Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Toronto and plug-in hybrids: what the future of driving WILL look like
Congratulations to Toronto mayor David Miller for his smart decision to test the viability of plug-in hybrid cars. Exhaust from motor vehicles is Toronto’s, and just about every other city’s, primary source of air pollution and smog.

As I have argued in another article in this blog, plug-in hybrids are the most promising technological route to dramatic reductions in emissions from vehicles.

And, as I have also pointed out, plug-ins in provinces like British Columbia, Newfoundland-Labrador, Manitoba, and especially Quebec, will be extremely clean. Grid electricity in these provinces already comes with uncommonly low emissions per kilowatt-hour.

In Ontario, where the emission intensity of electricity generation is around 200 grams per kilowatt hour, cars powered with grid electricity would still be far more environment friendly than cars powered with straight gasoline or diesel.

But shifting from petroleum to electricity as the primary motive fuel in motor vehicles will require a significant expansion in generating capacity.

Governments at all levels, all across the country, need to collaborate in bringing this about. The feds need to support private investment in low- or non-emitting generating capacity. Provinces need to loosen rules that prevent this and develop new rules that encourage it. And cities have to start transforming their vehicle fleets.

On this last note, it’s great to see the mayor of Canada’s biggest city taking the first right steps to deal with auto emissions.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Nuclear power halts increase in Canadian greenhouse gases
With modest fanfare, Environment Canada announced the other day that Canada’s greenhouse gases (GHGs) stopped rising between 2004 and 2005. The reason? Environment Canada tries to make it look the mild winter of 2004–2005, which meant that people burned less oil and gas for space heating, played a major role. But a hard look at the numbers shows that the real reason is because previously mothballed nuclear power generating units returned to service in Ontario’s electricity system.

When Environment Canada releases the numbers for 2006, it might even show a reduction in Canada’s GHGs: 2006 was Pickering unit 1’s first full year back on the job. This 515 megawatt unit, generating baseload power, directly displaced an equivalent amount of coal generation. Preliminary data from the Independent Electricity System Operator indicate that Ontario’s electricity GHGs were 30 million tonnes in 2006. That’s 15 million tonnes less than in 2003.

A staffer to Environment Minister John Baird told the Toronto Star that Ontario’s nuclear renaissance actually began under the Mike Harris Conservatives. Of course he didn’t point out that the stunning emission reductions have all occurred during Dalton McGuinty’s premiership.

In view of this you might think that McGuinty—who came to power promising to deal decisively with electricity emissions, and who has taken it on the chin for not closing the coal plants—would blow his own horn over this. After all, Ontario’s 15 million tonne reduction is, by far, the biggest since Canada signed Kyoto. But McGuinty has shown a baffling reluctance to either acknowledge the emission reductions or to attribute them to his own decision to restart Pickering unit 1.

Is this a case of McGuinty being too afraid of the green lobbyists, who are all anti-nuclear? Or do his advisers just not know how to spin it? Either way, he’d better start taking credit for Canada’s biggest emission reduction. He’s being out-spun, right in his own backyard, by the federal Conservatives.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

America, climate change, and the world: misplaced rancor over Bush’s refusal to play in the Kyoto sandbox
Germany’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have gone up over the past few years, in spite of its full support of the Kyoto Treaty and participation in the European Emission Trading Scheme (ETS). It demands that America, the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels and largest emitter of GHGs, join Kyoto.

And yet Germany opposes nuclear power. Nuclear, as I have argued in this blog, is by far the best way to provide utility scale emission-free electricity.

America, on the other hand, supports civilian nuclear power. Moreover, it has proposed a roadmap for recycling nuclear fuel (the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP). If successful, the GNEP would extend the usefulness of nuclear fuel while strengthening global efforts against weapons proliferation.

Kyoto’s aims are admirable. However, its adherents have allowed it to degenerate into a politically correct pissing match, where lip service has become more important than actual emission reductions. Germany’s pious anti-nuclear position is a perfect example of this.

