Ontario’s Energy Crunch

Lawrence Solomon
Keynote address at Enercom Conference, Fairmont Hotel
April 2, 2008

Good morning. I have some good news for you this morning. The good news is that Ontario has an easy and painless way out of the energy fix that we’re in. I have some bad news for you, too. Our government doesn’t know it, and, I am certain, neither do most of you in this room. Because of what you don’t know, we face a future in which we all may freeze in the dark.

Let me begin with a few kind words for Ontario Hydro, the institution that my organization, Energy Probe, helped dismantle a decade ago. Ontario Hydro deserved to be dismantled. It made ruinous mistakes, such as embarking on a costly nuclear expansion program. Its borrowing cost the province its Triple A Credit Rating. It was the province’s biggest polluter. It effectively went bankrupt and deserved to.

But we may look back on Hydro, and its reckless ways, as the good old days. Today’s power sector is more politicized than it has been in its century-long history. We think of the Ontario Hydro era as a time of politicized power because Hydro was such a force in the province, and enjoyed an iconic status. In past decades, political parties of all stripes marveled at how powerful Hydro was. Many claimed that Hydro was more powerful than the government itself.

All that was true, but something else was true, too. Hydro had an independence from the government. As Adam Beck, its founder famously said on his deathbed, “I had hoped to live to forge a band of iron around the Hydro to prevent its destruction by the politicians.”

To a large extent, Beck succeeded. Hydro was largely unaccountable to the government, as it was unaccountable to its customers or to shareholders or to the marketplace. But this near-total unaccountability had a silver lining. Hydro could run itself along technocratic lines, and it did so well. For all its faults, Hydro kept the lights on. You can argue that Hydro maintained too much of a reserve capacity, and that this reserve was inefficient and costly, you can argue that Hydro made poor technology choices when it decided to go coal and then nuclear, you can argue that it gold-plated the power system, but you can’t argue that it was fundamentally wrong in focusing on keeping the lights on.

The technocrats at Hydro understood something important. Nuclear power needs fossil fuels as a complement and as a backup. Nuclear power is an inflexible technology that cannot meet peak demands. It can run around the clock, but for all the daily and seasonal peaks, something more secure, such as hydro dams or fossil fuels are required. Because we’ve pretty well maxed out on hydro-electric dams, Hydro engineers counted on fossil fuels, chiefly coal. That’s why Hydro’s nuclear expansion plans called for a simultaneous expansion of coal. Nuclear needs fossil fuels to meet the variable demands of our society.

Nuclear also needs coal as a backup, when nuclear falters. We saw the magnitude of this need a decade ago, when eight Ontario reactors were out of service for a stretch lasting almost seven years, from 1998 to 2004. Without Ontario’s coal plants, the province would have experienced massive blackouts and forced rationing, just as in Third World countries.

We also saw the magnitude of this need last summer, when two newly refurbished reactors at Pickering produced nothing at all over several months. Last summer, only the coal plants and favourable weather prevented blackouts.

Yet despite this experience with nuclear power, the province is building more of it. And despite the existence of low-cost dependable coal power, the province is phasing coal out. Fast forward to 2014, when the province phases out its coal plants and supersizes its nuclear capacity. In the event of forced outages of nuclear reactors, we will be depending on some gas backup, some unreliable wind, and a lot of unproven conservation programs. The picture is not pretty. The power planners have made a conscious decision to flirt with brownouts and blackouts in order to achieve higher goals. They hope to dodge the bullet and I hope they do too. But I more hope they wouldn’t put Ontarians and the Ontario economy in harm’s way.

Entertaining risks of blackouts would not have been possible under the old Ontario Hydro, which was powerful enough to resist the politicians. If it built nuclear, it would have built coal to match. This risk of blackouts would also be impossible in a free market, competitive grid. We saw that in the UK when Thatcher privatized the power sector in 1989. The private sector refused to take the nuclear plants, even for free, even if the state threw in billions of pounds, which it offered to do. The free market naturally diversifies itself to shun risk.

No, these blackouts are only possible in a highly politicized power market, of the kind we have in Ontario. We will have the western world’s most vulnerable power sector by far, unable to rely on imports because we won’t have enough transmission capacity, unable to call on coal plants because the ideologues in power have shut them down. The ideologues will also have overextended us with nuclear power — Ontario is second only to France in terms of the share of its capacity that comes from nuclear, and second to no one in terms of vulnerability. France is well interconnected with its neighbours and can call on fossil fuels to meet a shortfall. Ontario is an island in comparison, with relatively little transmission capability across its borders to the east, west and south.

Why are we in Ontario putting ourselves into this terrible box? Why are we threatening our economy and ourselves with an insecure power supply?

We are doing so because of two ideologies that now hold sway. Both are based on a great misunderstanding of what is prudent, what is science-based, and what is economic.

