Is Coal an Option?

Our Economy

We live in the Saugeen basin and jobs and the economy are dominated by Bruce Power.  It is estimated that over 40% of the economy is driven by the power industry in the area.

Ontario is betting big on the present project of bringing online the reactors now undergoing refurb and also the new project called Bruce C.  These are big for the Saugeen area and bigger still for North America. According to Duncan Hawthorne head of Bruce Power, everyone is watching the progress of the important work going on at the Bruce.

Coal fired plants are scheduled to come out of service in the next decade or so depending upon the schedules and delays in the dominant nuclear option.

In India and China coal fired plants are being built at rapid pace.

Is Coal an Option in Ontario?

It appears that coal in Ontario is no longer an option.  We've seen this before.  When nuclear power was first talked of after the second world war, it showed such promise that many thought it would be silly to even meter it.  They thought that there would be three flat rates, one residential, one for commercial and one for heavy industry.  That has not come to pass for many reasons, not the least of which is complexity.

A new 3 character term has been coined  CCT for Clean Coal Technology.  It's attracting some investment as are other energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal, but the vast majority of Canadians certainly are not doing any lobbying for CCT.

CCT

While Ontario does not seem to be doing much with coal, other areas in Canada and the US are beginning to do serious research and development.  Bay Street and Wall Street are perking up their ears.  They don't seem to like to invest in nuclear projects anymore because of the history of cost overages and delays.  Why are they looking at coal again?

Saskatchewan and Alberta have nothing short of massive coal deposits.  It's estimated that coal reserves in the US and Canada could serve for thousands of years with the right environmental considerations.  Also, because of the rapid ability to bring dirty coal fired plants online quickly, both Wall Street and Bay Street anticipate China and India will be doing R&D to bring their plants under some sort of control.  Face masks at the Olympic Games will not be good advertising.

Watching the Investors

If you watch the capitalists and what they invest in, then you get an idea of trends.  Recently, (May 15, 2008) the legendary oil speculator T. Boone Pickens came out with a plan to invest $2 Billion in the largest wind farm in the world   One has to be careful with these things.  He's ordering the windmills from giant General Electric and maybe this is a way of priming the pump of other Green Investments by lots of speculators.  After all T. Boone is a speculator.

One wonders why more R&D dollars have not been put into scrubbers and the control of the CO2.  The cost of running a plant and putting them in place is known for conventional coal fired plants at least. Effective scrubbers have been installed at steel plants, which use coal.  Coal plants  run with very low manpower needs.

(next column)

(continued)

The R&D Dollar

It appears that the big R&D dollar has not been used for CCT.  Efficient combustion does not seem to be a problem with the use of super critical boilers, but CO2 emissions are considered to be an issue leading to global warming. 

Because coal plants are easy to build at least in the old way and don't take a lot of manpower to run, they appeal to people who want to invest.  A revitalization of the coal industry would take a government push and a concerted R&D effort by both Canada and the USA working together.

Coal strip mining in the west has not met with friendly eyes, but in some areas the sites have been returned to grazing land rather quickly, but with cost of course.

An obscure report PRB 05-42E by Parliamentary Information and Research Service (PIRS) of the Library of Parliament in December 2005 brought all these issues to the forefront.  This agency is in the business of advising Parliament by doing research.  Their reports are crisp and to the point.

The Long View?

Lots of work is being done in the west by people like EPCOR.  They have a very large coal fired plant outside of Edmonton that uses super critical combustion to get the most out of  coal with the least emissions.  Work is underway to take the CO2 and put it back into the ground, which is costly and cannot be done in some locations, but can be in some western areas and also areas where mining has been done.  Piping the CO2 long distances is costly, but presents few technical challenges.

The problem with CO2 in the atmosphere is that it is not absorbed quickly with the main 'sinks' being the oceans and forests of the world.  CO2 is not all bad, but it is thought by many climatologists that it is a major factor in climate change.

Lost in the controversy has been the fact that if you pump CO2 into a greenhouse the plants will flourish and grow.  They will reach a maximum intake and then shut down, however. Of course heat will rise too.

According to some calculations done by researchers here and  in the UK, CO2 is being emitted twice as fast as the biosphere can absorb it.  What absorbs it?  Absorption rates are high in plants and soil, less so in water and ice and finally slow in rock.

Risks

It appears that Ontario has made its decision ... coal is out and Nuclear Power and other clean sources are in for the foreseeable future.

The work at the Bruce is really important.  While we are sure that the management does not need a pep talk from non-experts, Hawthorne's warnings about everyone watching the project should not fall on deaf ears.

 Tremendous risks are being taken with time and money and it's very important that the work not fall far behind and that the cost overages be controlled.  If the Bruce does not come online near on schedule and with controlled costs, the recourse is simple ... costs of energy will be prohibitive.