PCs to extend life of Pickering nuclear plant; still heavily tied to natural gas
When Ontario transitioned away from coal-generated electricity almost two decades ago, many other jurisdictions looked to the province as a clean energy leader. Emission-free uranium that could produce nuclear energy was a major part of the strategy to meet future demand in a way that mitigated harm to the planet.
Nuclear technology as a power source was first used in the 1950s, quickly gaining popularity. Its growing reputation was torn apart by subsequent disasters in Three Mile Island in the U.S. (1979), Chernobyl in Ukraine (1986; at the time part of the USSR) and Fukushima in Japan (2011). The potential of a cataclysmic disaster that could spread across entire regions, contaminating vast landscapes and poisoning any living being exposed to the deadly radioactive particles, altered the course of electricity production.
These three disasters showed the worst-case possibilities of widespread reliance on nuclear power, but according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the current chances of a nuclear accident are in the realm of one in one billion years — the chances of a plane accident, which are incredibly low, are 100 times greater than experiencing a nuclear disaster.
The safety of nuclear power generation is underscored by its continued growth in all three countries that have experienced nuclear disasters which are among the top ten nuclear energy producing nations in the world, with the United States producing the most nuclear power.
In Ontario, the success of nuclear is often celebrated — it provided the majority of the energy needed to close coal plants for good. While the technology still remains controversial — some believe nuclear plays a critical part in the clean energy transition, while others fear it is preventing investments in renewables — an increasing number of Canadians support its use to help meet growing electricity demand.
According to an Angus Reid poll published in June 2023, 57 percent of Canadians support the further development of nuclear power generation, up from 51 percent who said the same in 2021.
“We've come to take electricity really for granted. Go anywhere in the developing world and you can see the consequences of not having electricity,” Chris Keefer, president of Canadians For Nuclear Energy, told The Pointer. “Electricity is a service as well. It has to be there when you need it.”
As Ontario grows, it is facing increasing pressure to meet energy demands. The rapid transition to electrification coupled with an ongoing population boom are projected to increase demand on the electricity system by two percent per year, according to the Independent Electricity Systems Operator (IESO). The Powering Ontario’s Growth Plan predicts that, by 2050, the province will need to increase capacity of the electricity grid from the current 42,000 megawatts, to 88,000 megawatts.
Last month the Ontario government announced it would be procuring 5,000 megawatts of additional renewable energy capacity through new contracts and current contract expansions. The announcement was welcomed by activists who have been challenging the Doug Ford PC government since it came to power in 2018 and promptly cancelled over 750 renewable energy contracts — something Minister of Energy Todd Smith said Tuesday that he stood by and would do again.
Ontario Minister of Energy Todd Smith was joined by a crowd Tuesday to announce a full refurbishment of the Pickering nuclear plant. Many were disappointed that his government made no commitment to move away from gas power.
(Government of Ontario)
In an announcement outside of the Pickering nuclear generator on Tuesday, Smith announced his government would be financing a refurbishment of the plant, extending its lifespan an additional 30 years after it was originally scheduled to close its doors in 2025. The reinvestment will increase nuclear capacity by 2,000 megawatts, enough to power two million homes, half a million more than what the PCs want built by 2031.
While the announcement piggy backed on the December news of the procurement of new renewables, Smith said the government is not using these new contracts to move toward a moratorium on fossil gas. The Ford government has made expanding fossil gas production a pillar of its energy policy in Ontario. In 2017, oil and gas generation made up 4 percent of the province’s electricity grid, that increased to 10.4 percent in 2022.
“I think at this point in time, we're going to need all the generation that we have, and we're very fortunate in this province to have a diverse mix of generation,” he said. “I don't know that it moves us towards [a moratorium on gas] any quicker. But what it does is ensure that we'll be able to accommodate the growth that we're seeing in the province.”
Most recently, in September, the PCs announced an investment to increase gas procurement to produce an additional 1,500 megawatts. Emissions from the expansion of natural gas across the province are expected to increase 400 percent compared to 2017 levels by 2030, and almost 800 percent by 2050, sending Ontario in the opposite direction from the reductions targets both the provincial and federal government have committed to.
