid electricity compare with that of other jurisdictions? Let’s find out.

The table below compares the actual carbon content of my office electricity on Tuesday with the carbon content it would have had if my office were in Germany. Note that CIPK stands for CO2 Intensity per Kilowatt-Hour.

Hour of day Usage kWh Ontario CIPK Hourly Ontario CO2 Germany CIPK Hourly Germany CO2
  0100 0.15 35.452 5.3178 672 100.8
  0200 0.17 36.223 6.1579 672 114.24
  0300 0.07 36.909 2.5836 672 47.04
  0400 0.07 37.042 2.5929 672 47.04
  0500 0.08 37.737 3.019 672 53.76
  0600 0.08 40.631 3.2505 672 53.76
  0700 0.09 56.418 5.0776 672 60.48
  0800 0.08 75.355 6.0284 672 53.76
  0900 0.07 107.118 7.4983 672 47.04
  1000 0.54 119.888 64.7395 672 362.88
  1100 1 137.446 137.446 672 672
  1200 0.9 155.392 139.8528 672 604.8
  1300 0.86 159.761 137.3945 672 577.92
  1400 1 159.761 159.761 672 672
  1500 0.78 173.3 135.174 672 524.16
  1600 0.49 173.3 84.917 672 329.28
  1700 0.48 173.3 83.184 672 322.56
  1800 0.48 158.962 76.3018 672 322.56
  1900 1.35 155.957 210.542 672 907.2
  2000 1.51 148.153 223.711 672 1,014.72
  2100 1.6 142.506 228.0096 672 1,075.2
  2200 0.91 121.099 110.2001 672 611.52
  2300 0.27 103.454 27.9326 672 181.44
  2400 0.33 76.415 25.217 672 221.76
Total   13.36   1,885.9   8,977.9

Note also that the hourly CO2 figures are derived by multiplying each hour’s electricity usage in kWh by that hour’s CIPK.

You can see that if my office were in Germany instead of Ontario, then the carbon content of Tuesday’s electricity would have been nearly five times as high.

But wait! Isn’t Germany regarded as the paragon of green energy policies? Isn’t Germany building more wind turbines and solar panels than every other country? Didn’t Germany decide to close down all of its nuclear reactors and replace them with wind and solar generators?

Yes, yes, and yes. And look at the numbers above. Ontario, which rarely gets mentioned as a clean energy jurisdiction, is more than three times cleaner than Germany, which gets all the press.

And guess what. The 672-gram CIPK for Germany is an old number: it is from an Ecometrica Technical Paper from August 2011. In 2011, much of Germany’s nuclear fleet was still generating electricity; the panic-driven nuclear phaseout had not been fully implemented. And nuclear generation emits zero CO2.

But Germany is closing its nuclear plants. This means that the CIPK of German electricity is going to rise, likely to well above 700 grams, possibly above 800.

Germany is not a paragon of clean energy policy. It is a cautionary tale for those who really want to reduce carbon emissions instead of just bragging about it.

Ontario is a much better example. And the best example of all is France. France’s CIPK is around 70 grams. Copy the table above into a spreadsheet, then put France’s 70 grams into it; see what results you get. I sigh for the day that Ontario, and the rest of Canada, follow France’s example.

Now, why is Ontario’s electricity so clean? You can see why immediately by looking at Tables 1 and 2 in the left hand sidebar. As you can see, the biggest source by far contributing to Ontario’s total grid generation is nuclear. Nuclear is carbon-free.

[NOTE: The Ontario CIPK numbers in the table above are based on each hour’s total grid generation output as reported by Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator. I have written a program that assigns a carbon emission factor to each of the 145 generators and wind farms reporting to the IESO. All generator carbon output is then divided by total generation to give the CIPK.

Note also that the Ontario figures are much more precise: they vary hour by hour, and reflect the generation the IESO needs to call on to meet hourly demand. The German figures are an annual average; I do not have precise hourly German data available.]

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Jeff Walther
10 years ago

Nice. I wish the message in this article was in front of every North American. The glaring discrepancy between the real world evidence and the expectations of Unreliables advocates is blinding. Yet, it can’t seem to get out into the open where everyone can see it.

Ron Hartlen
10 years ago

Couldn’t agree more! Pasted in below, is an excerpt from a recent communication from Paul Acchione of the OSPE (Ontario Society of Professional Engineers). The CO2 numbers, supporting the case for flexible nuclear, are compelling. Meanwhile, Organizations like Pembina Institute, Greenpeace are urging Ontario to abandon nuclear.

“…If we don’t want to regress on the progress made on GHG emissions, here in Ontario a practical option considering the current state of technology and public desires is to use flexible nuclear to enable variable renewables to work properly. Remember however that gas is also needed for reserves, grid emergencies and critical peak demand (hottest and coldest days). Ontario is running about 85 kg of CO2 per MWh of electricity. The USA, Europe and China are close to or above 400 kg of CO2 per MWh. If we reduce nuclear capacity, the GHG emission will start to rise and will approach 200 kg of CO2 per MWh if nuclear is eliminated. That’s a higher CO2 emission level than we had before we passed the Green Energy Act !…”

James Greenidge
10 years ago

Re: “Pembina Institute, Greenpeace are urging Ontario to abandon nuclear.”

Why not invite these guys to rant on a column here for nuke pros to take apart and maybe post results online and in Ontario mass transit billboards. Their lies (or tacitly supporting lies) like that more were killed by the Fukushima evacuation than the quake itself is not just off-the-wall but appalling that such is eaten-up by the clueless public!

James Greenidge
Queens NY

10 years ago

I said it before and I’ll say it again: “take it to main stream media”. Can’t you get an article published in the star, post, or something?

