Saskatchewan’s traditional reliance on coal-fired electricity is challenged by concerns about climate change and the prospect of federal charges for carbon emissions. The debate has recently been polarized between proponents of nuclear power and advocates of small-scale renewables. A third option deserves more consideration: large-scale hydro.
SaskPower, the Crown electric utility, has historically relied on lignite coal. This mode of generation is not only cheap and reliable, but also supports mining jobs in the province.
Of course, the problem is that burning coal (especially lignite) emits huge amounts of greenhouse gas. This dilemma has made SaskPower, the previous NDP government and the current Saskatchewan Party government very interested in clean-coal technology. However, as long as this technology remains unproven, it would be difficult to justify building additional coal power plants.
Indeed, SaskPower has not commissioned a coal plant since 1992. It made essentially no major investments for the rest of the 1990s. The existing power system was adequate for Saskatchewan’s then-docile economy and the provincial government was unwilling to borrow to finance investments.
Over the past decade, SaskPower has met incremental growth in electricity demand from sources other than coal. Since 1999, it has added 458 megawatts (MW) of co-generation at industrial facilities, 172 MW of wind power, and 168 MW of natural-gas generation. As a result, coal has fallen from 60% to 45% of Saskatchewan’s electrical capacity.
Over the next two decades, SaskPower envisions faster demand growth from a stronger provincial economy and most of its existing facilities wearing out. It projects having to rebuild, replace or otherwise acquire 4,100 MW by 2030.
This looming supply gap created an opening for proponents of nuclear power. A year ago, Bruce Power pitched a nuclear reactor in Saskatchewan. The uranium-mining industry makes the province more receptive than most to nuclear development.
But all of the usual objections to nuclear power still exist. Furthermore, Saskatchewan’s grid seems too small to accommodate an economical-scale nuclear plant. SaskPower currently supplies just over 3,000 MW and expects to supply more than 4,000 MW by 2020.
The smallest reactors generate 1,000 MW, and two such reactors would normally be built on the same site to maximize economies of scale. Even assuming robust demand growth, the nuclear option would involve Saskatchewan drawing a quarter or half of its electricity from a single site.
New Brunswick does draw about a quarter of its power from the Point Lepreau reactor, but has a much less dispersed grid. As SaskPower notes, “The SaskPower system is not designed to cope with a large nuclear plant.”
Recent provincial consultations reported overwhelming public opposition to nuclear power. The Saskatchewan Party government, which had been promoting Bruce Power’s proposal, has backed away from it. (Indeed, the Premier may have been backing away from it for some time.)
Many on the anti-nuclear side of the debate argue that conservation and small-scale renewable power can meet Saskatchewan’s electricity needs. Indeed, the province has immense natural potential for wind, solar and geothermal power. While Saskatchewan should pursue these solutions as far as possible, they probably cannot provide a complete answer.
SaskPower projects that, even with conservation, it will still need to obtain 4,100 MW by 2030. As far as I can tell, this figure includes about 1,400 MW of demand growth.
Perhaps an extremely ambitious and successful conservation program could eliminate all projected demand growth. If so, SaskPower would still need 2,700 MW because most of its existing capacity will wear out. Specifically, all natural gas, co-generation and wind facilities as well as a third of hydro capacity and all but one coal plant will need to be refurbished or replaced by 2030.
Refurbishing the co-generation facilities (458 MW), wind farms (172 MW) and dams (297 MW) would provide just over 900 MW. SaskPower has already committed to about 200 MW of new natural-gas generation. The remaining gap would be 1,600 MW, about half of province’s total demand (assuming no growth).
Solar and geothermal may ultimately be able to fill much of this gap at a reasonable cost, but they are currently nowhere near that point. For example, Ontario’s Green Energy Act provides feed-in tariffs of between 45 and 80 cents per kilowatt hour (kwh) for solar generation! By comparison, adding more power from conventional sources costs around 10 cents/kwh.
