Nuclear or methane: Ontario at the crossroads, not quite on its knees

As I write this, the outside temperature in Toronto, Ontario’s biggest city, is plus-one. This means that every furnace and space heater in that area is fighting against a temperature difference of around 19° in order to maintain an indoor temperature of 20°. The ease or difficulty with which it is winning that battle depends on the walls, windows, ceilings, and floors that confine the indoor space. If those building elements are flimsy, or if they are good conductors of heat, or if there are gaps between them which allow air to pass freely between inside and outside, then the heater will have to work harder.

Most heaters in Toronto run on natural gas. Right now, the majority of these heaters currently working to maintain 20° in indoor spaces in Toronto are collectively producing somewhere in the neighborhood of 11,900 megawatts. If the outdoor temperature in and around Toronto remains 1° for the next hour, then those heaters will have produced 11,900 megawatt-hours of energy. And because their heat came from combustion of natural gas, each of those megawatt-hours came with roughly 200 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2). Which means that in one hour gas-fired heaters in Toronto will have produced 2,381 tons of CO2.

Have a look at Table A1 on the right. That shows the amount of energy contributed to the Ontario electricity grid by various types of generators. As I write this, the table shows that last hour the generators feeding the grid made 18,426 MWh of electrical energy. Those 18,426 MWh came with 593 tons of CO2.

So, 18,426 MWh and 593 tons of CO2 for electricity in all of Ontario, versus 11,900 MWh and 2,381 tons of CO2 for heat in Toronto.

And here’s a further, and more uncomfortable bit of reality. Since I started writing this, the temperature in and around Toronto has dropped to -3°. There is now a difference of 23 degrees in temperature between a 20° inside room and the outside. Toronto’s heat load is now around 14,400 MW. If that temperature holds for an hour, and the total energy for that hour equals 14,400 megawatt-hours, then the CO2 price will be more than 2,800 tons.

Toronto could be getting all its heat from a much cleaner source. Have a look again at the electricity table. Note the amount of energy that is being produced in the nuclear plants: 11,036 MWh in the last hour. Note the amount of CO2 that accompanied those 11,036 MWh: zero. That is less than the megawatt-hours of heat that Toronto needed last hour.

Which is to say, we could have had a nuclear fleet twice the size of the current one, dedicated to doing nothing other than providing heat for Toronto over a plus-one hour, and that still would not be enough heat.

As it is, had everybody in Toronto an hour ago decided to switch to cleaner heat and plugged in and turned on every available electrical heater, or in the absence of a dedicated heater just set their electric oven to 500 and opened the oven door, that could have added literally thousands of megawatts to Ontario’s electrical load. It would likely have pushed grid capacity into the red zone and caused a crisis. Only the hydro and gas generators could have increased output to keep up with demand, and as there are around 10,000 megawatts of gas-fired capacity and each kWh of gas-fired electricity comes with 400-500 grams of CO2 we would see our electricity CIPK spike to around 158 grams.

Now, the heaters currently supplying gas-fired heat to Toronto right now have, collectively, a CIPK in the ballpark of 200 grams (I am being very generous with my estimate of their collective efficiency). You could look at the counterfactual CIPK of 158 and say that that is an improvement, but that would be wrong. You have to look at the CIPK of the sources that provided the extra 11,500 MWh for heat (that efficiency is close to 100 percent). That CIPK, assuming that 1,500 MWh came from hydro and 10,000 from gas plants, is about 347 grams. Meaning that if Toronto were to get 11,500 megawatts of heat from electricity for one hour, the city (and planet) would be better off just getting that heat from gas-fired heaters—as it is actually doing.

The only scenario in which getting an additional 11,500 MW from electricity for use in space and water heating makes environmental sense is one in which those 11,500 MW come from zero-emitting sources.

And the only zero-emitting source that we can expand is nuclear.

It is becoming well known that Ontario’s big emitting sectors are now transportation and heat. As I have said before, we would wipe out a major chunk of space-heat-related CO2 within a single decade by adding enough nuclear generating capacity to meet our demand for space heat and hot water.

