Ontario’s coal-fired power phaseout, scheduled to be complete by 2014, will leave eight perfectly good 455-megawatt coal-fired generating units idle. These are hugely valuable assets, built and paid for by the former Ontario Hydro (which was since split into a number of separate companies, the two biggest of which are Ontario Power Generation and Hydro One). Which means they were paid for by us: Ontario electricity rate payers and taxpayers.
For a number of reasons, some good and some just silly, coal has ceased to be viewed as likely the Number One contributor to the economic prosperity that has occurred all over the globe since the Industrial Revolution of the 1700s. A textbook on thermodynamics (I will give its name and author as soon as I retrieve my notebook) makes the point that James Watt’s steam engine, which ran on coal, had been invented too recently (1765) for Adam Smith (who published The Wealth of Nations in 1776) to have identified coal as the main driver of the wealth of nations. But it was. Coal drove the steam engines around which the entire science of thermodynamics was developed, and it powers most industrial economies even today. These include America and Germany, which currently get half their electricity from coal, and China.
But coal-fired electricity, in spite of advances in the thermal efficiency of modern plants, is very carbon-intensive. For each kilowatt-hour of electric power a coal-fired plant puts into an electricity grid, it has to dump upwards of 900 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal greenhouse pollutant, into the atmosphere. That, ostensibly, is the reason Ontario is the only North American jurisdiction to phase out coal-fired power.
So at the Nanticoke station, Ontario, an electricity-dependent jurisdiction, has eight 455-megawatt coal-fired electricity generating units that are perfectly capable of putting massive amounts of electric power into the provincial grid, but that it won’t operate because it doesn’t like the fuel that runs them.
Ontario is not made out of money. We all work hard to generate our income, and governments try hard to spend that money responsibly. So is it responsible to simply throw away eight perfectly good generating units that are already connected to the grid and that we have already paid for?
Of course it is not. What, then, could we do to honour and respect the millions of men and women who generously entrusted us with their hard-earned money to build the Nanticoke station once the coal phaseout deadline has passed?
Likely the best near-term solution would be to do what the Power Workers’ Union has suggested: co-fire the plant boilers with wood waste from Ontario’s extensive forest industry. The PWU makes the excellent point that foreigners are already in Ontario scoping out these same resources, so that they can burn wood in their coal-fired plants. Why should Ontario, wonders the PWU, ship this valuable resource off shore just so we can continue with the wind-and-solar renewable energy fantasy? Wind and solar are so unreliable and inefficient that they have to be “backed up” with natural gas. Natural gas is, like coal, a carbon-heavy fossil fuel. Though it emits somewhat less CO2 per kWh, touting natural gas as a solution to coal-fired CO2 is like touting a switch from wine to beer as a solution to alcoholism.
It’s a good point. The PWU says that wood waste and biomass are carbon neutral, which in my view is debatable. But the alternative currently in vogue, which is for Ontario to pretend we are replacing coal with wind when in reality we are replacing it with gas, is just as carbon heavy. And since it is going to be carbon heavy in any case, why don’t we run our system on home grown resources instead of paying foreign wind companies top dollar for what is essentially physical PR for natural gas companies?
The PWU’s argument is, typically for that organization, sophisticated and nuanced. They make the point that Nanticoke is already hooked up to the grid. This may seem like a small thing. It is not. Grid connection is an enormously complex issue, all the more so because it involves other people’s private property and is therefore intensely political. The current Ontario government is in a precarious minority situation, forced to make short-term one-off deals with its political enemies, precisely because grid connection is political. No one should forget that the provincial gas plant scandal is what it is because the inefficiency of wind and solar energy forced the government to build expensive and controversial new gas plants. Wind and solar are not only inefficient and unreliable, they are also extremely unpopular among rural residents who have to live with them. Those rural residents told the government about their displeasure with these big inefficient machines, by turfing out government representatives in the most recent provincial election. This ended the governing party’s majority in the provincial legislature, along with its ability to control the legislative committee that looked into the gas plant scandal. That loss of control ended the previous premier’s political career.
Now the current premier is struggling to avoid making the same mistakes as her predecessor. Her predecessor’s worst mistake, by far, was listening to the wrong people when it came to electricity. Had he listened to the PWU, which knows the electricity sector inside and out, there would never have been gas plant scandals and he might still be premier today.
Will the current premier step away from her predecessor’s self-interested advisers and listen to expert advice such as that the PWU is offering?
It’s a very interesting question.
[Note: I have written a number of pieces on what to do with Nanticoke. You can view them here.]