By: Donald Jones, P.Eng.
(This 2009 Jan. 2 article is a slightly updated version of the article that appeared in the 2008 December edition of the Canadian Nuclear Society’s BULLETIN quarterly journal. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of the editor of the BULLETIN or the Canadian Nuclear Society)
There has been evidence recently of increasing support for wind and other renewables for Ontario, some of it suggested as an alternative to refurbishing or replacing Pickering B and Bruce B. Witness Energy and Infrastructure Minister George Smitherman’s request last September to the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) to take a look at increasing the amount of renewables, conservation and distributed generation in Ontario’s 20 year energy plan. Also, the report, “Plugging Ontario into a Green Future: A Renewable is Doable Action Plan”, put out last November by the Pembina Institute and a coalition of environmental groups, not to mention CBC’s The Fifth Estate’s “The Gospel of Green”, a pro-wind anti-nuclear production featuring Hermann Scheer the German renewables activist, that aired last November. In early December David Suzuki said he no longer wanted to be associated with “powerWISE” (the government-utility conservation program) television commercials because of Ontario’s ongoing nuclear program. The Ontario Sustainable Energy Association is pushing for an Ontario Green Energy Act that seems to be generating some interest from the government. In the Stephen Harper government’s Throne Speech last November it was proposed that 90 percent of electricity generated in Canada come from non-carbon emitting sources by 2020 so no doubt this will encourage supporters of wind generation, even though the government offered support for nuclear power plant projects. So, can wind do it in Ontario.
An Inconvenient Truth
The future of industrial wind power in Ontario is tied to the future of natural gas for electricity generation, an inconvenient truth. The Ontario grid needs continuous flexible support to control minute to minute frequency variations brought on by normal supply-demand mismatch. This modulating control will be made more difficult with the large scale introduction of wind generators that are subject to the vagaries of wind. Modulating control refers here to selected generators on the grid responding to manual dispatch to increase or decrease output so that the chosen unit(s) supplying grid frequency regulation (automatic generation control) is kept in the desired operating range. The support will not be provided by nuclear because the modulating control capability of nuclear is limited, even though output can be changed in steps for daily and weekly load following.
A baseload run-of-the-river hydro-electric plant is suitable for grid frequency regulation but hydro may not be acceptable for modulating more significant grid fluctuations brought on by the vagaries of wind. Hydro plants may not be available all the time, there are seasonal fluctuations in water supply, there may be local, provincial or international agreements on water management, or water is being kept in storage for load following or operating reserve. The load following and operating reserve capacity of the hydro plants will become crucial with the phase-out of the coal-fired stations and would not be dribbled away supporting the wind generators.
Even without any possible restrictions on nuclear and hydro it makes little economic sense to run reliable suppliers of steady power, with high fixed costs and low operating costs, at part load to support the expensive, intermittent and varying output from wind farms. This leaves natural gas and coal for support duty, but since coal is going to be phased out in Ontario by 2014 it leaves natural gas as the future support for wind, providing modulating control and some, or all, of the grid frequency regulation. Due to the simultaneous demands of home heating and electricity generation in the winter that may lead to gas shortages, some of these plants may be dual fuelled with gas and oil, not a pleasant thought.
So, in Ontario, if you want wind you also have to burn gas in units with limited turndown capability, operating inefficiently in the upper part of their load range. Like in the movie Wizard of Oz, the curtain behind the windmills needs to be pulled back.
German energy utility E.ON is one of the world’s largest investor owned energy services providers. Multi-national it is based in Germany and supplies natural gas, and electricity generated from nuclear, wind, coal and gas. Based on E.ON’s German experience, for balancing the grid 60 percent of the installed wind power has to be made quickly available at all times from it’s fossil fuelled power plants operating inefficiently at part load, generating pollution even on windy days and causing above normal wear and tear to the plants. Also 90 percent has to be available from “shadow power stations” for periods when wind power is limited.
The Royal Academy of Engineering in the United Kingdom has stated that where fossil fuel supplies the back-up to intermittent renewable supply, like wind, the emissions from the back-up plant running on part-load and reduced efficiency can reduce or even cancel the environmental benefits gained from renewable operation. In supposedly green Germany about 60 percent of electricity is produced from fossil fuels (around 83 percent of this from coal) with about 27 percent from nuclear and with the balance from hydro, wind, and other renewables. New coal-fired stations will be built to replace the nuclear units that are to be phased-out by 2022, unless the government comes to its senses.
Dash for Gas
The Ontario government is putting too much faith in natural gas for electricity generation, like the United Kingdom did with its “Dash for Gas” from the North Sea in the 1990s. Now the UK is running out of expensive gas and is moving at full speed to build new nuclear units from Areva and probably Westinghouse. Remember the UK government, through British Nuclear Fuels Limited, once owned Westinghouse but sold it to Toshiba in early 2006 so the UK is no longer a technology vendor. The last nuclear unit built in the UK, Sizewell B, a Westinghouse design, started up in 1995 but planned follow-on units were cancelled because of the availability of low cost gas.