The first is a pro-nuclear ideology. Nuclear power has never been profitable – to the contrary, the nuclear industry is the biggest business failure in the history of the world. It is entirely a government dominated industry and was from the first, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower hatched it as part of his Atoms for Peace program.

Eisenhower had no illusions that nuclear power reactors were economic. No, his Atoms for Peace program was entirely designed to meet foreign policy goals. He was wrestling with the spectre of an arms race between the U.S. and the USSR, and a world in which, as he said, the secret of atomic weaponry will “eventually be shared by others, possibly all others.” Eisenhower wanted to avoid
“the probability of civilization destroyed, the annihilation of the irreplaceable heritage of mankind handed down to us from generation to generation, and the condemnation of mankind to begin all over again the age-old struggle upward from savagery towards decency, and right, and justice.”

Atoms for Peace was born of this immense fear of nuclear annihilation. Faced with this risk, no expense is too great, and no effort too small if it helps diminish that risk. Eisenhower decided to avoid this unimaginable outcome with a bold proposal for the nations of the world.
“The United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military build-up can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind. The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. The capability, already proved, is here today. Who can doubt that if the entire body of the world’s scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas, this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient and economic usage?”

Eisenhower decided to create, under the UN auspices, an atomic energy agency that would spread peaceful nuclear technology “to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world [and] serve the needs rather than the fears of mankind.” He hoped that giving nations peaceful nuclear capabilities would diminish the chance that the atom would be put to evil uses. He also hoped that the nations of the world would become US allies in the Cold War with the USSR. At the same time, he was building up the US nuclear weapons arsenal to confront the USSR

If Eisenhower had any illusions about nuclear power being a conventional industry that would be acceptable to the business community, he was soon disabused of that notion. In laying the groundwork for a commercial nuclear industry, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission investigated the consequences of nuclear accidents. It discovered that nuclear power was an impossibility without government backstopping it. Specifically, the study it commissioned — the famous Brookhaven Report — found that property damages could reach what was then the staggering sum of $7-billion. And this was by no means a worst-case scenario. The $7 billion assumed that the accident occurred at a medium-sized nuclear reactor, and it further assumed that the accident contaminated a medium-sized city. In addition to the property damage, the report estimated thousands of deaths and harm to large numbers of babies.

Put another way, the nuclear industry was a non-starter. The thing was uninsurable. And despite the rosy forecasts that everyone had — remember, this was the time when the industry talked of electricity too cheap to meter — the risks loomed much larger than the potential profits. Insurance companies told the U.S. Congress that risks of that magnitude were uninsurable, and the companies that built power stations — companies like General Electric and Westinghouse — refused to self-insure. They did not want to be wiped out in the event of a nuclear accident, and who can blame them?
Eisenhower and the US government were not deterred, however. The stakes in the Cold War were far too great. The government stepped in to relieve the nuclear industry of responsibility.

The decision to make possible a nuclear industry was a no-brainer: The risk of losing $7-billion, and thousands of deaths, per nuclear accident was as nothing compared to the nuclear holocaust that could envelope the globe in the event of all-out nuclear war.

Canada and other Western countries then followed the U.S. lead and absolved the new nuclear industry of the risks that would otherwise prevent its entry into society. Voila. This is how you conjure an industry from nothing, that nowhere would exist without government. What wasn’t conjured up was profitability. Even with liability relief, the nuclear industry was a non-starter, as taxpayers and ratepayers learned hundreds of billions of dollars later.

This ideology didn’t die, however. Ideologies tend to have long staying power. And in the case of nuclear power, it is now enjoying a renaissance thanks largely to another ideology, this one an environmental ideology, and it, too is couched and promoted in high-minded grandiloquent prose. You know it well. I am speaking specifically of global warming.

Al Gore, as everyone knows, is the chief spokesman for this new ideology. Some of you may have seen him Sunday on 60 Minutes, where he was asked about those who don’t subscribe to the view that global warming spells doom for mankind. They’re often called “deniers.”

“It’s a tiny, tiny minority,” he told Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes, comparing those who hold this view to people who believe the earth is flat. These are people who believe that the moon landing was staged in a movie set in Nevada, he said.

I found it ironic that Gore would compare these deniers to those who don’t believe in space travel. One of those deniers is Michael Griffin, the head of NASA. Another is Habibullo Abdussamatov. He heads research on the Russian half of the International Space Station. A third is Eigil Friis-Christensen, the head of the Danish Space Agency. A fourth is Freeman Dyson, one of the best known scientists on earth today. The furtherance of space flight are among his many accomplishments. He developed nuclear pulse propulsion for the Orion project. He also developed the TRIGA, the research reactors used in hospitals and university labs around the world to produce isotopes. He does have a connection with movie sets, however. Dyson’s theories about space travel inspired the Star Trek series.