Insisting that the entire western world move in lock-step on climate change, while opposing the most promising emission-reduction technology, is simply unrealistic. Bush, for all his faults, is at least demonstrating sound leadership in resisting inane conformity. Canada doesn’t need to outright refuse Kyoto as Bush has done. But we should borrow some of his measures to expand civilian nuclear power (see article).

Nuclear weapons proliferation and climate change are the two biggest dangers facing humanity. Kyoto addresses only one. The GNEP addresses both.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Lessons from America: government offer of nuclear funding spurs controversy–and one new build project
This month’s issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists lists four major obstacles to the further development of the nuclear power industry. They are (1) the question of where and how to store radioactive waste, (2) the ageing nuclear workforce, (3) low tolerance of risk on the part of prospective nuclear project financiers and utility regulators, and (4) the general psychological baggage the industry carries from the enormous costs of the nuclear construction projects that were in progress when the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents occurred.

Obstacles 3 and 4 essentially boil down to the same thing: reticence among financiers and regulators. This will disappear if and when a new reactor comes on line and starts making money. Therefore, getting a project going is huge.

Nobody in America disagrees with this. This is why the nuclear financing provisions—loan guarantees, construction delay insurance, and power production tax credits—were written into the 2005 Energy Policy Act (EPAct).

However, few are thrilled with the structure of the loans the U.S. federal government agreed to guarantee. Financiers don’t like their second-class status in the event of a default.
As things stand now, the Energy Department would take over a plant if its owners default. Unless the government agrees to guarantee both the debt and equity portions of project finance, the bankers could walk.

So, in light of the obstacles listed in the Bulletin, a single stillborn project could kill the nuclear renaissance.

Enter Constellation Energy. Constellation recently confirmed it would apply for a construction license to build a new reactor at its Calvert Cliffs site in Maryland. Readers of this blog will recall my speculation last August that the EPAct’s financial support, plus Maryland’s intention to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and local authorities’ offer of $300 million for Constellation to build the new reactor, could help Constellation decide in favour of the Calvert Cliffs project. It looks like all these things contributed to the crucial decision.

Readers will also note that I have called for some Canadian replication of the U.S. EPAct measures. Nuclear is the best way to add new power to Canadian systems while chopping greenhouse gases on a grand scale. Ontario since 2003 is massive proof of this (see article). If the federal government really wants to fight climate change and air pollution, it has to support nuclear.

If the Canadian government decides to guarantee loans for nuclear projects, it should take heed of the early hiccups down south. And it should also set up a carbon cap-and-trade system. This, plus the local support, is why Constellation has decided to take the plunge.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Ontario at the crossroads: nuclear now or forget about clean air, climate change targets
In my most recent post, I mentioned that using Ontario electricity for space heating is now slightly less emission intensive than using natural gas. Gas, I should point out, is the least emission intensive fossil fuel.

What will be the emission intensity of Ontario electricity in five years? It could be significantly less than it is today. If the government approves new nuclear reactors, Ontario could return to the 1994 mark, which was 104 grams of emissions per kilowatt-hour generated. For a highly industrialized jurisdiction, particularly one with so much heavy industry, 104 g/kWh is simply phenomenal.

This would bring Ontario’s power generating sector well below Kyoto compliance. Not only that, it would bring the province as a jurisdiction within 18 million tonnes of full Kyoto compliance.

And, because it would make space heating with Ontario electricity nearly twice as clean as space heating with natural gas, it would provide the opportunity to wipe out literally millions of tonnes of emissions from residential and commercial/institutional heating.

In concert with other developments, particularly greater uptake of hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles and the advent of commercially available plug-in hybrids, Ontario would be in easy striking distance of Kyoto targets.

None of this will be possible without more nuclear power. We face momentous decisions. We’d better make them now.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Is district energy environment-friendly? It depends on what fuel and which province
A few years ago, I helped do a study on the possibilities of carbon monoxide infiltration through fresh air intakes at a Canadian government building complex in Ottawa. What was the source of the CO? The exhaust port from the gas-fired furnace at the central heating plant at the complex. After an extensive wind-tunnel simulation, we concluded that the probability of significant CO infiltration was minimal.

