Tuesday, June 27, 2006

“Made in Canada” Kyoto plan takes shape

Stephen Harper’s Kyoto dilemma (see my June 18 post) might be transforming into a glorious electoral opportunity, thanks to an initiative coming from the Prime Minister’s favourite province.

Quebec Sustainable Development minister Claude Bechard told Broadcast News today he wants federal money to help curtail Quebec’s greenhouse gases (GHGs). This follows last week’s announcement from Bechard’s boss, premier Jean Charest, that Quebec wants to impose a carbon tax on gasoline.

Why is this an opportunity for Harper? Because if he forks over money to Quebec for Kyoto, and does the same for other provinces that choose to implement their own Kyoto plans, he could resolve a growing problem—the alleged fiscal imbalance. If we just consider Quebec, imagine the dividends Harper could reap by handing Charest a check to implement Kyoto. With this move, Harper would silence those who call him a Kyotophobic, federalist cheapskate. He gets a big fat gold star in Quebec, which puts him into an excellent position to grab Liberal and Bloc seats in the next election.

A similar electoral calculus easily applies to the other large central Canadian province, whose biggest metropolitan area shunned the Conservatives on January 23. Torontonians generally like Kyoto, and do not expect Harper to do much on the file. A positive, unexpected move on Kyoto might jar them free of their big-city revulsion for all things Conservative.

The beauty of this (for Harper at least) is that it is totally optional: Bechard’s proposal could be tweaked so that if an anti-Kyoto province doesn’t want to join, it doesn’t have to. Harper is thereby spared the excruciating prospect of foisting another National Energy Plan on his home base.

Bechard is reportedly canvassing other provinces, including Ontario, to see if there’s any interest in approaching Harper as part of a unified coalition of pro-Kyoto provinces.

I’m not Dalton McGuinty, but if I were I’d think hard about Bechard’s proposal. Ontario’s premier just decided to implement Kyoto by approving a new round of nuclear-power construction (though he remains reticent about saying it publicly for fear of offending die-hard anti-nuclear greens, who for some incomprehensible reason he feels are a strategically important constituency).

New nukes will cost billions, and McGuinty will want to minimize the risk of Darlington-esque construction delays. Could the federal government, as the country’s ultimate risk manager, play a role here?

It definitely could—and should. McGuinty has also been harping on about the alleged fiscal imbalance, in a bid to gather support from his fellow premiers. His efforts so far have been unsuccessful. Could federal money for new nuclear reactors help the premier turn an embarrassing non-starter into a fiscal and political—and environmental—triumph? Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Harper’s Kyoto dilemma, part I

We’re heading into what could be a long and hot summer. It might come with more of the climate-related craziness that accompanied last summer.

Against this backdrop, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are busy working on a new Kyoto plan for Canada. Reading the tea leaves, it is difficult to tell how they will proceed. But it’s safe to say their plan will not look much like that of their predecessors.

Time is of the essence. There is Kyoto trouble at the federal level. One of the ENVI committee members, Pablo Rodriguez (Lib., Honoré-Mercier), has introduced a private member’s bill designed to force the Conservatives to live up to Kyoto by enforcing the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). You will recall that carbon dioxide (CO2) was added to Schedule 1 of the CEPA in November 2005. This means the government now has a statutory obligation to regulate CO2 emissions—i.e., to take action on Kyoto.

The House rises at the end of June, which gives Rodriguez very little time to launch his gambit and make it stick. But a Conservative insider tells me that the statutory CEPA review, now in progress, will occupy ENVI’s attention until “at least Christmas.” So even this go-around fizzles, the opposition might be still able to do something when the House sits again in September—if the government fails to come up with a credible plan between now and then.

When you consider the Parliamentary arithmetic, you see that it is entirely possible for them to successfully make trouble. There are twelve members on ENVI, seven opposition and five government. A united opposition could force the agenda.

Their chances for success will improve if Harper fails to formulate a credible climate change plan. If his plan proves attackable, then it depends on the opposition’s ability to collaborate long enough to force the issue.

Harper will have a tough job putting together a plan. This is because it’s not so much a matter of numbers as politics.

Consider the fact that not a single print-media story on Ontario’s nuclear announcement mentioned that generation-related emissions will drop as a result of this move. (Studio 2’s Steve Paikin did mention it, but he’s broadcast, not print.) Ontario’s move is the biggest step toward Kyoto since Canada signed the Protocol in 1997, but you’d never know it from reading the newspaper.

This is not because people don’t understand the numbers that underlie the positions. It is because Ontario electricity is a political issue. The big dailies, not counting the National Post, seem committed to giving the green lobbyists—the most consistent and long-lived opponents of both coal and nuclear—their due.

Well, fair’s fair, and it is good to give the green lobby a voice. But when they fail to come up with a coherent and credible alternative to nuclear power—and they have failed in this case—then somebody has to call them on it. Neither the government nor the non-Post print media has done this yet in public. Eventually somebody has to turn some critical attention to what green groups have been actually saying.

