Bob Walker, National Director Canadian Nuclear Workers’ Council (CNWC), says that the article prepared by Dr. Michael Ivanco, illustrates that the elimination of the burning of coal to generate electricity in Ontario is an important story that needs to be shared and understood.
“The CNWC believes that effectively tackling climate change will require the broader use of nuclear energy,” says Walker. “Dr. Ivanco is a Canadian Nuclear Workers’ Council Board Member and the past President of the Society of Professional Engineers and Associates.”
“Slaying the Coal Dragon”: How One Country, Germany, hasn’t and a Canadian Province, Ontario, has!
by Dr. Michael Invanco
The COP-26 conference did much to highlight the climate emergency that is facing the world. The burning of coal, primarily for electricity generation, has long been identified as the number one culprit in greenhouse gas emissions. This is being tackled differently by different countries.
Germany has been the “poster child” for how to tackle greenhouse gas emission reduction, through a nationwide initiative known as Energiewende, a strategy to eliminate CO2 emissions while also closing nuclear plants. Since the 1990s, Germany has invested hundreds of billions of dollars into expanding intermittent renewable energy, wind and solar, and has made some very impressive strides. Between 2003 and 2020, as figure 1 (left) shows, electricity produced by these sources increased from 20 TWh per year to 252 TWh. Meanwhile, electricity produced by coal declined from 305 to 134 TWh, though there was a 40% increase in gas powered generation. As a result, CO2 emission intensity dropped from 500 to 310 grams/kWh, a decline of 38% with total emissions dropping from 252 to 153 million tonnes of CO2.
However, between 2003 and 2020, the amount of nuclear energy declined from 165 to 64 TWh. Since nuclear plants displace coal fired generation on a one-to-one basis, had Germany maintained electricity generation from its world-class nuclear fleet it would have nearly completely eliminated electricity production from the burning of coal. If it had maintained its nuclear production, its 2020 CO2 emissions would be 170 grams of CO2/kWh, nearly half of what they currently are, with total emissions of 84 million tonnes – a huge decline of 70 million tonnes. But this is not the path that Germany chose.
Ontario was faced with a similar dilemma, although its grid was cleaner to begin with because of a large nuclear generation component. In 2003, coal generation accounted for 37 TWh of total generation, or nearly 30% of total electricity production. CO2 emission intensity was 235 grams of CO2/kWh and total emissions were 28 million tonnes. As figure 2 shows, by 2014 coal fired generation had been completely eliminated and over these 11 years, nuclear generation increased from 63 TWh to 95 TWh, as refurbished stations came on line and wind powered generation increased from essentially zero to 7 TWh.
There is a myth in Ontario that coal fired generation was replaced by wind power, which is clearly not the case. Well over 80% of the 37 TWh that coal generated in 2003 was replaced by nuclear power with a much smaller contribution from wind power.
Today, Ontario has one of the cleanest grids in the world, with an emission intensity of 50 grams of CO2/kWh and total emissions of less than 6 million tonnes. A reduction of 80%.
While Germany has made great strides in eliminating CO2 emissions, those gains would have been much greater had they not made the decision to close their nuclear plants and continue to burn coal. Their experience, thus far in 2021, has also shown the vulnerabilities of depending too much on intermittent renewable energy. In 2021, because of a mild year with respect to wind velocities and an economic recovery, coal production is up nearly 40% while energy from wind power is down nearly 20% and CO2 emissions are tracking closer to 2019 levels, close to 400 grams of CO2/kWh. Ontario’s emissions, by comparison, are relatively stable, as they have been for five years.
All is not rosy for Ontario’s electricity generation sector, however. Closures of the Pickering generating station will remove about 20 TWh of electricity from the grid, which will be replaced primarily by gas, and increase Ontario’s emissions by about 150%. This is certainly a huge step in the wrong direction when we are aiming for net-zero by 2050 and highlights the need for new, or refurbished, nuclear generation.