Fighting carbon with electricity: bringing the Third Electrification to Ontario

Ontario electricity-related greenhouse gases are at their lowest point in our modern history. This is because most of the electricity fed into our grid comes from zero-carbon sources, the biggest of which by far is nuclear. Nuclear in 2000 represented about 40 percent of total generation, and total generation-related GGHs in that year were over 41 million metric tons. In 2013 nuclear represented about 55 percent; GHGs in 2013 were less than 13 million tons. That’s a reduction of nearly 28 million tons per year. I believe it is the biggest single reduction in any industrial sector in any jurisdiction in the western hemisphere.

The fact that this achievement did not harm the economy is enormously important. It gives a spectacular example of how other jurisdictions can similarly cut carbon emissions.

But there are other enormous opportunities for Ontario. We are on the threshold of what I call the Third Electrification. Electricity as a ubiquitous energy source came to Ontario, first to the urban and then rural areas, in the fifty-year period from about 1910 to 1960. That was the First Electrification. In that period all the elements of the modern electricity grid were introduced: large alternating current generators powered with running water, voltage transformers, high voltage transmission lines, and local distribution networks. This was the technological foundation of modern Ontario.

The Second Electrification consisted of a major expansion in generating capacity. It occurred from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s, and featured the introduction of a brand-new technology based on a physical phenomenon that barely thirty years earlier no one had even suspected existed. That phenomenon was nuclear fission, a process which releases many millions of times more energy than the most powerful chemical processes. Fission was a breathtaking quantum leap beyond the most advanced technologies that existed at the time, and Ontario based the Second Electrification on it.

Within the span of twenty-five years, fission—from reactors invented and built in Ontario—was providing the bulk of the province’s electricity, from three tiny sites: Pickering, Bruce, and Darlington.

Fission was the natural extension of the hydropower that had formed the generation basis of the First Electrification. It allowed the provincial electrical utility Ontario Hydro to continue running the province, which had by now grown into a major industrial jurisdiction, with power that was clean, cheap, and reliable.

Fission today still runs Ontario. Have a look at Tables 1 and 2 in the left-hand sidebar of this page. These tables show the fuel types that fed the grid over the last hour and since midnight last night. As you can see, nuclear is by far the biggest contributor to our electricity supply. And as you can see in the “CO2, tons” column, nuclear emits exactly zero tons of CO2. It is by far the biggest reason why our power sector CO2 emissions, represented in the Total row in each table, are so low.

The First Electrification was a multi-dimensional, revolutionary development. On the technological level, it represented the harnessing and taming of one of the four fundamental forces of the universe, electromagnetism. To most people, however, it simply represented a shifting of energy sources for the work they do in their daily lives. Up to then, most work done by humans on this planet was done by animals or humans themselves. Electricity, actually grid electricity, changed that. It literally freed millions of people from physical drudgery.

Electricity can and should take over from other processes, today. That is what I mean by the Third Electrification. Take cars, for example. Ontario cars run almost entirely on gasoline. There are more than 7.3 million cars registered in Ontario. In 2012 they used 15.5 billion liters of gasoline. Those 15.5 billion liters of gasoline turned into 35.6 million metric tons of CO2.

Technology exists, and is commercially available today, that can power cars with electricity instead of gasoline. There are numerous manufacturers offering electric cars that can be fueled with electricity from the grid. These include most of the major automakers.

What if all of the light duty vehicles in Ontario today were all-electric? The average car in today’s light vehicle fleet in Ontario uses about 12 liters of gasoline to travel 100 kilometers. One popular plug-in electric car that is commercially available today, the Nissan Leaf, uses around 21.3 kilowatt-hours of electricity to travel around the same distance.

Well, let’s compare the two. The gasoline powered car, using 12 liters of gasoline for every 100 kilometers, will dump 27.6 kilograms of CO2 into the air. The electric-powered Leaf, using 21.3 kWh of electricity for every 100 km, will dump 1.8 kilograms. (I based that on my estimate of the carbon content of Ontario electricity in 2013, which was 86 grams. See article.)

i.e., the electric car’s carbon footprint is less than one-tenth that of the gasoline-powered car.

So if Ontario’s 7.3 million light duty vehicle fleet were all-electric, then the 35.6 million tons of CO2 the fleet emitted in 2012 would have been about 2.4 million tons. Reducing CO2 emissions in any sector by more than 33 million tons would be a phenomenal achievement.

You might argue that Ontario does not have much control over the technological development of the cars its citizens buy, and that the scenario presented above is not likely to pan out. In a sense that is true. But Ontario can, and does, and does, provide incentives to buy electric cars. Ontario can and should add more nuclear generating capacity, so it can lower the carbon content of its power even further (carbon content is reflected in the CIPK, or CO2 intensity per kilowatt-hour, in grams).

Most important, Ontario can and should go all-out in an effort to promote the electrification of the personal vehicle fleet.

There are other areas of the economy that should be electrified. Space heating is one. According to Environment Canada, commercial, institutional, and residential space heating in Ontario was responsible for 33 million tons of CO2 (see National Inventory Report 1990-2009, Part 3, p. 89). Most of that was from gas-fired heat. There are some extremely innovative and practical solutions to chopping those GHGs down radically. I will pick them up in my next post; stay tuned.

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9 years ago

This is a thoughtful article. It reminds me of Mark Jacobson’s work at Stanford where he calculates how much of various energy sources would be required to electrify America’s entire car fleet. He uses various criteria including GHGs to compare biofuels, wind, gas, nuclear, etc. He comes up with interesting conclusions depending on how you weight the variables.

