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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


Published in the April 2006 issue of the Canadian Nuclear Society Bulletin, Vol.27, No.1.

The Lost Years

by Jeremy Whitlock

If the present hand-wringing over electricity supply in Ontario seems vaguely familiar, it should: one need only go back one generation.

The year was 1989. Milli Vanilli was still lip-syncing and getting away with it. The Berlin Wall was coming down and Saddam Hussein was about to go from ally to enemy.

In Ontario, with the long saga of Darlington nearing an end, Ontario Hydro released its ambitious 25-year Demand/Supply Plan (DSP), marking the first time that "demand-management" and supply planning were strategically integrated. The study was as doomed as it was groundbreaking: the wind already carried signs of an economic downturn, but nobody suspected that the worst economic storm since the 1930s was about to blow through.

Oblivious to this, and facing 2.2% annual growth in demand with no major new supply in sight, Ontario Hydro set about convincing its customers of the need for 16 GW of new generation by the year 2014, on top of a whopping 6 GW in load-reduction measures.

Then, as now, environmental groups seemed to miss the significance of the conservation measures, and pounced upon the proposed nuclear units like wolves: hungry from years with only the politically mangled carcass of Darlington to feed on.

By 1992 Ontario taxpayers had paid over $23 million in intervenor funding for the Environmental Assessment hearings. The exercise appeared increasingly irrelevant, however, with the economy clearly in the dumper and electricity demand not about to see 2.2% annual growth any time soon.

It didn't matter really, because by now Ontario Hydro was lip-syncing and getting away with it: Bob Rae's NDP government used the recession to cancel new nuclear and fossil planning, double the load-reduction targets, and shore up their gamble with life-extension of existing fossil stations, plus a doubling of the euphemistically-named "non-utility generation" (mostly gas turbines).

Mercifully, little more was squandered on this ideology: the economy continued to tank, the government closed its coffers, planning of all kinds was put on the shelf, and the NDP was booted out (unfortunately not before grafting an ideologue's head onto Hydro's body, in the form of Maurice Strong, who proceeded to ravage the utility with political machinations that made Darlington look like a case study in effective government oversight).

By the mid-nineties the economy started to wake up again, but Ontario Hydro was too busy licking its wounds to notice. Performance waned and a team of Americans was brought in to turn things around. Several millions in salary and pension later, most of the Americans were gone and seven reactors were shut down prematurely. The utility no longer had the strength to even lick its wounds - at least not all at once.

That brings us to 2006. Ever so quietly, without much fuss, the economy of Ontario has been inching upward, and electricity demand along with it. The once-capable planning department of the former Ontario Hydro is no more, but lo and behold: today's provincial peak electricity demand of 26 GW is roughly what they said it would be at this time back in 1992 (albeit now a summer air-conditioning rather than a mid-January heating peak).

What's more, there's little new about recent predictions of a 30 GW load in Ontario by 2014: it was all there in the 1992 update to the DSP. What's new is the political decision to not meet this load with coal stations, a cart suggested by some to be distinctly ahead of its horse.

It is hard to imagine why crisis management should ever be a part of electricity supply planning. Indeed, if one looks back 35 years at the record of Ontario peak demand, it increases at a steady average rate of about 400 MW per year. Even after the late 1980s, when energy consumption decoupled itself from the GDP, peak demand (the main determinant of load-meeting capacity) continued to track GDP pretty well. There are no surprises here, except those artificially imposed.

Moreover, on this basis, one wonders if the currently proposed supply mix to 2025 in Ontario is not a little heavy on renewables (8 GW) and optimistic on demand management (2 GW). One hopes, of course, that there is no lip-syncing again going on, although it's hard not to note that the song sounds oddly the same.

Discussion welcome.

©2011 Jeremy Whitlock

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