Why can’t we all just get along? In Ontario wind doesn’t play nice with nuclear.

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Every jurisdiction is a bit different but in Ontario, where we have one of the lowest carbon grids in the world, we have already installed too much wind. Let me explain.

Ontario nuclear chugs along providing 65% of our electricity with a lifecycle emissions of <12gCO2/kwh (according to a 2014 IPCC analysis). Hydro which is mostly “run of the river” in Ontario (meaning it cannot be stored and used as a battery for renewables) does another 25% at 24gCO2/kwh. Wind (12gCO2/kwh not including back up) produces very erratically and owing to the lake effect produces almost nothing during our peak demand season: summer heat waves.

Ontario demand goes from lows of 10GW (billion watts) in spring and fall to highs of 27 GW in August. Wind produces like crazy in the spring and fall and at night time when demand is lowest. We have 13GW of installed nuclear, 8GW of hydro of which around 5GW is dependably available. We don’t need wind in the spring and fall. We therefore curtail (don’t allow the turbines to spin 25% of the time or give this electricity away almost for free to the USA.

We signed some pretty lucrative 20-year contracts with private investment interests (many of them tied to fossil fuel companies) which pay for all wind electricity that can be produced regardless of whether we can actually use it on the grid. So in April 2020 we produced $4.3 million of wind electricity that we could use on the grid but we had to pay $184.5 million to the private wind farm owners for electricity whether it was used or not.

Wind advocates are upset that we curtail wind rather than shutting down our Nuclear stations. When you shut off a Nuclear Plant it takes 3 days to fire it back up. For those 3 days wind will not produce reliable electricity… in fact Ontario wind will most likely only produce electricity in bursts and be largely MIA for a majority of the time. You need a power source that can jump in and back it up. Turns out that the natural partner is… natural gas!

So wind (12gCO2/kwh) + Gas (>490gCo2/kwh) ends up working out to about 200gCO2/kwh during the 3 days that we wait for the nuclear plant to resume operation. Ontario changed its market rules so that nuclear has priority over wind and solar. According to the System Operator (IESO) that change in priority order saves electricity consumers about $200 million dollars per year in natural gas fuel that does not need to be burned and reduces carbon dioxide emissions by about 1.8 million tonnes per year.

On the Ontario grid you drive up emissions by installing wind unless you curtail it or export the power at low prices. That effectively makes wind turbines a stranded asset and makes the economic case for wind suspect.

Much of the build out of Ontario’s gas infrastructure (11GW) was done in the early 2000’s to build the grid resiliency needed to accommodate new wind projects. This is not the first example in the world where wind and solar have locked in natural gas infrastructure.

Hydro from Ontario can’t back up Wind because its “run of river.” Hydro from Quebec is touted as a solution. However, you would need to add many more hydroelectric turbines to Quebec’ reservoirs and build thousands of kilometers of high voltage transmission lines (which will be fought by NIMBY’s every step of the way). That infrastructure would cost more than building clean generation capacity closer to the Ontario load where it is needed.It turns out that it’s cheaper to build Nuclear.

Strangely environmentalist groups like the Ontario Clean Air Alliance suggest diverting hydro from Quebec (a low carbon source) to replace Ontario Nuclear (an ultra low carbon source.) This seems counterintuitive from a climate and clean air perspective given the fact that Quebec can continue to send its hydro to New England and New Brunswick to shut down ultra high emissions coal (at almost 1000 gCO2/kwh.) Carbon emissions and deadly particulate air pollution don’t respect borders.

The sad truth is that wind does not play nice with nuclear in Ontario and more importantly does not offer the the promise of the deep decarbonisation that we so desperately need.

For more information in podcast form listen to this interview with Paul Acchione past president of the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers.

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