Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Electricity as an Ontario election issue: what is reality?
Readers of this blog may have noticed my disdain for the mainstream environmental movement’s take on electricity investment in Canada. I think the greens are a bunch of Luddite misanthropists (see article). They either don’t understand basic things about modern electricity systems, or they do understand them and advocate policies that are harmful nevertheless. Either way, I don’t want them advising governments.

But they are advising governments. I have to admit, my disdain is tinged with jealousy. The greens have successfully framed the environmental debate as a David versus Goliath story, with themselves as David. They have managed to get professional bureaucracies in both Toronto and Ottawa to come round to their put-on-a-sweater-and-turn-down-the-thermostat prescription for saving the planet.

Worse, they are the go-to people when the major media vehicles need “the other side of the story” on an energy or environment piece. This is a real achievement, given the fundamental weakness and impracticality of their arguments.

Like I said, my jealousy at their success turns me greener than the three main parties in the Ontario election campaign purport to be. But I’ll try to rise above this, and look for an objective explanation of their success.

The greens are poor, and rely on federal and provincial funding. Or at least that’s what they want their media interlocutors to think. So if they’re poor, then they must be committed idealists, intrepid seekers after truth. Therefore their arguments deserve as much play as those of their opponents, who are acknowledged industry spokespeople. Politics is about who gets what, especially in a democracy. So is reporting about politics.

But there are times when fairness isn’t fair. Al Gore points out that climate skeptics get as much media play as pro-Kyoto scientists. Is this fair? No, say Gore and his supporters. The Kyotophiles have science on their side. The Kyotophobes are just a bunch of shills, bought and paid for by companies in industries threatened by Kyoto implementation. The media should know the difference.

I’m wondering if it’s the same with the Ontario electricity debate. It should be obvious by now that conservation and renewables—the greens’ answer to coal- and nuclear-generated power—cannot cover more than a minuscule amount of our power requirements. It should be obvious that anybody who says they can play a bigger-than-minuscule role is either not telling the truth or doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. Given this, at what point do we stop listening to them?

Whatever that point is, I think it will be soon. David-v-Goliath is archetypal and powerful, but it’s wearing thin. But if it continues to prevail, there are options for the pro–status quo. One of the supposedly poor green groups, the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, is backed with natural gas money. The actors playing David and Goliath could switch roles. Or the one playing David could be touched with scandal.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Prentice goes to Industry: major nuclear initiative in the offing?
Does anyone remember May 2005, when Paul Martin promised $538 million to Dalton McGuinty to help defray the costs of closing Ontario’s coal plants? And that the Harper Conservatives told McGuinty they would honour Martin’s promise? Nobody ever mentions it. I wonder if anybody does remember.

When the Ontario Liberal government introduced, in June, the regulation that requires the closures of the Nanticoke, Lambton, Thunder Bay, and Atikokan coal-fired power generating plants by 2014, they didn’t mention the $538 million. This is a bit surprising, in light of the fact that (1) they are politically correct provincial Liberals in a perpetual fiscal squabble with politically incorrect federal Conservatives, and (2) they have taken it on the chin from the environmental lobby for failing to phase out coal by 2007, as they promised before, during, and after the 2003 election they would do.

Few, if anyone, noticed this little anomaly. But the Ontario Liberals’ silence on the promised half-billion speaks volumes. It means the federal money may still be on the table.

But for what?

Everybody knows the feds want to sell Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), the makers of Canada’s flagship heavy water power reactors. But they want to jack up AECL’s value first, by setting it up with a major sale.

Everybody also knows that the provincially owned Ontario Power Generation (OPG) is waiting for the government’s go-ahead to replace Pickering units 2 and 3, which will be decommissioned, with new reactors.

Will OPG (read: the Ontario government) choose AECL’s latest CANDU design or a competitor’s light water model to replace Pickering 2 and 3?

And what will the federal Conservatives do to steer Ontario in the CANDU direction, other than admonish them through the media?

You might wonder why I mentioned Jim Prentice, Harper’s sure-footed new Industry minister, in the headline. Prentice is from oil- and gas-rich Alberta, Canada’s biggest engine of wealth and greenhouse gases. His new duputy, Richard Dicerni, is a former OPG man. One of his last decisions at OPG was to decommission Pickering 2 and 3.

Could the Conservatives be planning an industrial-strategy approach to solving their environmental and fiscal balance problems? It’s been a while since Canada had a coherent industrial strategy. If this is in the works, good move.

I sense a shift in the nuclear order of things.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Ontario launches another legal complaint against U.S. utilities: a public nuisance?
Last Thursday, the government of Ontario filed comments to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding proposed changes that would relax rules governing emissions from U.S. coal-fired electricity generating plants.
The provincial Liberals say, as they have said all along, that emissions from U.S. coal plants drift into Ontario, harming the province’s citizens and economy.