Alex Wolf
10 years ago

I’d be interested to see how the other provinces stack up. Is “clean” Germany dirtier than “dirty” Alberta?

Ray Mueller
9 years ago

Please send me the link for the page that shows ontario’s 2013 power mix along with the CIPK for 2013 of 82g/kwhr.

Carsen Banister
8 years ago

Steve, this is a great comparison to help clear up some myths about carbon emissions.

I am trying to find the hourly CO2 info for Ontario. Is it on IESO’s site? Could you point me in the direction of that info, as I’m curious about what the variation would look like on a peak summer day.

And to throw something more into the mix of discussion: this does not appear to take into account the ‘capital’ CO2 emission investments of hydro, nuclear, etc.. Hydro actually has quite high CO2 emissions per kWh when you do a full analysis considering the huge CO2 emissions for cement production required for the concrete during construction. Bottom line is that there is no easy answer to our enormous energy consumption, and ‘renewables’ aren’t always as renewable as they seem.

Thanks again for an interesting analysis.

8 years ago

The best estimates for Ontario in my own humble opinion are the ones in Tables A1 and A2 on this blog.

You’re right, there are lifecycle emissions that go with hydro and all other types of generation, but in the case of combustible fuels the point-of-generation is by far the biggest component of the lifecycle.

So if in the “renewables” realm, we match hydro versus “biofuel” (wood) I’ll take hydro any day. Wood is the dirtiest and highest carbon emitting fuel on the planet.

And nuclear is far and away the superior technology, from the environmental point of view.

Carsen Banister
8 years ago

Table A1 and A2 are great, but is there a way to access the source data? I can’t find it on IESO’s site. I’d like to look at historic data to see changes is the CIPK depending on season and time of day. Specifically, I’d like to compare CIPK for summer cooling season daytime peak vs. night to assess CO2 impact of chiller thermal storage.

Further to the general CO2 and energy conversation:
Well, there really is no easy choice here for electricity generation, or energy in general. If only considering CO2, then the choice becomes easier. I am certainly in support of reducing CO2. However, I unfortunately don’t have much faith in the world achieving this, mainly because I don’t think we can all agree and that even if we do we won’t meet our targets. It’s not very feasible to live and do business like we do in the developed world without relying heavily on fossil fuels. One day we will be forced to revert to a more ‘renewable’ energy architecture as the fossil fuels wither away, i.e. forced to rely on significantly less energy.

Hydro and nuclear certainly are great sources of energy, which make Ontario and Quebec, among some other provinces, have low CIPK. However, there are significant disadvantages to both hydro and nuclear power. Hydro destroys natural waterways and destroys a significant amount of land. Although dams can be beneficial for flood control, they also enable jurisdictions to monopolize water, e.g. Colorado River, and many examples in Central Asia, such as Kyrgyzstan vs. Uzbekistan.

Nuclear has its own challenges, such as the mining process (as with all energy conversion techniques), but the biggest challenges are perhaps in dealing with the nuclear waste and in safely managing fuel to prevent adaptation to warfare. Nuclear energy has created infrastructure and material that must be consistently monitored, and a lapse in this management would be catastrophic for the world. One final point is that nuclear is argued to be a lot more expensive than it appears, due to subsidies from public money and the unaddressed issue of nuclear waste management.

I am not advocating for or against any energy source in particular. We can certainly gleam hints that some are ‘better’ than others, but in the end there is no single source of energy we can rely on.

8 years ago

actually, just about all the data you’ve asked for should be available within the next week. All the electricity data, anyway. The other two types of energy we use, which are not tracked here but soon will be, are liquid transportation fuel (mostly gasoline) and whatever we use to heat buildings (liquids and gas, but mostly gas in the form of methane, aka natural gas). Both represent similar amounts of energy, roughly 150 billion kWh per year, as electricity. And each about five to eight times more CO2. Which ought to give a hint about the CO2-reduction potential of fuel shifting, in things like space heating and transpo.

I believe that once you get into the numbers you will shed the energy secularism. There are gigantic differences between the environmental impacts of the main electricity generation fuels. Both hydro and whatever fossil generates power (let’s say gas, the darling of the anti-coal “green” movement) involve land use and waste production that are many orders of magnitude larger than those of nuclear. Gas, e.g., creates literally tens of thousands of times as much waste as nuclear on a mass basis, and hundreds of thousands of times as much on a volume basis. Mostly CO2 of course. We don’t see it, but gas-fired plants dump it for free into the atmosphere where it lingers for far longer than nuclear fission products and causes far more damage to the planet.

In terms of cost, no nuclear is not more expensive. In Ontario nuclear, at around 6 cents per kWh, is the second cheapeast source of electricity we have (only legacy hydro, built when we didn’t care much about submerging the boreal forest or dispossessing Aboriginals of their homeland, is cheaper). And that is including the cost of waste and decommissioning.

This tracks back to mining, the front-end of the nuclear fuel cycle, which you say is significant. It’s not (when you compare it with any kind of fossil). For the energy it provides, nuclear requires close to a million times less material than fossil. So compared with fossil, you only need to dig and process minuscule amounts of ore.

I am unashamedly pro-nuclear, which I believe anyone would be and should be who looks at energy choices objectively.

Carsen Banister
8 years ago

Where will this data be available? On IESO or on your site? Can you point to where the data in Table A1 and A2 comes from or how it is calculated?

8 years ago

ahh… sorry — data in the tables are from these hourly IESO generator output tables:

Carbon factors are from various sources but the main CO2 numbers are based on an Environment Canada figure of 550 grams for Ontario gas generation.

The upcoming ones are more tied to power conversion cycle, and less to hour-by-hour performance.