The UK presently has enough coal-fired and gas-fired plants to support it’s current crop of windmills but because of its failed energy policy it is planning, against vociferous opposition, to build several coal-fired plants as old coal and nuclear power units need to be replaced and the planned new nuclear units work their way through the regulatory process. These coal-fired plants could then be used to support more European Union mandated renewables, mostly wind. Gas-fired stations may also have to be built and the UK is understandably nervous about relying too much on foreign suppliers of gas. Presently over 70 percent of the UK’s electricity comes from coal and gas with around 20 percent from nuclear. The UK’s Climate Change Act 2008 means to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by at least 26 percent by 2020, against a 1990 baseline. Good luck!
An Unsustainable Future
In Ontario windmills are only possible because of the government’s commitment to building large numbers of gas-fired power plants to replace the coal-fired stations. An energy future built on gas is unsustainable. There is no long term future for gas-fired generation in Ontario because of front-end and back-end greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, high unit energy cost (like wind) to consumer, security issues of foreign supplies, high demand for gas from the United States, gas demands of tar sands, declining gas reserves, lost gas legacy to future generations, home heating demands, less and more expensive gas as feedstock to the chemical industry, and, in summary, the waste of a premium non-renewable resource just to generate electricity. Over the next few years even hydro-electric generation may not be too reliable since it will be affected by climate change, putting more pressure on nuclear.
An Unlikely Future
Since Ontario’s wind generators require natural gas-fired generation for support it means an unlikely future for the windmills and their transmission and access infrastructure, that one day may not be technically or economically compatible with a future all nuclear/hydro power grid. There is certainly no environmental benefit to having windmills on a clean all nuclear/hydro grid. However, the nuclear industry and the grid operator, the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), have raised no objections to the Ontario government’s proposed generation supply mix and its decision to go with gas and wind, indeed, they support it. Does this mean that the industry and the IESO are sure that the new nuclear units, that are designed to operate for 60 years, and future Generation IV reactors are able to technically and economically support the vagaries of wind in a future without gas? If they are not sure, and/or they think wind would not be needed, then they should say so now before mass planting of windmills in their concrete foundations begin.
Grid reliability is paramount. The IESO is still having problems getting its act together on the load following requirements for generators on a grid without coal-fired units. The Load Following Standard, SE – 38, was put on hold almost a year ago until completion of SE – 61, Exploration of Enhancements to Dispatch Methodology and Processes. This is all to do with the concern of the IESO about maintaining grid reliability with all the changes resulting from the phase-out of the coal-fired generators. This includes more distributed generation, demand response (shedding or adding load), natural gas-fired generation, and intermittent self-scheduling renewables like wind. Injections of large amounts of wind power at times of low demand is of particular concern. Maybe the IESO is finally having second thoughts about wind and gas and all the intermittent self-scheduling power that will be sloshing around its grid, as well as underestimating the load following capabilities of nuclear power plants. We will have to wait and see.
The Alternative to Gas and (hence) Wind
There is an alternative to building more natural gas-fired power plants in the Greater Toronto Area, and in other locations, to replace the coal-fired stations and that is to increase the arbitrary limit on nuclear from the 14,000 megawatts imposed by the government. Bruce Power showed its willingness to build new nuclear power plants last October when it asked the nuclear safety regulator for a licence to prepare a site at Nanticoke, in addition to new units at the Bruce site.
The government’s power plan envisages nuclear supplying 40 percent of the electricity demand by 2027. This should be raised to over 70 percent, with hydro supplying most of the balance. If there is no market for the nuclear generated electricity during the off-peak and overnight hours (export, electric car battery charging, various demand response strategies such as heat and cold storage, hydrogen and/or compressed air production for clean peaking power and other uses) the plants can reduce their output, that is, load follow within limits. So, even with practical wind energy storage wind would not be needed on a future all nuclear/hydro power grid.
The demand on the grid from charging the batteries of electric cars should not be underestimated. The president and CEO of French nuclear giant Areva said in December that it would take an additional 6,400 megawatts of electricity if 10 percent of France’s cars were electrically powered. That translates to around 1,700 megawatts for Ontario, based on numbers of registered passenger cars. In France the nuclear energy share of electricity production is about 78 percent from its 58 light water reactors, with the balance divided nearly equally between hydro and fossil, and the nuclear units contribute to grid frequency control as well as daily and weekly load following. Having many nuclear units available for primary and secondary generation control reduces the wear and tear on individual units.
Wind has no long term future in Ontario and will be more of a hindrance than a help to grid reliability. The Ontario Energy Board should take a good hard look at the supply mix section of the OPA’s Integrated Power System Plan, eliminate wind and increase the nuclear portion of the supply mix so as to replace the gas portion by 2027. Better still, keep back-end cleaned-up coal-fired stations operating past 2014 until sufficient nuclear is on line to avoid the building of any more unsustainable gas-fired generation. The technical, economic and environmental issues associated with wind power have not been fully explored. Let us hope the Ontario Energy Board will give them due consideration before it is too late so that money can be put where it will do the most long term good.
Donald Jones, P.Eng.
Retired nuclear industry engineer