Electrical generation: We can't say no to everything

There has been a lot of backlash lately whenever the idea of building a new power plant comes up. We're shooting ourselves in the foot, though, if we reject every proposal that comes along. If we insist on no nuclear, no coal, no natural gas, no wind, no solar, no large-scale biofuels and no more hydro dams, there simply aren't any sources of power left for us to run our society with.

Conservation measures are of course an easy and necessary step. We don't have to increase our electrical generation capacity if we cut back on our demand for electricity. Cutting back on our power consumption also saves money and cuts the rate at which we're burning through precious resources.

While conservation measures can save us from having to expand our generation capacity, they can't magically keep old power plants running past their design life. And Ontario, like most of North America, has a lot of old and outdated power plants. Either we start replacing all that outdated infrastructure now, or we will have to get used to random power failures and scheduled rolling blackouts when those old plants start to fail. Furthermore, we've already picked much of the low-hanging fruit; additional efficiency improvements will be progressively more difficult (and, for many industries, impossible) to achieve.

Solar PV and solar thermal power have some potential to ease the strain on our power grid. Solar's at its best at mid-day in the summer, when electrical demand tends to be at its highest. There are technical challenges to overcome, particularly with regards to energy storage, and until the storage issue is resolved, solar must remain a relatively small part of the supply mix. The real downside, though, is that despite ample evidence that they are having the desired effect, the feed-in tariffs currently being paid to early solar adopters in Ontario are politically touchy. The resulting partisan bickering and inter-agency turf disputes are creating uncertainty for installers and potential investors.

Wind power is intermittent at best. When the wind's blowing, it lets you shut down fossil fuel generation, but you still have to keep those generators around to use when the wind dies. And thanks to some abuse of the community consultation and environmental assessment process by a few wind developers, wind is also a political hot potato. Just about every proposed wind farm in Ontario now has an associated angry mob yelling "don't put that here".

Large-scale hydroelectric options are pretty much tapped out in Ontario, and in any case, it's now pretty clear that the environmental impact of massive hydro dams is rather significant. We do have a lot of opportunities for small, run-of-the-river hydro projects or small dams, in the few-hundred-kilowatts class. But it seems there's often not enough money to be made from such projects to justify the years of expense and risk involved in getting one approved. And every time a small hydro project's approval process is bungled, it becomes that much harder for the next potential project to get off the ground.

Biofuel technogy is improving, and I'd bet it will eventually become a major component of the mix, particularly in the transportation sector. It makes no sense to give up food-growing land to produce fuel, though. If we did that, we'd eventually starve. So we have to wait for the technology to mature to the point where we can get net positive yields from non-agricultural land. The algae guys are working on it, but it's still a long way from production-ready.

Tidal and wave power make for interesting engineering experiments, but do not seem to be ready for deployment on a scale that would power an entire province.

Fossil fuels are still around, using the tried-and-true method we've used for over a century: burn stuff, to make heat or steam, to spin a turbine. This is 19th-century technology, and we'll have to wean our society off it. Coal involves a destructive mining process, and spreads lethal contaminants when burned. Oil is rapidly running out, and its price is volatile. Natural gas reserves are also fininte, and a strong case could be made for saving natural gas for heating our living spaces- no other fuel burns cleanly enough to use for heating in densely populated areas. Garbage incineration is sufficiently difficult to do properly that the public refuses to trust corporations with it.

And in the long term, global society as a whole needs to get away from our current dependence on non-renewable resources, and the massive carbon dioxide emissions that they produce. Also, have you seen the community opposition to the last few proposed natural gas generators? Natural gas projects in Oakville and Mississauga have recently been scrapped, at great cost, amid public uproar.

Nuclear, the biggest political hot potato of them all, is the only other large-scale generation technology we can currently build, and it costs a fortune. Nuclear's the safest generation technology we presently have. Of the 28 radiation-related accidents in the history of civilian nuclear power, only two involved substantial release of radiation from a civilian power reactor and only one of those has caused any deaths to date. And it's debatable whether risk figures from the RBMK at Chernobyl, an unstable, badly designed and stupidly operated reactor with no containment building, are relevant to the reactors now used in Canada, the USA and Europe, let alone the generation III+ and IV designs that would replace them.

We can easily address the safety concerns surrounding nuclear by replacing old, poorly sited reactors with safer modern ones in suitably remote locations. We can, with some difficulty, solve the nuclear waste problem with new fast breeder reactor designs that run on existing spent fuel. But we can't easily solve the cost problem. A properly built nuclear plant with all risks accounted for, according to bids submitted by Westinghouse and AECL for the new Darlington complex, is (at $10.80/watt) more expensive per installed watt than almost any other form of generation.

So what do we do?

In my considered opinion (but it's still just an opinion), we need to look at:

  • Small-scale hydroelectric. Bring community consultation into the process at every step of the way, and try to keep control and profits in the community.
  • Solar. Streamline the approvals process, end the inter-agency bickering, and give the manufactuers and installers the stability the system needs to get on its feet.
  • Wind. Similarly to hydro, wind development needs a community focus, and the benefits need to stay in the community. People are much more likely to be in favour of community-governed projects than if the project is forced on them by rich investors from elsewhere.
  • Nuclear. Yes, it's crazy expensive. Yes, it can be quite safe if done properly. No, we don't have anything else that can take the place of our current nuclear plants when they reach end-of-life in a decade or two. We don't need more nuclear, but we do need to build replacements for our old facilities, and to put serious development effort into the fourth-generation reactors that may be able to solve the nuclear waste problem.
  • Conservation. If we use our current resources more efficiently, we'll have more flexibility in deciding how to replace them.

The important point, whether you agree with these options or not, is that we do have to pick something and build it. Our electrical infrastructure in Ontario and the surrounding regions is outdated, and many important facilities are approaching end-of-life. If we don't modernize the system in the next decade or so, it will start to fail, and we will lose many of the power-intensive luxuries- and industries- on which we currently rely.



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