Richard Laszlo is the founder of Laszlo Energy Services and the author of Pollution Probe’s First Primer on Energy Systems in Canada.
We are at a critical juncture in Ontario, and no less than the economic future of the province is at stake. The Liberals are about to release their long-term energy plan, and the danger is that they’re going to foolishly reinvest in the Darlington and Pickering nuclear plants.
Nuclear power is inflexible, and going all-in on a centralized and costly technology just when solar power, energy storage, and co-generation are becoming more affordable is a big risk. The province could be locking itself out of safer, cheaper, and more flexible energy for generations.
I once supported nuclear power; I’m biased toward fancy technology. I studied engineering and physics and have been working in the energy field for almost 15 years. But I’m trying to look at this objectively, and as someone who winces at every wasted customer and taxpayer dollar.
Our overreliance on nuclear power leaves us with an overabundance of energy in off-peak hours. Nuclear plants are big, complicated, and have to be kept running 24/7 — which forces our energy system to do all sorts of crazy things. When the plants produce surplus electricity, we sell it to neighbouring jurisdictions at a loss or pay them to take it off our hands. Meanwhile, wind and solar owners get paid to produce unneeded power, while gas plants get paid to sit idle in the off chance they are needed.
The amount of waste this system generates is staggering: the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers recently estimated that Ontario squandered more than $1 billion-worth of low-emission electricity in 2016 — enough to power more than 760,000 homes for a year.
It’s a favourite pastime of think tanks like the Fraser Institute as well as certain conservative newspaper columnists to blame renewable power for Ontario’s high hydro rates, but as data from the Independent Electricity System Operator clearly shows, it’s nuclear and gas plants that are responsible for the lion’s share of increases. An overinvestment in nuclear power would make the problem worse.
Based on cost and performance, the Pickering plant should have been shut down already. Based on 1960s technology, it has among the highest operating costs of any nuclear facility in North America. Yet Ontario Power Generation wants to keep it running until 2024, so it’s asking the Ontario Energy Board for permission to raise the price of its nuclear-generated electricity nearly 180 per cent, to 16.5 cents per kWh — more than almost any other technology around, including solar. Dozens of groups — including Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, the Association of Major Power Consumers of Ontario, and the Consumer Council of Canada — have submitted responses to OPG’s request. Nearly all of them express concerns about the economics of the Pickering plan.
It’s true that in 2016 nuclear generators produced 61 per cent of Ontario’s electricity. So shutting reactors down would make it tough to keep the lights on, right? Wrong. Don’t forget those idle gas plants: they give us ample supply without nuclear, and we’re already paying them to be on standby. We might as well use the power.
Sure, burning more gas would increase CO2 emissions and undercut the province’s short-term carbon reduction goals — but with coal phased out, the electricity sector’s share of emissions relative to Ontario’s economy overall is less than 5 per cent. Consumers have seen their rates rise enough already; reducing greenhouse gas emissions by overinvesting in nuclear power is not the answer.
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Measures intended to save energy are slowing the growth of electricity demand. Developers are designing new subdivisions with energy efficiency in mind, and municipalities are creating community energy plans to conserve power. The government is supporting each of these efforts one way or another, but it will all be for naught if the Liberals also decide to overinvest in nuclear power, crowding out more-innovative options for decades.
So what should the government do instead?
First, it should immediately halt the Pickering extension. The plant’s operating licence expires in 2018, and that’s a good time to shut it down. (Plant employees can work on to decommissioning the site, for which money has already been set aside.)
Second, take good hard look at the Darlington rebuild and seriously consider other options to meet the projected demand. While the rebuilding process has already started, it’s not too late for the government to change direction. The project is expected to cost at least $12.8 billion, but a long history of underestimating nuclear capital costs suggests that number will rise.
Third, plan to meet future demand via a mix of efficiency and clean-energy innovation. The government should set standards on emissions and performance, then let the market bring solutions and fight it out to deliver low-emissions power at the lowest possible price. New generation can be added to the system gradually so we can reap the benefits of falling tech prices.
All this will result in greater CO2 emissions over the short term; the fact is, there will be some increase regardless of whether Ontario continues to invest in nuclear energy. But this way, we’ll replace our supply gradually at much lower costs while still meeting our long-term climate change goals — and without tying ourselves to nuclear power for decades to come.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the Independent Electricity System Operator. We regret the error.
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