Keefer, who was finishing his studies and starting his practice as a physician during the phase-out of coal almost two decades ago, said he noticed a dramatic transition in air quality and health, particularly in industry dense areas like Hamilton, since the final coal plants brought down their ominous smokestacks. Ninety percent of the power used to transition away from coal came from nuclear, and Keefer said additional procurement and advancement of nuclear capacity can help Ontario retain its mostly clean energy grid.
“I've been in Germany where they have to now fire up coal again, because their gas supplies are being restricted. In Japan, 22 percent of their electricity is coal, a third of the states in the US use coal to generate their electricity,” Peter Bethlenfalvy, MPP for Pickering - Uxbridge and Minister of Finance, added during the announcement. “We are so fortunate that this province has had the vision over generations to know that this is clean, green, good job and safe energy.”
At its peak in 2021, 94 percent of Ontario’s electricity grid was supplied by non-emitting sources including wind, solar, hydro and nuclear. By 2023, that number had dropped to 89 percent. Keefer said that the refurbishment of the Pickering plant, which supplies 14 percent of Ontario’s electricity, will help to ensure that this number doesn’t go any lower.
“We do have this mix. I think there's higher value and lower value sources of generation but in terms of achieving an ultra low carbon next, nuclear is at the base of that. Pickering would have been replaced with natural gas. If we were to shut down permanently,” he said. “There'll be a few years where we'll be burning more natural gas because it won't be there. But we'll bring it back. And that will again minimize the natural gas in the grid and return us to a clean grid.”
He also noted that the transition away from fossil gas will not be an easy one, as different actors are increasingly becoming aware of the chokehold the harmful pollutant has over industries and our communities.
“It is really tricky. I think even folks who are arguing for 100 percent renewables are realizing just how hard it is to get that last bit of gas off of the system.”
Even the federal government’s proposed Clean Electricity Regulations, which would put pressure on provincial energy grids to make quick transitions, notes there may be a need for some gas power past 2035.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
The Ontario government does not have full control of the energy transition; even Canada’s draft Clean Electricity Regulations — which will help the nation transition to a net zero grid by 2035 and a fully net zero economy by 2050 — recognizes there is a place for gas in the electricity grid up to, and potentially even after 2035.
“The clean electricity regulations that the federal government has proposed and put forward is to ensure that the provinces that are already well along the way to decarbonizing their systems, actually are incentivized to go the rest of the way and ensure that the role for fossil fuel generation is limited to really that peak need and ensuring reliability of the of the overall grid,” Aakash Harpalani, director of clean energy at The Atmospheric Fund (TAF), previously told The Pointer.
Compared to other provinces that still rely on coal powered generation, Ontario’s ongoing energy transition will continue to look different.
“We do have quite a bit of a headstart relative to some of the other provinces of the country. We had the benefit of having a large fleet of nuclear and hydro generation that really supplies the bulk of energy today,” Harpalani said. “Which is why it is discouraging to see us continue to rely on natural gas.”
For others, like Mark Winfield, a professor in the Faculty of Environment and Urban Change at York University and Co-Chair of the Sustainable Energy Initiative, the transition away from fossil gas can, and should, be accomplished with new renewable procurements.
“We've got lots of alternatives on the table,” he told The Pointer. “It's been a question of ‘is the government prepared to pursue them?’”
Winfield made the distinction between existing nuclear capacity and new nuclear procurements. He recognizes that existing nuclear has helped Ontario wean itself off of coal power and including the refurbishments at Darlington and Bruce, can help the province maintain a relatively clean energy grid. But locking the province into new nuclear power by refurbishing Pickering will have consequences for finances and safety for decades, while alternatives are readily available.
“Effectively, the decisions to build Pickering, for example, were made in the 1960s. And it looks like we're going to be stuck with them until the 2060s at this rate,” he said.
It is also concerning to many that the Ministry of Energy could not even provide an estimate for the cost of the massive nuclear refurbishment. Ontario Power Generation’s (OPG) budget for the first phase of the project, which includes scoping engineering and design work, is $2 billion, but further than that, Minister Smith said it would be “irresponsible” to put a number out before the initiation work is complete.
A press release from the PC government following the announcement states the project is estimated to take 11 years, will create approximately 11,000 jobs annually and contribute an additional $19.4 billion to Ontario’s GDP, but it does not include a budget for the project.
