Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Nuclear power and heavy industry in Ontario: McGuinty’s Kyoto opportunity, part II

Here’s a question. Should major industrial energy users use less energy?

Industry is the second-largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Ontario. Electricity generation is number three. Transportation, all those cars and trucks, is the biggest source category.

Bear in mind that “industry” is a pretty wide-ranging term. The numerous firms operating in this source category use huge amounts of energy, mainly in the form of electricity and fossil fuels. They also employ a lot of people, and pay a lot of taxes. This is why governments are reluctant to implement aggressive and punitive environmental measures against them, as many environmentalists advocate. Getting industrial emitters to reduce emissions means getting them to cut back operations. In other words, lay off employees.

So back to my question: should industrial energy users use less energy?

Almost every mainstream environmentalist would say yes. This is because many environmentalists, rather simple-mindedly, associate energy use with emissions—if energy consumption rises, then emissions, they think, automatically also rise by a corresponding degree.

Is the relationship really this automatic? Not necessarily. It depends entirely on the fuel. Take electricity in Canada. Alberta and Saskatchewan generate most of their electricity by burning fossil fuels, so heavy electricity use in those provinces does come with heavy emissions.

But it is totally different in other provinces. Quebec generates by far the most electricity in Canada, and emits by far the least generation-related GHGs: 8 tonnes per million kilowatt hours. Ontario, the next-largest generating province, emits around 272 tonnes for every million kWh. If that sounds high, remember that Ontario’s emission intensity of electricity generation is less than a third of Alberta’s or Saskatchewan’s.

So electricity use in Alberta or Saskatchewan, which generate most of their electricity with fossil fuel, has a radically higher environmental impact than similar use in Quebec or Ontario. The latter two generate most of their electricity with running water and uranium fission.

This has big implications for energy and environmental policies in Ontario (and across Canada). If major industrial energy users shifted more energy use from fossil fuels to hydro- or nuclear-generated electricity, this would dramatically reduce emissions. They would not need to curtail operations in order to curtail emissions. They just need to switch fuels.

This is why the current emphasis on electricity conservation—especially in Ontario—is so wrong-headed as a long term strategy. (It makes sense right now, since demand is so close to the limit of supply—we don’t really have a choice.) It is time to wean ourselves off the notion that increased electricity use is bad for our air.

We need more generation capacity. This means we need more nuclear.

I know—there are other zero-emission generation technologies, such as wind, solar, and micro-hydro. Could these play a significant role in Ontario or other provinces? I’ll deal with this question in upcoming posts. Stay tuned.

Other posts in this series

Nuclear power and hybrid vehicles in Ontario: McGuinty’s Kyoto opportunity, part I

Nuclear power and hybrid vehicles in Ontario: McGuinty’s Kyoto opportunity, part I (continued)

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