Everyone in this room has heard of Al Gore and his conviction that global warming threatens us with extinction. And probably just about everyone in this room knows that the closest Al Gore came to a scientific achievement is the invention of the Internet. And probably just about everyone in this room accepts what Al Gore says about global warming.

On the other hand, possibly none of you know that Michael Griffin, the head of NASA believes that global warming isn’t a problem worth wrestling with. This is an interesting viewpoint from the man who oversees the world’s single biggest climate change research budget – $1.1 billion per year. Here is what he told National Public Radio in the US last year:

“First of all, I don’t think it’s within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown. And second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings, where and when, are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now, is the best climate for all other human beings. … I think that’s a rather arrogant position for people to take.”

Was Griffin entitled to express his viewpoint? He holds a PhD in aerospace engineering. He holds five masters degrees. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the International Academy of Astronautics. He was unanimously confirmed to head NASA by the United States Senate.

No sooner did he express his opinion than he was called an “idiot” and said to be “in denial.” He was called a “fool” and “surprisingly naive.” He was called either “totally clueless” or “a deep anti-global warming ideologue.” He then apologized and wasn’t heard from again on the subject. And that’s probably why you haven’t heard about him.

I haven’t been in touch with Griffin but I’ve been in touch with the other scientists I mentioned. In fact, I’ve been in touch with hundreds of scientists in fields related to climate science. I started contacting them about 18 months ago, to see if they really all were kooks or in the pay of the oil companies, as they’ve been described. I expected to find a half dozen or so dissenters. I had no idea that I would find a seemingly limitless number of scientists. If you want to read about some of them, you’ll find them in my columns in the National Post. I’ve profiled several dozen of them, in my series called The Deniers. I’ve also just come out with a book by the same name — The Deniers. It’s available now on Amazon, and doing quite well – it’s one of Amazon.ca’s top sellers. My daughters are impressed that it’s outselling Harry Potter.

From talking to these scientists, I have come to believe that a great many scientists — probably the majority of top scientists — don’t believe that the science is settled on global warming. The list of so-called deniers includes the President of the World Federation of Science, who is also Italy’s best known scientist. It includes France’s best known scientist. It includes Britain’s best-known scientist. It includes scientists from the world’s top research bodies, bodies such as the Pasteur Institute and the European Space Agency and CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, a 50-year-old institution that has 20 country members and services half of the world’s particle physicists. It includes the top climate scientists, legends in the field such as William Gray, who is considered by many the world’s foremost authority on the prediction of hurricanes, and Reid Bryson, who has been called the father of scientific climatology and who is the world’s most cited climatologist.

If you’re like most people, you haven’t heard all this. You have heard, instead, that almost all scientists are in basic agreement with Al Gore and with a UN agency called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is coordinating much of the research on climate change. You have probably also heard that 2000 or 2500 top scientists in the climate change field support the man-made climate change hypothesis. This figure of 2000 to 2500 top scientists has been cited literally thousands of times in the press. This is the main reason that the press provides for there being a consensus on climate change.

Who exactly are these 2500 scientists? To find out, I wrote the Secretariat of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, asking for their names and contact information. The Secretariat wrote back saying that the names are not public but that, in any case, the 2500 scientists were reviewers, not endorsers. These are not endorsers! These scientists are merely people who had offered their professional opinions on one or more of the numerous studies that had gone into the mix. Many agreed. Many, I knew, disagreed, because among the people I had profiled were some of the 2500 reviewers.

In other words, you’ve been had. And our governments have been had. There is no basis at all for the claim that there is a scientific consensus on climate change. The 2500 are not endorsers. They haven’t even been asked to endorse the UN conclusions. There is not only no consensus, there is no concrete evidence for harmful manmade climate change. There are only models, predicting what will happen to the climate 50 or 100 years from now, when the weatherman can’t even predict what will happen a few days from now. The most that can be fairly said is that there is a possibility — as yet unproven — that man is affecting the climate in a harmful way.

And yet, on the basis of no reliable evidence, and ignorance of the facts in the extreme, governments are making investments of billions upon billions of dollars. In Ontario, in our ignorance, we are abandoning coal plants, including some of the cleanest ones on the continent. We are reinvesting in nuclear, the cause of Ontario Hydro’s bankruptcy, and the potential cause of another bankruptcy in future.

This way lies madness. A sane energy policy would see an abandonment of nuclear in favour of clean coal technologies that can become much cleaner still. Clean coal has become both cheap and environmentally attractive, as well as conservation and some renewables. The sanest energy policy of all would be for the government to get our of the energy business and do what the UK did in 1989 — privatize the works and let the competitive market sort out the winners from the losers. As in the UK, the big loser in Ontario would be the nuclear industry. The big winners — and this would be very good news indeed — would be the taxpayers, the ratepayers and the environment.

Thank you.

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