On days like today, when it is below minus 20 °C across most of Ontario, nobody cares about the environmental cost of staying warm. You gotta do what you gotta do. When I get into my gasoline-powered car and turn the key, I, just like the next guy, impatiently wait for the first signs that the ice-cold engine is warming up. Well, like I said my car is gasoline-powered. That means it produces two major things:
- Carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal man-made greenhouse gas. Every litre of gasoline that my car’s engine burns combines with oxygen in the air to produce 2.3 kilograms of CO2.
- Heat. When gasoline combines with oxygen to make CO2, it also releases a significant amount of heat. The heat increases the pressure in my engine’s cylinders and drives the pistons in those cylinders. The resulting mechanical power is what makes my car move.
On minus-20 days like today, the fact that each litre of gasoline, when burned, turns into 2.3 kilograms of CO2, is of secondary—perhaps even tertiary—concern. What I really only care about is the heat that is produced in the transformation of each litre of gasoline into 2.3 kilograms of CO2. That heat is what makes me relatively comfortable and capable of functioning on minus-20 days like today.
There is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with staying warm by burning whatever is available. If that fuel happens to be wood, which is, from the point of view of the environment and public health probably the dirtiest fuel there is, so be it. It is cold and dark in Ontario this time of year. We need energy to stay warm and well lit. Those hundreds of thousands of people in and around Toronto who very recently experienced days without electricity know this only too well.
So it is with compassion and understanding that I point out that every kilowatt-hour (kWh) of Ontario electricity is coming at this moment with more than 125 grams of CO2. This figure, roughly 125 grams per kWh at nine-thirty on Friday January 3 2014, is called the carbon intensity per kWh, or CIPK, of grid electricity.
Together with the retail price of electricity, the CIPK is a fundamental performance metric of the sustainability of our society. The lower the CIPK and the lower the price, the more sustainable our society is, environmentally and economically. Pure and simple.
Now, is Ontario’s CIPK high? Is it low? Is it about average? The only way you can know this is to compare it with the CIPKs of other electricity grids. That is what makes CIPK such a powerful metric: it allows direct comparison of the carbon content of one grid with that of another.
Here is how the CIPK of Ontario grid electricity compared with that of Germany in 2011 and 2013.
As you can see, Ontario’s is far, far cleaner than Germany’s. Even in 2011 when the CIPK spread between the two grid was narrower, Ontario’s CIPK was not even one-quarter Germany’s.
The chart illustrates another very interesting thing: Ontario’s CIPK dropped since 2011, Germany’s went up.
- Ontario’s CIPK of roughly 113 grams in 2011 dropped to roughly 80 in 2013.
- Germany’s CIPK, on the other hand, actually increased—from 540 grams in 2011 to an estimated 570 grams in 2013.
Why did Ontario’s CIPK drop from 2011 to 2013 while Germany’s went up?
The answer is simple: nuclear power. Ontario added roughly 1,500 megawatts of nuclear capacity at the Bruce nuclear site after 2011. (See Bruce Power’s very interesting year-end statistical summary, and Scott Luft’s excellent analysis of the entire Ontario system.) Germany removed nuclear capacity between 2011 and now.
As a result, Ontario dumped comparatively little CO2 into the air from power generation. Germany dumped a huge amount: by my estimation nearly 350 million tons of it in 2013. That is enough to fill up Rogers Centre more than 121,000 times. (Rogers Centre with its roof closed holds roughly 2,877 metric tons of CO2 at 25 °C. It would hold a bit more at today’s temperature. To figure out how much more, use the calculations given in the expandable information box below.)
The title of this article alludes to the decision by the Ontario government to shelf the process to buy nuclear reactors from Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), the federal crown corporation that invented the nuclear reactors that are currently providing more than half Ontario’s electricity. That process would have led to an additional 2,000 megawatts of nuclear capacity in our province.
If Ontario had an additional 2,000 MW of nuclear capacity right this minute, our CIPK of grid electricity would be literally half what it is right now. (Ontario’s CIPK went up in the hour since I started writing this article: it is now, at ten-thirty a.m. on January 3, over 132 grams per kWh.) That is because we would be burning half the natural gas we are burning now. The CO2 from gas-fired power generation in the last hour was more than enough to fill the Rogers Centre with its roof closed. (To see how I arrived at that conclusion, click on the green information box below.)
That is to say, the energy that is keeping us Ontarians warm, well lit, and functioning (not to mention sane) on this deep-cold day, could be literally twice as clean as it is now.
The Ontario government scrapped the nuclear process in 2009 because it was unable to work a deal with the federal government over the price of AECL’s reactors. I won’t get into blaming either the feds or Ontario for that; that would be crying over spilt milk. As a fed-prov policy storm that could not have been better planned to keep nuclear from cleaning up our electricity, and preventing a massive amount of revenue to the cash-starved federal government and jobs for jobs-starved Ontario, it was what it was.
But I will point out that those kinds of decisions have consequences. Ontario needs energy, and on days like today we will take whatever is available. The essence of responsible planning is to make sure clean sources are available in the future.