Large wind farms can also generate electricity for around 10 cents/kwh. Some provinces will build thousands of megawatts of wind power in the coming years.
Although windmills could certainly generate the quantity of electricity that Saskatchewan needs, it would almost certainly not be feasible to provide half of the province’s power from this source. Because wind power is intermittent, it must be backed-up by other types of generation.
SaskPower indicates that turbines cannot operate safely when the temperature falls below 30 degrees Celsius (a regular occurrence during Saskatchewan winters.) Last week, a couple of witnesses questioned this claim before the legislative committee, noting that some windmills generate electricity in Alaska, the Yukon, northern Scandinavia, and Antarctica. This dispute is way beyond my technical knowledge.
Regardless of temperature, the wind only blows some of the time. Placing windmills in different areas can mitigate this problem by tapping into different weather patterns. But as the Pembina Institute noted at last week’s hearings, weather patterns are less geographically diverse in Canada than in Europe.
Also, spreading out windmills undermines the economies of large wind farms. For example, SaskPower estimates that small-scale wind power costs between 12 and 22 cents/kwh.
Certainly, Saskatchewan should expand wind power and invest in developing solar and geothermal power. But it is doubtful that these sources will contribute 1,600 MW in the next two decades.
While hydroelectricity is eminently renewable, renewable-power advocates have not emphasized it. In general, they have been willing to endorse only small-scale hydro projects.
Large or small, hydroelectricity is extremely reliable, emits nothing and costs almost nothing, beyond the initial expense of building the dam. The significant up-front construction costs make dams an ideal stimulus project (e.g. the Tennessee Valley Authority during the Great Depression). The historically low interest rates now available to governments make it a good time to undertake such capital investments.
Despite hydroelectricity’s huge advantages, it garners little attention in political debates about future energy sources because most North American utilities have fully exploited available hydroelectric sites. Saskatchewan is exceptional because it only built a few small dams, but balked at larger projects.
In the 1970s, SaskPower proposed the Wintego Dam on the Churchill River. A public inquiry rejected the plan in order to preserve the natural area and traditional ways of life there.
These same issues would again confront large-scale hydroelectric development today. However, the historic decision to not dam the Churchill was made in a context of it being perfectly acceptable to just burn more fossil fuel instead. Today, I suspect that climate change and carbon pricing would far outweigh the original objections to the Wintego Dam.
Such a project would generate hundreds of megawatts. It would also enable a much larger expansion of wind power. Large-scale hydro provides the perfect balance for intermittent wind.
When the wind is blowing, SaskPower could close the hydro turbines and allow water to build up behind the dam. When the wind is not blowing, it could open the turbines to replace the lost electricity.
Small, run-of-the-river hydro projects should also be pursued. However, they would not generate as many megawatts and would not provide reservoir capacity to complement intermittent wind power.
A common suggestion is that Saskatchewan should simply import hydroelectricity from Manitoba. But Manitoba already sells power to the US at premium rates and has no reason to sell to Saskatchewan at cheaper rates.
Also, every megawatt of hydroelectricity redirected from the US to Saskatchewan would presumably cause the US to generate another megawatt from carbon-emitting sources. If Saskatchewan’s goal is to reduce global emissions, it should expand clean hydroelectric capacity rather than divert Manitoba’s.
Of course, every power source has problems and limitations. Every jurisdiction needs strong conservation initiatives and a mix of different generating technologies.
I think that large-scale hydro should be part of Saskatchewan’s electricity mix. At a minimum, the 1970s decision against the Wintego Dam is worth revisiting in light of what is now known about climate change and the coming need to replace most of SaskPower’s generating capacity.
- Absolving our Carbon Sins: the Case of the Pacific Carbon Trust (April 2nd, 2013)
- Carbon bubbles and fossil fuel divestment (March 26th, 2013)
- GHG Cap & Trade (January 21st, 2013)
- What’s next for BC’s carbon tax? (January 14th, 2013)
- Marc’s Letter from 2040 (December 14th, 2012)