“We asked OPG to do the feasibility study on what it would potentially cost,” Smith said. “We asked the Independent Electricity System Operator, our assistant manager here in Ontario when it comes to managing our electricity grid, what would make the most sense and their comparator was from refurbishing Pickering, they compared it with building new nuclear, they also compared it to intermittent renewables paired with battery storage. And what they found was this by far made the most sense, this was what was going to be the best bang for the bucks and provide the certainty that ratepayers in the province are looking for.”
(Rachel Morgan/The Pointer)
Keefer noted that in Ontario nuclear power is the second cheapest form of electricity generation next to hydro. Additionally, due to its “made in Canada” approach, jobs and profits generated from nuclear energy remain within the country.
Ninety-six percent of the nuclear supply chain is retained within Canada, so by refurbishing nuclear, the province is pouring money and jobs into Ontario and other parts of the country. The uranium needed to power the reactors is also mined in Canada.
“For every dollar spent on refurbishing candidate, we get $1.40 in local economic activity in GDP,” Keefer said.
The same is not true for the solar and wind industry. Keefer expressed concern that the vast majority of the world’s polysilicon, which is used to make solar panels, is manufactured in China using energy intensive processes powered by coal. In this sense, there are greater ethical concerns to consider when looking at the entire lifecycle of the infrastructure needed for energy production.
The impending threat of geopolitical conflicts is also a motivator for having a full supply chain in Canada.
“[We’re living in] a new kind of multipolar world where there's lots of anxieties about supply chain disruption,” Keefer said. “We don't necessarily want to be dependent for energy.”
But Winfield said the small modular reactors that will be used in the Pickering refurbishment actually aren’t made in Ontario or even in Canada (The Pointer could not confirm this), one drawback in the supply chain.
He said that Ontario was on a path to establishing solar and wind industries in-house before the current PC government scrapped contracts with most renewable energy players.
“We were until Doug Ford blew up the green energy sector. The whole point was to build solar and wind manufacturing capacity, that was the whole idea. And instead, we've stood still for 10 years on renewables while the rest of the world moved ahead. Now, that doesn't mean we can't catch up.”
Keefer suggested that an electricity grid supplied fully by renewable energy sources may not fit with the geographical and climatic conditions in Ontario. For example, wind turbines produce the most power in the spring and fall when winds tend to be stronger, but these are off-peak periods for electricity demand across the province.
The biggest demand hikes in Ontario are in the summer, and with the rapid transition to electrify heating sources, demand in the winter will also increase. During the heatwave that stifled much of southern Ontario throughout the past summer, peak electricity demand reached nearly 25,000 megawatts. Pickering ran all six of its nuclear reactors for 109 consecutive days to keep up with the increased demand.
Solar also provides a significant amount of electricity to the grid in the summer when daylight hours are long, but is much less efficient in the winter months.
“Nuclear, I think, is not the only solution. But it's a long-term solution that works exquisitely well,” Keefer said.
While Winfield recognizes these downsides to renewables, he says they are only problems on the surface. Mixed with storage opportunities, Ontario very much can subsist solely off of renewable energy sources. But he said it is important to remember that expensive large batteries, which we often think of when we think of energy storage, are not the only option. Other types of technology like flow batteries (which use a liquid process that allows for more efficient energy storage) and smaller units like those within electric vehicles, will help solve current bottlenecks.
Quebec also provides a unique opportunity for Ontario to acquire storage. A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recognized by the IESO, determined that Ontario could borrow storage capacity from Quebec’s hydro reservoirs as a cheaper alternative to large batteries. The system would operate like a loop where Ontario’s wind power surplus could be exported to Hydro Quebec for storage in its reservoirs, and when Ontario’s wind production falls below average, we could borrow electricity produced with the extra water in Quebec’s reservoirs. This system would create a 24/7 electricity supply for Ontario. The total storage capacity of Quebec’s reservoirs is over 1.5 times the amount of Ontario’s total electricity consumption in 2022.
“The nature of the load changes too and becomes, in a sense, more sophisticated. There are opportunities that open up there that have been getting a lot of attention,” Winfield said. “So it's not just the renewables plus storage thing. It's a much more sophisticated grid management set of questions that you manage the loads more actively as well as what you're doing on the supply side.”
While opinions on nuclear differ, experts agree on one thing, it’s time for Ford to shut gas plants down.
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