Until this happens, and there is little indication it will, Harper’s Kyoto challenge will remain extremely difficult. It’s one thing to spin. It’s another thing to educate. Harper is a smart politician and he knows this.

And now, to make things even more interesting, Quebec premier Jean Charest announced this week he would impose a carbon tax on large emitters. Then he said he wanted federal money to support this move.

Will Dalton McGuinty ask for the same thing? The anti-nuke crowd is worried that he will, and is warning the rest of Canada against funding another Ontario nuclear adventure.

How will the feds respond if McGuinty makes such a demand? Does Stephen Harper have any desire to fund Ontario nuclear reactors? Would this help him break into critical urban constituencies, like Toronto?

The Toronto StarCanada’s biggest and most anti-Conservative newspaper—has endorsed McGuinty’s nuclear plan, which means Torontonians generally support it. Perhaps the Prime Minister senses an opportunity.

This will be an interesting summer. Stay tuned. And GO OILERS!!!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Ontario Liberals go nuclear, Greenpeace vows to hit mattresses

The McGuinty government yesterday announced it would address the power supply problem by taking the only sensible course of action available to it: refurbishing laid-up reactors at the Bruce nuclear plant, and building two new reactors at an existing site, probably Darlington.

The Liberals thereby became the first North American government in decades to take a firm decision on nuclear power. This is a huge step toward Kyoto, bigger by far than any measure taken in any other North American jurisdiction.

In doing so, the Liberals have incurred the wrath of Greenpeace, the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, and other anti-nuclear, anti-coal groups, who have promised an earth-shaking debate.

I can’t wait.

So far, the anti-nuclear environmentalist contribution to the Ontario electricity debate has been long on politically correct platitudes about renewable and alternative forms of generation coupled with conservation, and short on credible plans for filling the ten-thousand-megawatt gap between electricity demand and supply. There has been almost no regard for actual, believable numbers—either in terms of the amounts of electricity Ontarians need to continue living as an advanced, industrial society in a middle-latitude climate, or the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with electricity generation.

In such a void, anybody can say anything—and they have. But now that the battle is well and truly joined, we’ll see which arguments stand and which collapse from their own internal contradictions.

The anti-nuke, anti-coal crowd is about to find out they can’t suck and blow at the same time. This is a shame. While they played an important role in the effort to get Canada to sign the Kyoto Treaty, mainstream environmentalists have failed utterly to come up with a workable plan to implement it.

The Ontario government yesterday presented a plan that will reduce emissions from electricity by millions of tonnes per year. The supposedly pro-Kyoto environmental movement promised to fight it tooth and nail. Go figure.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Ontario Liberals indefinitely postpone coal shut-down

Surprise, surprise. The Ontario Liberals announced Friday they were delaying—yet again—the closure of the provincial coal-fired generating plants. They are thereby violating the letter of one of their major election promises.

The opposition is scrambling to make hay out of “yet another broken Liberal promise” but in truth the government is sitting pretty. This is because they are discovering a way to re-frame the electricity-and-air-quality debate.

Nevertheless, a promise is a promise, no matter how legitimate the reasons for breaking it. The stage is now set for Round 2 of the coal wars. Can the McGuinty Liberals successfully paint their coal retreat in bright environmental green?

Fortunately for them, and unfortunately for the opposition, the answer is yes. I said above that the Liberals had violated the letter of the coal promise. That’s true, but the spirit of the coal promise is what is important. And what was the spirit of the promise? Air quality. Getting rid of coal looked like the most direct way to achieve the Liberals’ air quality objectives.

But as I have shown in previous posts, it is possible to achieve massive emission reductions without closing a single coal plant. It all hinges on a renewed commitment to nuclear power.

It will be interesting to see how quickly the Liberals can develop—and sing in unison from—a new air quality songbook. Watch for major diplomatic exchanges between the energy and environment ministers.

Will the McGuinty Liberals be the first government in North America to move decisively on both air quality and Kyoto? As Churchill said, this isn’t the beginning of the end but it is the end of the beginning. Stay tuned.

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Thursday, June 08, 2006

McGuinty’s Kyoto opportunity: a recap

Ontario could easily achieve Kyoto targets in its electricity generating sector, by refurbishing or replacing the laid-up nuclear units at the Pickering and Bruce generating stations.

To make my case, I’m going to backhoe some of the historical numbers. Please bear with me. The numbers are important: understanding them is essential to learning the grammar of Kyoto.

Refurbishing or replacing laid-up nuclear units would return Ontario to the situation that existed in 1994, when the generating sector emitted less than two-fifths of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) as in 2003. What is astonishing is that Ontario generated more electricity in 1994 than in 2003—152.4 billion kilowatt-hours versus 149.9.

What accounts for this? Through the early 1990s, units of the Darlington nuclear station came on line. This reduced the need for coal-fired generation. The coal plants’ output accordingly dropped, from 26 billion kWh in 1990 to 16 billion in 1994.