How much capacity would that require? That is, quite literally, a multi-billion-dollar question. As we have seen, during a plus-one-degree hour on a sleepy Sunday Toronto needed more than 11,000 MWh of gas-fired heat. That was about as much energy as the entire provincial nuclear generating fleet made as electricity. As I mentioned, in that hour we could have easily made use of a nuclear fleet twice the size of the current one.

That was just for Toronto. For a plus-one-degree hour.

Ontario is at a crossroads. We must decide whether our energy future is with nuclear, or with methane (natural gas). We have an emissions crisis, and we cannot solve it by adding more methane to our energy mix. We must decarbonize, fast, and there is only one way we can do it.

Luckily, we have proven our own way forward.

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[…] Nuclear or methane: Ontario at the crossroads, not quite on its knees […]

7 years ago

A long term city plan could easily include district heating for buildings or apartments which are close together. Any such heat (or cooling) source should be built fairly close to the receiving buildings.

7 years ago

District heating with co-generating SMRs would de-carbonize the space heat and DHW supply.

The NuScale is rated at 160 MW(t) and about 47.5 MW(e), for about 110 MW of waste heat.  If the steam exhaust temperature was raised to more than 100°C (required for economic distribution), the efficiency would fall and the heat output would rise.  As a hypothetical, make it 40 MW(e) and 120 megawatts of heat.  At that pace, Toronto could be heated with 120 of the beasts, which would co-generate 4.8 GW of electric power as well.

JP Morgan finds that the Energiewende costs about $300/MT for carbon abatement.  At $300/ton CO2 and 55.5 MJ/kg of methane, 120 MW(t) would be worth $6400/hr, $154k/day, $56 million/yr (assuming year-round demand).  The electric output would be worth only $2000/hr at $0.05/kWh.  It looks like at anything resembling a likely carbon price ($100/MT or more), a NuScale used for cogeneration would be a huge success.

7 years ago
Reply to  Engineer-Poet

I don’t think it would be practical to have hundreds of small reactors heating a city, just like 100’s of Edison coal plants supplying DC electricity with a 1 mile range.

7 years ago
Reply to  Kyle

Heat doesn’t travel very well, but there are quite a few central steam plants in e.g. Manhattan doing exactly what you say isn’t practical.  If your electric output is worth $2000/hr and you can generate another $2000/hr by avoiding carbon emissions and the consequent taxes, that looks mighty good to me.  If your machine costs $6000/kw and generates $438/yr per kw(e) and another $219/kw(e) just in avoided carbon taxes from heat sales, you’ve got a better than 10%/yr ROI right there.

If the thermal power of a NuScale in pure generation service is limited by the turbine and it could increase its thermal power by e.g. 40 MW of steam, you could boost the heat sales and tax savings by a third.

7 years ago
Reply to  Engineer-Poet

It’s more than the plants. greenies will bitch and scream about the sheer number of nuclear plants required to heat an entire city. I prefer fewer gigawatt scale reactors because logistics would be simpler and you don’t need 50 times the critical masses being monitored by international regulators. I like the idea of fissile material being tracked by non-biased parties and many small reactors would make this much harder.

7 years ago
Reply to  Kyle

They’re bitching and screaming now, so what’s the difference?

What I don’t see is any way to de-carbonize space heat cheaply absent something like steam heat.  Electric heat pumps require electricity, and nuclear loses its best economic case if you have to size it for demand peaks.  OTOH you can take off-peak nuclear steam, use it to heat up a big mass of sand or whatever (a heat battery) and use that to provide low-pressure steam for heat during cold snaps.

I am not so concerned about tracking fissiles if they’re more or less useless for weapons.  Things like used NuScale core cartridges appear to be much easier to track than individual LWR fuel elements, and anything that’s loaded with fission products is a gamma-ray beacon announcing its location to anyone with the instruments to watch.  If you’re worried about third-world stuff, just take possession as soon as it’s cool enough to remove from the facility and ship it out.

