Monday, August 25, 2014

Energy policy proposals; numbers are hard. [EBP5]

Spillway from the Robert-Bourassa Generating Station in Québec.  Source.


I don't know if any of you will remember this, but I sure do.  During the last Ontario election, I [perhaps mistakenly] recall hearing a lot of politicians calling for Ontario to shutter its nuclear plants due to cost and safety concerns in favour of importing excess energy from our neighbours.  Not only that, but The Star ran an opinion piece echoing what I had heard a lot: rather than expanding and upkeeping Ontario's nuclear generation capacity, we should simply shutter them and import low-cost hydroelectricity from Manitoba and Québec.

Now, on its surface this appears to be a reasonable proposal.  My intelligent, attractive, monocle- and top hat- clad readers will no doubt remember my praise of hydroelectric power based on the energy returned on energy invested.  As a result, the energy is indeed cheap comparatively speaking.  Further, our Francophone friends are exporting a lot of power to New England for less than we pay to generate nuclear power.  There is, however, one problem with this scheme.  There's not enough.

Source, retrieved 2014-08-25-21:30

At any given moment Ontario's nuclear plants, with some of the highest capacity in the world, are generating about 10 GW of power.  That's gigawatts.  To quote the great Rick Mercer, that's alotta poutine.  That's also GW, not GWh.  The -h suffix means "hours" and refers to the amount of energy that has been produced in one hour.  Your energy bill is usually on the order of kWh to refer to the amount of energy that has been used in a few months.  So Ontario is outputting that amount of nuclear power almost constantly, every hour of every day.  That amounts to around half of Ontario's generating capacity, but it will frequently represent a larger fraction of the actual generated energy because of the variable nature of hydro, wind and gas plants.  At the moment shown above, it is sitting at 57% of generated energy, though this is an off-peak hour.

If we look to another Wikipedia page, we can see that the sum total of Québec's energy exports in 2011 amounted to 26,763 GWh.  Based on quick, dirty, back-of-the-envelope calculations, if we took all of that energy at a rate of 10 GW, it would only replace Ontario's nuclear reactors for 112 days.  That's not even a third of a year.  I suppose rough approximations would indicate that that means it's only exporting about 3 GW of power at any given time.  This also assumes that you could convince our neighbour to stop exporting to New England altogether and allowing Ontario to be the exclusive purchaser.

So Québec does not generate enough hydroelectricity to replace Ontario's nuclear reactors.  "But wait!" you shout, slamming your fist on your desk, or perhaps grasping at your forehead, "Manitoba!  Surely Manitoba could help!"  Well, perhaps that's true.  I'll admit, before checking the numbers I was not optimistic, Manitoba not being known for heavy industry or other energy-intensive applications.  As it turns out, my doubts were well-founded.  Manitoba's current hydroelectric capacity is on the order of Québec's exports, as near as this page would suggest.  In 2012, Manitoba's hydroelectric generating capacity was 5485 MW, or just over 5 GW.  In fairness, Manitoba has no need to produce a lot more power unless they want to export, as it would appear that they are meeting over 90% of its demand with hydro alone.

So that we're clear, if Québec diverted all of its energy exports to Ontario, and Manitoba diverted the entirety of its hydroelectricity to Ontario, it still would not be enough to replace Ontario's nuclear generating capacity.  And, while I've got you, I should note that a lot of the drive behind hydroelectric development is from environmentally-conscious types.  It should be noted that all types of energy have an impact, and [as friend-of-the-blog Jeff P. pointed out to me] hydro is no exception.  A reservoir usually needs to be flooded when a dam is installed, which leaches water-soluble chemicals into the water, at least temporarily throwing the local ecosystem out of whack and potentially killing its inhabitants en masse, or negating its usefulness for things like irrigation.  And that's just the nutrients.  The American eel is, conservatively speaking, near-extinct in the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers because they have been turned into pink slime by turbines.

Not nearly as cute as it is threatened.  Source.

Manitoba, as it turns out, is also planning a large number of developments along the Nelson River, which could double its generating capacity in the future.  This is not unlike how Québec wound up with such a large generating capacity, in the 1960s and 1970s they built several large hydroelectric generating stations near James Bay (just off Hudson's Bay, into which the Nelson River drains).  It would appear then, that if Ontario truly wants to replace its [big, scary] nuclear generating capacity with hydroelectricity, more needs to be developed within Ontario.  The problem with that is that, as I understand it, all the commercially viable hydroelectric sites in southern Ontario are already developed.  To generate enough to replace its nukes, Ontario might in fact have to turn to the Arctic watershed as Manitoba and Québec have done, Ontario also having access to James and Hudson's Bays.  It would take a lot of transmission lines to get the power from the North to its southern markets, but that is the nature of these things.  Ontario needs to decide as a province whether it wants to continue with nuclear power or develop cheap hydroelectric capacity where possible.

It would likely take decades of investment, like in Québec, but could potentially be worth it with the promise of cheap power in an industry-heavy province currently struggling with high energy prices.  Sure would have made a nice post-2008 Keynesian* stimulus project.


* Keynes proposed that stimulus projects should focus on public infrastructure because even if the spending failed to stimulate the economy as hoped, at the very least you'd be left with things you needed anyway.