The Big Picture

Wind power cannot be considered in isolation from other sources of power. It is not a question wind, or no wind. It is a question of wind, or something else. And the relative impacts of the various alternative sources of power is an important consideration.

In 2007, Ontario produced 52% of its electricity from nuclear plants, 21% from waterpower, 19% from coal, 8% from natural gas, and 1% from other renewables.

You can think of the electricity system as a big bathtub. The water level in the tub must be kept constant at all times. There are a couple of thousand taps putting water into the tub. And there are several million drains taking water out. The taps are the generators – Niagara Falls, the nuclear plants, the coal plants, the wind turbines, and the grid connected solar panels. The drains are the customers – homes, businesses, schools, factories.

When water is flowing into the tub from a tap, then less needs to flow from other taps. Remember, we need to keep the water level constant, not rising or falling. When the wind is blowing, less coal or natural gas is burned, as we throttle back on production from the fossil plants. If you want to reduce the flow from one source, you must increase it from another.

Lets consider the impact of each of the main sources of Ontario generation. Burning coal to make electricity is a major contibutor to smog. A study by the Ontario Medical Association estimates that Ontario has 5800 premature deaths from smog related illnesses, 17000 hospital admissions, and 59,000 emergency visits. The total cost of the health impact on productivity, direct health care costs, etc. was estimated at $7.8 billion annually. 688 of the deaths are attributed to smog from our coal plants. And we haven’t even talked about the cost of acid rain or climate change. No, we probably don’t want coal.

Natural gas is much cleaner than coal, but not perfect. The contibution to smog is dramatically lower, but the carbon emissions are still at about 50% of the level of coal. But there is another challenge with natural gas. Natural gas is a depleting resource. We know that we will run low some day. Some forecasts say that production will peak in North America within about 10 years, and then begin an inexorable decrease. For awhile we will be able import liquified natural gas, from politically stable places like the middle east, but this will cause carbon emissions to double due to the energy required to transport and liquify the gas, and of course the cost will be higher to pay for liquification terminals, and ships. Also, when you run low on a resource, the price can go up dramatically. The price of natural gas last year was 3.5 times what it is today in wholesale markets. Recessions work to reduce demand. We need to use our limited gas resource wisely.

Nuclear has its own problems. First, its cost is very high. The provincial government just cancelled plans to build new nuclear plants, due to sticker shock. One report estimated the capital cost of new nuclear quoted to Ontario at $10.7 billion for a 1000 MW plant. This is about 4.6 times the capital cost per MW than wind, and even with wind’s lower capacity factor, the capital cost alone would exceed the cost of wind. And wind doesn’t need fuel. Second is the issue of waste. Nuclear engineers like to propose deep geologic storage, or above ground storage for a few decades, followed by geologic storage. The problem I see it is not technical. We probably can store nuclear waste safely for a few decades. But for 10’s of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years? This I find extremely unlikely. Human societies don’t last that long. 1000 years from now, the people living here (if we make it) likely won’t speak English, we most certainly won’t have the Liberals running against the Conservatives, and it is even unlikely we will have a parliamentary democracy. But the waste will still be toxic. Nuclear waste disposal is not a technical problem. It is a cultural problem. And nobody can solve that.

Waterpower can be quite benign, like Niagara Falls, but if flooding is involved, there can be a big impact on recreation, fisheries and the ecosystem. Ontario has more opportunities than most people think for new development, but we cannot supply all our power from water.

Wind cannot be consider in isolation from other sources. Every tap has its impact.

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