Stalled nuclear purchase won’t cause blackout

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Ontario's decision to postpone purchasing a large, new nuclear generating plant prompts a pressing question: Is the province at risk of having the lights go out?

The answer: Not any time soon.

Ontario is awash in electricity. Demand for power is plunging because of the weak economy, while at the same time, huge amounts of electricity from new gas-fired stations, mothballed nuclear plants and wind farms are coming on line.

If the province is going to face a shortage of electricity, the crunch isn't likely to arise until some time after 2015, if at all, suggesting there is time to arrange for replacement power. In the meantime, Ontario's hunger for power may be transformed by a shift to more energy-efficient industry and an increasingly energy-conscious population.

“We will not be shivering in the dark. That's not likely,” said Amir Shalaby, vice-president of power system planning for the Ontario Power Authority, the provincial agency responsible for ensuring adequate long-term electricity supplies.

He said the province has many options for coping with the delayed nuclear purchase, such as ordering more renewable energy projects and importing additional electricity from Quebec.

Energy Minister George Smitherman rejected offers as too costly from three companies to build a nuclear power plant that was supposed to help Ontario cope with the eventual shutdown of reactors, many of which are reaching the ends of their service lives, at its five existing stations.

At full power, the new station would have met about 10 per cent of the province's power needs on a typical day.

As recently as 2007, the OPA said the province needed to quickly build a nuclear plant because most existing reactors – the source of about half of Ontario's electricity – were projected to reach the end of their design lives between 2016 and 2021, and would have to be replaced or refurbished.

But Mr. Shalaby said the province now has more breathing room to cope with the delayed nuclear purchase, even as it plans to phase out the high-polluting, coal-fired generation by 2014.

For one thing, electricity demand, which has been weak for years, collapsed in the downturn that clobbered Ontario's car plants, mines and steel mills.

The Independent Electricity System Operator, the provincial entity that tracks power demand, says consumption by industrial companies plunged 20 per cent in the first three months of the year. Overall power demand, including residential and commercial use, is projected to fall 4 per cent this year, the sharpest drop in the past decade.

Power consumption next year is forecast to be the lowest since 1998, and will drop even with a recovery in business conditions.

“The economic slowdown has given us some time to stretch the resources that we have,” Mr. Shalaby said.

The province has other ways of coping with the delay in building the nuclear plant. One idea under discussion is running some of the older reactors only seasonally, such as in summer to meet air-conditioning needs. This would reduce wear and tear, lengthening the time before reactors must be refurbished or shut down for good.

Currently, nuclear plants are run flat-out all the time, but that has resulted in periods when electricity is so abundant that generators are having to pay customers to use it.

Many environmentalists say the nuclear delay presents an opportunity for Ontario to look at cheaper ways of producing power, or reducing demand through energy-efficiency measures, such as encouraging consumers to buy energy-sipping appliances. A new high-efficiency fridge, for instance, uses 70 per cent less power than one made in 1984 or before.

“This pause in the nuclear procurement process gives us the time to pursue much lower-cost and reliable options to keep the lights on,” said Jack Gibbons, chair of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, an environmental advocacy group.

The group issued a report last month suggesting that the province could retire its nuclear fleet, replacing it with high-efficiency, natural-gas-fired generating stations and imports of hydroelectric power from Quebec, along with conservation measures.

Mr. Gibbons contended that the scope for conservation is huge, in part because Ontario residents use about 50 per cent more electricity per person than people in neighbouring New York State. Part of the reason is that Ontario has more electric heating and cheaper electricity rates, but it's also due to economic differences.

The alliance calculated that New York was able to produce a staggering 2.4 times as much economic output as Ontario for each kilowatt hour used. A kilowatt hour is the amount of electricity needed to run 10 lights, each rated 100 watts, for one hour.

“It's amazing,” Mr. Gibbons said of the difference. “It emphasizes how wasteful we are in our electricity consumption.”

Part of New York's edge is that, despite the struggling industrial cities of its northern tier, it doesn't have as many power-guzzling, smokestack-type companies as Ontario. But Mr. Gibbons said the province's economy is slowly evolving to be more like New York's, with a higher percentage of knowledge-based businesses, such as banking and high technology, that don't consume vast amounts of power.

Although a transformation of the economy to resemble New York's will take time, Mr. Gibbons said there are several steps the province could take immediately to cut electricity use.

Ontario has about 1.4 million apartments and condos without individual electricity meters. Having these residents receive bills for their own use provides a strong financial incentive to conserve, and he estimated would cut consumption in some cases by up to 30 per cent.

Ontario is also about to introduce time-of-use, or so-called smart electricity meters. Mr. Gibbons said the devices will encourage people to cut electricity use during high-demand periods, reducing the number of power stations needed to handle peak consumption.


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