The heating plant is one of ten similar government-run plants in the national capital area. Nine of the plants are on the Ontario side of the Ottawa River; one is on Sacré-Coeur Boulevard in Gatineau, Quebec.

Many of these plants are linked together in what’s known as a district heating system: a network of pipes that distribute steam and sometimes cold water to individual buildings along the network.

The Sacré-Coeur heating plant has a number of furnaces, including some that are electric-powered. A few years ago, in an effort to promote clean Quebec electricity, Hydro-Quebec, the provincial utility and the biggest power generator in Canada, installed the electric units at the plant. Of course, the deal also included a power purchase agreement with Hydro-Quebec.

Then, in a bizarre twist, Hydro found an electricity buyer willing to pay more than the feds. And it must have been much more, because the utility asked the feds not to run the units at all except as backup. The feds didn’t like these terms and decided to mothball the units. Hydro has since removed the electrical connection altogether, and the Sacré-Coeur plant creates heat solely with fossil fuel.

District heating is touted as efficient and environment friendly, and in principle this sounds like a fair claim. But it is unwise to generalize. Generating heat with gas at the Sacré-Coeur plant produces nearly 25 times more greenhouse gases (GHGs) than generating it with Quebec electricity. And that’s assuming the gas-fired units are highly efficient.

Anyone looking to create a district heating system in Quebec, Newfoundland-Labrador, Manitoba, or British Columbia should take this into account—especially if climate change and clean air are important project considerations. Electric heat in these provinces produces 6–25 times less GHGs than natural gas (see Environment Canada’s Electricity Intensity tables).

And in Ontario, GHGs per BTUH of electric-generated heat are now slightly less than those of high-efficiency gas. As more nuclear units come on line, Ontario electricity will become much less emission intensive.

Needless to say, electric heat is also far cleaner with respect to bona fide pollutants, like the CO in the study I mentioned at the beginning. Had that building complex been heated with electricity, there would have been no issue with CO from heating exhaust.

Federal and provincial energy policymakers should take this into account.

(Note: I hope to see you all at the Canadian District Energy Association’s conference in Toronto on June 13–15. For more info, see

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Flatulent hydrogen puffery: what the future of driving WON’T look like
Every once in a while, the over-subsidized and under-performing hydrogen transportation industry suckers some gullible reporter into doing a story about how one day our cars will all be powered with hydrogen.

What a bunch of flatulent puffery. A couple of years ago, a client asked me to review a funding proposal from a company that wanted to build the hydrogen highway. Here’s what I said (don’t worry, I won’t name names).

“It is about time someone shone some light on the real prospects of hydrogen becoming the primary motive fuel for cars. Maybe then some scales will fall from some star-struck eyes. I simply cannot see hydrogen displacing even the most obnoxious fossil fuels, unless there is a major—and I mean MAJOR—scientific breakthrough that enables us to cheaply produce hydrogen from a source other than natural gas.

“Steam Methane Reformation (SMR) and other ways of getting it from natural gas won’t do, because as long as natural gas is the feedstock to the process, hydrogen will always be more expensive. Besides, North American gas reserves are dwindling, which is why gas prices have spiked in recent years.

“Forget about methane from waste. This is negligible: in Canada, just over a million tonnes per year. And biomass gasification technologies remain highly unreliable and unproductive [see my article on the dubious waste-to-power prospects of the Ottawa plasma gasification project].

“Absent SMR, the only other viable means of renewable hydrogen production remains electrolysis from water. However, to be truly sustainable this would require vast amounts of renewable electricity—and I mean VAST, because if renewable electricity ever were to become available in sufficient quantities to make large-scale hydrogen production via electrolysis viable [and it never will], we would of course also want to use it to displace non-nuclear thermal electricity generation, which currently accounts for a fifth of Canada’s generating capacity and a fifth of its anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs).

“In other words, hydrogen via electrolysis depends on a major and fundamental restructuring of the current power industry. Good luck with that.

“As things stand now the hydrogen economy is a distant-future proposition, so far distant that you need the Hubble telescope and a science fiction writer’s imagination—not to mention some good hallucinogenic drugs—to see it with any coherence. We should steer clear of this red herring.”