9 years ago

It’s interesting that the ten-year anniversary of my own BOTE stab at this calculation is coming up awfully fast.

This leads me to ask a few questions, for which I have no answers:

1.  What’s the per-capita CO2 emissions for Ontario-ans (Ontarians?)?
2.  What would they be after electrification of ground transport?
3.  What other carbon-emitters could be displaced by the nuclear capacity required to meet the demands of #2?

9 years ago

One thing that might help this process is to employ air quality arguments to get your major cities to ban the use of internal combustion engines during rush hours in the city cores. This as a minimum would promote the use of Plug-in Hybrid EVs. As battery technology improves, the “core” can be expanded and the time window widened.

This would help make more of the total electric demand into baseload and thus better for nuclear power.

9 years ago

In terms of carbon emissions nuclear and hydro certainly beats oil and coal, hands down. I recently tried to estimate the amount of CO2 I’m responsible for. It came down to:
350 gallons of heating oil = 3.545 tons for heating
7200 kwh yearly, est, = 5.368 tons for electricity
Total: 8.913 tons of CO2.

Assuming heating was electric and the power came from nuclear that would be reduced to 106 kg, or about “1.1” percent of what I’m actually producing. (We get our electricity currently from oil.)

In short, I’m all for replacing coal and oil by such energy sources. Still, I see a few major problems with it.

Electric heating. In the mornings people are going to get up and turn up the thermostats. Assuming around 4.4 million households (3 people per household on avg) that’s going to be a major spike.

Electric furnaces it seems range from 10kwh to 50kwh. Assuming something towards the lower end of the spectrum, say 20kwh, that would be 4.4 million * 20kwh = 88 GW if they were all to run at the same time. Unlikely, but it would randomly happen during cold weather. Even in the best case scenario with a smart grid allocating the power you’re going to get periods where the requirements are 20+ GW added to the current peak.

Effectively that means we would need 20+ GW of extra generation. Still probably cheaper in the long run than fossil fuels with the destruction they wreck on people’s health and the environment. But it would mean a drastic oversupply of energy during certain periods of the year, unless the US was willing to accept the energy during those times.

On top of that, there would be millions of vehicles used to get people to work, which would then be plugged in at work, adding to the energy the grid would need to supply at that time. (ie. Those who need to get to work early would be plugging in their vehicles at the same time as those who don’t need to get to work so early are turning up their thermostats.)

I’m guessing you would need at least 30 GW of extra generation, with upgrades to the grid to make it work. No idea of the dollar cost for such a project. Still, the first steps would have to be taken somewhere and at sometime. If the reach of such a project were to spread across the entire of Canada then I would see the reduction of my current 9 tons of CO2 becoming 1/10th of a ton of CO2 as something pretty major. And if Canada could do it as a whole then it would be a success to guide the rest of the world.

9 years ago
Reply to  david

Electric heating. In the mornings people are going to get up and turn up the thermostats. Assuming around 4.4 million households (3 people per household on avg) that’s going to be a major spike.

That’s not difficult to deal with.  Heat batteries are relatively cheap and easy to make.  You just dump excess power into them and then extract heat to meet the demand spikes.

The bigger problem is extended heat demand peaks, like the recent cold snap.  Some sort of backup energy supply is in order.  A hundred gallons of propane, perhaps twice that much dimethyl ether, or a ton or two of wood pellets per household would supply a solid buffer against needs in excess of what the grid can reasonably provide.  Propane or DME can even run cogenerators to add to electric supply.

A gallon of LPG is about 92,000 BTU, so 100 gallons yields about 9.2 mmBTU.  I’m not sure what a household’s heat demand might be in the dead of winter, but guesstimate 30 kBTU/hr.  That tank of LPG would be good for about 300 hours or nearly 2 weeks of total heat demand.  Run that through a cogenerator at 25% electric efficiency and you get ~670 kWh or about a month at 1 kW continuous.  With smart enough management, you could even “island” local feeders into “microgrids” in case of line outages.

That sort of buffer system combined with a lot of carbon-free nuclear base load would supply energy security better than today’s.

9 years ago

While reducing carbon is important I don’t think its the only thing on a consumer’s mind, or else one would just walk or ride bikes. People still need cars to get around and its style and practicality are probably just as, if not more important to the people.

Electric EV’s architecture if done right – Tesla, can be superior to ICE vehicles. Electric motors are inherently more efficient, smaller, simpler, and more responsive than a combustion engine. Take Tesla’s Model S for example, it can take 5 passengers + 2 kids and still have cargo space (front), it’s maintenance cost is significantly lower than comparable luxury sedans, its acceleration is faster than a Porsche 911, it’s motor makes very little noise, and it’s also the safest car ever tested because of its EV architecture. I think these are the things that attract mass consumers and will eventually lead to the electrification of transportation. Tesla has plans to bring the Model E ($30-40k) to market in 3-4 years. If everything does according to plan it should be like the iphone moment and equivalent of what Apple’s done to the cell-phone industry.

9 years ago

I saw this post only today because of a link to it in the August 8th article. I believe that the OPA has estimated that for every 10% of the light vehicle fleet that is electrified you need about 6 TWh of electricity annually, or roughly the output of one of the Bruce units running at about 85% capacity factor. And, of course, the vast majority of electric vehicles would be charged in the middle of the night, which means that baseload capacity would have to be built for the 3rd electrification and this would also help to even out the difference between nighttime and daytime demand in Ontario. Needless to say, nuclear would be the perfect fit for this reason too.