7 years ago

>And the only zero-emitting source that we can expand is nuclear.

Excepting, of course, the ~2 GW of zero-impact hydro (via upgrades to existing plants), ~5 GW of rooftop solar (commercial buildings only), and ~20 GW of economic wind (not including new tech that will increase this number). These are all published numbers in the trade press.

And speaking of numbers, I notice once again that the one number that is missing in these articles is the only one that matters, the bottom line. Not a problem, I’ll just do that for you…

According to the latest figures from Lazard, nuclear plants cost ~$7.50/W. That’s lower than it would be in Canada, where Darlington B was pegged at at least $8.25, and that’s when the dollar was at par. But accepting that US figure for the moment, for the ~12,000 MW mentioned at the top of the article, we would need to invest $90 billion in new plants (definitely a lowball considering DB was ~$26 billion for ~3.2 GWe).

Lets be *very* generous and say they can get that cash as 5% and can amortize that over 40 years. That means the principle payments are $440 million a month. That’s just on the CAPEX, that doesn’t include fuel or other OPEX. That’s about $610,000 an hour – almost as much as an Ornge executive golf tournament!

You don’t actually show your input numbers, but working backwards it seems you’re looking at about 1,150,000 cubic meters of NG an hour, which at current residential rates around 10 cents is about $115,000 per hour. More like A-list movie craft van rates, and about 1/5th the cost of just the interest payments for nukes. And, of course, we’ll still be paying that $440 million a month when we’re *not* heating our homes. And so will my kids.

But that’s no reason not to do this! So here, you send me 4x your monthly heating bill and I’ll put it in a bank account for you. Get all the other supporters to do the same. In a few hundred (thousand) years, we’ll be ready to build all this! Let me know when you’re ready to start.

7 years ago

> You have a problem with nuclear costs

Not at all, the issue isn’t nuclear costs, but nuclear’s *relative* costs.

It’s not that washing my car with handiwipes is too expensive, it’s that doing it with water and a rag is cheaper.

So I’ll use the water to wash my car, and the power industry will use the windmills to increase generation.

> but cite SOLAR as a viable alternative

Indeed, because according to the sources I have repeatedly quoted, PV has been cheaper than nuclear for some time now. The simplest and most up-to-date of these, Lazard’s, has just published version 9.0 of their report in November 2015:

As you can see on page 11, the CAPEX of nuclear has again gone up by a small amount to $7.60, while industrial PV has once again fallen to an average of $1.50, When one works in the CF and OPEX, that generates the *unsubsidized* prices seen on page 2, which puts commercial PV at 5.8 cents/kWh, while nuclear averages 12.4 cents.

How does this match up with the real world? Very well indeed, as it turns out. Last year, several 20-year PPAs for commercial solar were signed at under 5 cents, subsidized, which puts the unsub price at 5.5 cents.

>Here are some numbers related to that: 40 cents per kWh for rooftop solar (which runs for six hours per day), versus 6 to 7 cents for nuclear

You are comparing retail-side micro PV to wholesale-side macro nuclear, using figures from a decade ago (or more). I am comparing wholesale-side macro PV to wholesale-side nuclear, both with current figures.

This is all very simple: nuclear plants cost too much. Period.

Using any economic measure, they would have to drop to about 40% of their current CAPEX to compete with other sources. And that is the reason, and the only reason, no one is building them.

In the few years I’ve been commenting here you’ve haven’t written one up-to-date article on the economics. And this article is a perfect example of that – lots of numbers except the only one that anyone cares about.

Jonathon Neville
3 years ago

Hi Maury,
Do you have a reply to Stephen’s comment?:
“… factor in the cost of the sources that ARE producing power [when solar is not], and tack them onto the solar that is not. Do that through the whole day, each and every day, because those sources that step in when the sun sets don’t go away when the sun rises.
What is the cost of that power? Does it come with GHGs? Is that externality costed out? The answer is: high, yes, and no.”