Never mind that, like its previous complaints, Ontario’s most recent go-round repeats the spurious claim (see article) that coal emissions kill thousands of Ontarians each year. And set aside also the fact that Ontario’s premier refused, at last week’s conference in Moncton, to consider tailpipe emission standards—even though Ontario motor vehicles are by far a bigger source of more dangerous pollutants than U.S. or Ontario coal plants. He’s worried about coal plants hundreds of kilometers from Toronto but doesn’t care about the hundreds of thousands of cars emitting carbon monoxide literally meters from where humans inhale it?

Regardless of its flimsy and hypocritical basis, Ontario’s complaint will attain instant credibility if and when a public nuisance lawsuit against a U.S. greenhouse gas emitter is successful. So far, the public nuisance lawsuits against coal-based U.S. utilities have failed. But the cumulative effect of the actions will be to entrench in judges’ minds the quantity of emissions coming out of the stacks. Emissions consist almost entirely of carbon dioxide (CO2). Though it is toxicologically innocuous, CO2 is also the principal man-made greenhouse gas. It belches out of smokestacks in quantities measured in the millions of tonnes. Environmentalists have, successfully, lobbied to classify CO2 as a pollutant. This makes it perfectly legitimate for them to say there are millions of tonnes of pollution coming out of the stacks of coal-fired power plants.

When a public nuisance action succeeds, there will be major implications for the power generation industry. Most utilities know this, and are scrambling to develop responses in advance.

They should look at Ontario. Ontario’s stunning success in reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants—15 million tonnes less in 2006 than in 2003—is the best example of how to deliver utility-scale power without emissions. It was achieved by displacing coal-generated baseload power with nuclear power. The atom is our way forward.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Provincial premiers play platitude politics on the environment
Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, at the Council of the Federation meeting in Moncton this week, missed another opportunity to claim credit for Canada’s biggest emission reduction in recent memory. Apparently feeling safer talking about closing Ontario’s coal plants by 2014 (seven years from now) as that province’s contribution to addressing climate change, McGuinty decided not to mention the biggest story on the climate change front, and one that has vaulted Ontario way into the lead on the file: that Ontario’s power sector greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were 15 million tonnes less in 2006 than they were in 2003.

To his credit, though, Ontario’s premier did call for a cap-and-trade system. Hopefully he knows that his province’s 15 million tonne reduction would be worth $225 million if carbon were $15 a tonne.

Alberta premier Ed Stelmach opposes the trading system. He should rethink his position. If the system were credible, it would allow forward purchasing of carbon credits. An Alberta consortium could use this revenue to finance a plant that uses nuclear heat to both generate power and steam bitumen out of the oil sands. If the consortium includes an oil sands operator, then nobody loses.

The Ontario example proves that nuclear is the only viable technology capable of reducing fossil emissions on a grand scale. More Canadian provinces need to look at it. Especially Alberta.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Energize, don’t minimize: Africa needs more not less electricity
David Suzuki, on CBC’s radio program Climate Currents told of how satellite photos of our planet at nighttime show North America lit up while Africa remains pitch black.

Suzuki’s fashionably misanthropic sentiments, typical of an affluent political yokel, leave him only one way to interpret this. North Americans and western Europeans are energy guzzlers, Africans are not. What’s his solution? Should Africans renounce electricity and stay the way they are?

There is another way to interpret the satellite photos. Africa at nighttime looks dark from outer space because Africa does not yet have a ubiquitous continental electricity grid capable of illuminating its towns and cities. The lack of a reliable power grid is not because Africans are morally averse to “wasting energy”; it’s because they don’t have either the money or the political stability to build one.

If he were to look at similar satellite photos from the early 1960s, Suzuki would notice the same darkness over India and China. Today these countries would probably appear grey, indicating their increasing electrification and the concomitant increasing quality of life.

Is the brightening over India and China good or bad? We should stop listening to people who think it’s bad and start thinking about how to fully electrify the poor parts of the world.

As I have emphasized on this blog, the only way to do this on a large scale without increasing fossil fuel consumption is by using nuclear energy. The atom is the means by which Africans, Indians, and Chinese can bypass the fossil fuel phase of electrification and vault directly into the post-industrial age.

And we rich energy hogs in North America and western Europe can help make this happen by sponsoring more nuclear projects in the developing world. But first we have to make it financially worth while for western companies to get involved in nuclear development projects.

We can do this by making nuclear projects eligible for international carbon credits. Put the atom back into the Clean Development Mechanism, which is the principal arrangement through which Kyoto signatory countries can finance carbon-reduction projects in developing countries.

Today is August 6, 2007. Sixty-two years ago today two pounds of enriched uranium destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Hiroshima is a yearly reminder of the paramount importance of nuclear weapons non-proliferation efforts. The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership—a U.S.-led plan to recycle spent fuel and plutonium from nuclear power plants while controlling the manufacture of enriched uranium and plutonium—could strengthen the non-proliferation regime while facilitating the spread of clean power generation to the developing world.

We should solve this problem soon, so that the brightening over India, China, and hopefully Africa is due to non–fossil fueled power generation.