Palmer – the Real Coal Story

On January 10, 2012, the Ontario premier’s office was crowing about shutting down the remaining Ontario coal plants.  That story was picked up by sympathetic outlets.  It is expected that a politician will play loose with the facts when it suits them, but unfortunately many of the media outlets seem to not have the skills or interest to find out the real story.  Bill Palmer is in a position to know and relates it below, in more details than he did on this site earlier.  Note that Bill is politically even-handed in his criticism.

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I’ve tried to respond to a number of newspaper articles and technical publications that ran this story … to date none have chosen to print my comment. However, you deserve the chance to know the truth.

Renewable generation, and in particular wind had very little to do with the reduction in the output of coal fired generators in Ontario. Here are the facts. You can refer to the attached figure if you like pictures better than words.  [The little purple line in the lower right corner is the wind production.]

In 1994, nuclear generation supplied over 90 TWh of Ontario’s electrical supply, coal supplied about 15, and hydro about 35. Performance of the nuclear plants was deteriorating in part because of political decisions made by the Bob Rae (NDP) government to minimize maintenance and give early retirement to senior staff at Ontario Hydro in the early 1990’s due to the increase in costs brought about by putting Darlington into service after the start up was delayed by a David Peterson (Liberal) government decision to hold construction and start up in the late 80’s even though most of the costs had been spent, and high interest rates continued to rack up cost of the borrowed money. The rules were (and still are) that new “hydro” construction costs are not put on the consumer bills until a new station are put into service. The Darlington “cost over-runs” were mostly due to the political decision to hold startup at a time interest rates on borrowed money were double digit.

The Mike Harris (PC) government that followed Bob Rae decided that the nuclear units at Bruce A and Pickering A would be shut down to focus improvements on the newer B stations at Pickering B, Bruce B, and Darlington. The output of the nuclear generators dropped to about 60 TWh. Coal picked up the slack, increasing in output to about 40 TWh in the early 2000’s. 2003, the year the Dalton McGuinty (Liberal) government was formed, coal supplied about 40 TWh, nuclear about 62 TWh, hydro about 35 TWh, and the Ontario demand was about 155 TWh. However, the improvements in the nuclear plants, which had been started some years before resulted in the return to service of Bruce A units 3 and 4, and Pickering A Units 1 and 4 by 2004. The nuclear output started to rise and the coal output started to fall. Then after 2004, a further surprise occurred … the Ontario demand started to fall as mines, mills, pulp and paper, and other users closed up shop, or moved out of Ontario. From 2005 to 2012, the Ontario demand dropped by about 15 TWh, nearly 10% … not from conservation, but from loss of industrial output. As nuclear output continued to increase, including in 2012 the return to service of Bruce A units 1 and 2, the nuclear output rose to over 80 TWh again. The 20 TWh increase in nuclear output, the 15 TWh loss of Ontario demand, and the start up of a number of natural gas generators, bringing their output up to 20 TWh meant there was no need to run coal …

And the 4 TWh of output from the wind generators really had just about nothing to do with the reduction in the coal generation, as the wind production is mostly when coal generators are not needed – at night, and in the spring and fall. In the hot summer, and even in the cold winter days, when wind output is low, the coal plants continue to run. They can now be shut down now as there are enough gas generators to fill in … mind you at considerably greater cost.

And that friends, is the true story … the reason coal generation could drop 40 TWh was that the nuclear units picked up over 20 TWh, the system demand dropped 15 TWh, and natural gas generators picked up about 10 TWh. The 4 TWh of wind had very little impact on shutting down coal … no matter what you read elsewhere.

Feel free to share the truth, as it needs to be known. I’ve even shared it with some of the Liberal candidates … but it does not seem to be popular to say as it runs against the spin that “coal was shut down by bringing in clean renewables.”

Bill Palmer

2 thoughts on “Palmer – the Real Coal Story”

  1. thank you for explaining the real reasons why coal is being shut down. i thought is was only because of the declining manufacturing sector (decrease demand), and I didnt know about the increase in non-coal supply (nuclear, nat.gas). however, i dont think that means that more wind power shouldn’t be built (as long as proper consultations are done with locals). more solar panels in urban areas wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

  2. Andrew. We actually don’t need any wind generation in Ontario. It doesn’t reduce emissions to any significant degree and almost every KWh of Wind generation drives a requirement for additional flexible generation which will be Gas, for example the two new gas generators that our Liberal Government managed to triple the cost of before building the plants. While it is technically feasible and economically very attractive to arrange strategic supply contracts with Hydro Quebec and Manitoba, it is, according to Yasir Naqvi, LPO President – politically unacceptable. He publicly stated that Ontario would never enter into such a deal with Quebec because of the separatist leanings of the province. We actually don’t need Wind at all in Ontario – at least for the next 5-10 years unless there is some magical resurgence of heavy industry in Ontario – unlikely given the Government’s stated plan and policy to ensure that Ontario has the highest electricity prices in Canada and mainland US over that period. But all those urban/suburban voters should probably go ahead and buy solar panels for their roofs and install the battery packs in their basements as soon as possible. Not sure why but it just “feels” right if they do that, if you know what I mean.

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