Energy Perspectives

Essential Energy: Part II

 In an earlier post I described my thoughts on how critically important energy is to us and our society.  I outlined how it can become a matter of life or death if you do not have a reliable supply of, or access to, energy. I hope that I have gone at least a little way in convincing you that energy is important.  But I didn’t answer the obvious next question; how do we produce, harness and store our power?

There are a host of options when we start to think about how we power our lives.  Let’s limit the conversation a bit by looking at the large scale: how we supply our cities, factories, offices, hospitals, and homes. Oil, coal, natural gas, hydroelectricity, and nuclear all come to mind. Increasingly we hear about renewables such as wind, solar, tidal or biomass.  Each has their own strengths and challenges.  The simple truth is that there is no easy answer when it comes to producing energy.  If there were, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

There is mounting evidence about the effects of greenhouse gases on climate.  By burning fossil fuels, we are increasing the carbon in our atmosphere, increasing average global temperatures, raising sea levels, and altering weather patterns across the planet.  The United Nations, among many others, is advocating for strict measures to limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees.  At this point, there is concern that we do not have the regulations or the global will to meet these targets. If you agree that it is important to reduce carbon emissions, then limiting our consumption of fossil fuels becomes almost automatic. 

To reduce our carbon emissions, we need to look at low emitting sources of electricity: nuclear, hydro and renewables. Hydroelectric power, generating electricity by moving water, is an attractive option.  It is used widely in Canada; most provinces have significant generating capacity in hydroelectricity, and as a country we are world leaders in hydro generation.  60% of Canadian electricity comes from hydro!

Renewables, such as wind or solar, are another alternative, producing very low greenhouse gas emissions.  However, an inescapable trait is intermittency, meaning that they do not work all the time - the wind isn’t always blowing and the sun isn’t always shining. Options for storage exist, but as of today they are unable to meet large scale demand. A renewables-based electricity system needs a back-up source of power, often natural gas.  A recent study showed that because of this need to back-up wind with natural gas, the total carbon footprint (calculated though Life Cycle Analysis) of wind is only marginally better than gas on its own.

To my mind, nuclear power presents the strongest case. It isn’t intermittent, so it can provide “base load” power. It doesn’t emit greenhouse gases when operating, and over its life cycle, it compares very closely to wind power. 

Questions are correctly raised concerning the management of spent nuclear fuel. Currently all of Canada’s spent fuel is safely housed in intermediate-term storage facilities at the power stations.  An independent group, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), is tasked with finding a permanent long term management solution. The current thinking is to situate the spent fuel in safe underground storage facilities, much akin to a custom built mine (known as a Geologic Repository).  The NWMO is working with communities across Canada to explore options to develop and build such a facility.

Some people criticise nuclear on its cost, saying it is too expensive.  But when you consider the cost over the life of a plant (30 to 60 years) nuclear comes out as one of the most cost-effective energy sources there is.

We all use and need energy.  We have always lived with the trade-offs between different technologies, but today the stakes are such that we can’t continue to dump carbon into the atmosphere without thinking of the consequences.  Since each choice comes with some pros and cons, the solution probably will look like some combination of hydroelectricity, nuclear, and renewables with natural gas providing back up at times of peak demand.  When you start to look into it, it is awfully hard not to consider nuclear power as an important and environmentally sound way to meet the globe’s increasing energy needs.


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