As you can see in the graphic above, anybody who used electricity in Ontario in the mid-1990s was responsible for less than half of the generation-related emissions as in 2003. Emission intensity of generation was 104 tonnes per million kWh, versus 272 in 2003.

My source is Environment Canada’s greenhouse gas inventory (p. 278 of the PDF).

You don’t have to like nuclear generation, but you cannot argue with these numbers. If we want to reach Kyoto and clean air targets in the electricity sector, nuclear power is by far the best way to go.

In upcoming posts, I’ll deal with emissions related to space heating. Stay tuned.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Could windmills replace Nanticoke?

In recent posts I have been beating the drum for nuclear power as the basis for a low-carbon electricity system. This system would itself be the basis for a fundamental shift away from fossil fuels and toward electricity as the prime driver of the 21st century economy. That is, more of the equipment that runs on fossil fuel—cars and trucks, city buses, industrial furnaces, etc.—would run on electricity.

It is true that nuclear is not the only low- or zero-carbon fuel. There is also wind, solar, wave/tidal, and micro hydro (a.k.a. run-of-river). I do not believe that any of these, or even all in combination, can be a reasonable substitute for nuclear.

Here’s why.

Let’s take wind, a commonly suggested form of generation. No one disagrees that wind is part of the answer; it just depends on what you mean by part.

Some people have suggested that wind could replace some of the 6,400 megawatts of coal-fired capacity the provincial government is trying to phase out. Let’s start with the world heavyweight champion of emitters, the 8-unit Nanticoke coal-fired station in Haldimand County on Lake Erie. Nanticoke’s capacity is just under 4,000 megawatts. Let’s say we want to replace this capacity with 1.5-mw wind turbines.

To replace Nanticoke’s nameplate capacity with 1.5-mw wind turbines, we would have to build over 2,600 of them. That’s a lot of windmills.

But everybody knows that it is meaningless to compare wind with fossil generation on the basis of nameplate capacity (that’s why the term is in italics). Fossil generation’s real value is in its flexibility and reliability: when you need power, you fire up the generator. Wind really falters when you work in a performance metric called the capacity factor (CF). Wind’s CF in Ontario has been put at 30 percent: i.e., an average windmill will generate power at its nameplate capacity 30 percent of the time.

So to replace Nanticoke with wind, we’re not really looking at replacing capacity. We’re looking at replacing electricity output. Nanticoke’s output in 2003 (not its biggest year) was just over 20 billion kilowatt-hours. How many 1.5 megawatt windmills would we need in order to crank out 20 billion kWh in an average year? With a CF of 30 percent, we would need over 7,700 of them.

The blade diameter of a General Electric 1.5-mw wind turbine is an average of 10 metres greater than the wing span of a Boeing 747-400ER freighter. Take 7,700 of these massive airplanes, put them up on poles, and you get an idea of what we’re talking about.

Where would we put all these machines? How many communities would be opposed to them? To answer this question, consider how many communities would be opposed to nuclear or gas-fired generating plants, or transmission-line routing. Take that number and multiply it by hundreds or even thousands. That is how many NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) battles we would fight with communities that are opposed to wind farms and/or the transmission wires that connect them to the grid.

That’s not the only problem. What would the wires cost? And what would it cost to re-jig the transmission and distribution system to handle wind’s variability?

Forward thinking wind advocates see wind farms producing power for storage, in giant electrolyte batteries. Once charged, these batteries could provide a steady flow of power to the grid during peak periods (which these days are becoming less distinguishable from base load periods). Of course there is still recharge time, during which we would have to feed the grid with electricity from other generation sources. It is conceivable that such a scheme could work, but utility-scale power storage is way off in the future.

We need lots of base load power in either case. The numbers above show that it’s not coming from wind.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Media watch

For those who watch the Ontario electricity issue like a hockey fanatic watches the playoffs, it’s like we’re in double overtime. Ontario’s premier and energy minister have made some downright fascinating comments about electricity this week, relating to the coal-fired generating plants.

The energy minister told a CBC reporter that air quality is the paramount issue. Could it be that the Liberals have found another way to achieve air quality, one that doesn’t involve closing the coal plants?

For some excellent colour commentary on this important and fast-developing play, check out TV Ontario’s Studio 2 (Thursday at eight p.m. and eleven p.m.). On tonight’s Power Hour, co-host Steve Paikin will discuss the issue with the Sierra Club’s Dan McDermott, Energy Probe’s Tom Adams, and a multi-partisan collection of former Ontario cabinet ministers.

Also see Global TV’s Focus Ontario (Saturday at six-thirty p.m., as well as Sunday at seven a.m. and eleven-thirty a.m.) Host Sean Mallen will feature the energy minister’s veiled pre–caucus meeting comment in his Play of the Week.

The print media is all over the issue as well. See Megan Gillis’s work in the Ottawa Sun, Ian Urquhart in the Tornoto Star, and Murray Campbell in the Globe and Mail.