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It's Not Easy Being Green!

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May 9, 2011

It's Not Easy Being Green!

Unraveling myths of sustainable power

by Justin Saunders, Sandra Cuffe

Photo: Sam Bradd

VANCOUVER & TORONTO—As the climate crisis worsens, the Canadian public is being told that new developments in “green energy” are helping reduce the carbon footprint of our energy needs. The PR push around green energy comes as the fossil fuels sector in Canada is plowing ahead, extracting heavy crude from the tar sands, pulling coal from open pit mines, and opening up remote territories for natural gas extraction.

While the idea of cleaner energy resonates with many, provincial governments have increasingly undermined the concept of “greener” energy production. Today, high-impact hydro-electric and nuclear power projects make up a significant percentage of so-called clean energy targets in Ontario and British Columbia.

“The climate argument is being used as a justification for lots of new dams around the world. It’s being used to greenwash dams,” Patrick McCully, Executive Director of the International Rivers Network (IRN) told The Dominion. He highlighted hydro-kinetic turbines, and wave and tidal energy as potential alternatives in the ongoing redefinition of hydro potential.

“There’s a possibility of getting electricity out of flowing water in an environmentally benign way, but not by building big dams everywhere,” added McCully. “And lots of small dams on lots of small rivers—that could also do a lot of harm.”

As with large-scale hydro-electric dams, the greening of nuclear power is dependent on the omission of economic externalities: costs or benefits that affect a third party and are not accounted for in market transactions. Nuclear power generation offers a clear example of the externalities potentially overshadowing the direct impacts of a nuclear power plant itself.

Along with hydro, wind, and solar, nuclear power is considered by the Canadian government to be “clean energy,” defined as “energy that is produced, transmitted, distributed and used with low or zero greenhouse gas (GHG) and other air emissions.” The government of Canada has indicated that by 2020, 90 per cent of the country’s electricity will come from these “non-emitting sources,” including nuclear power.


“The nuclear power industry has latched onto global warming as an argument for its renaissance,” wrote Karl Coplan, a Law Professor, in 2008. “[Put] simply, the nuclear industry, with government complicity, has transferred and deferred the most expensive part of the cost of the nuclear fuel cycle to future generations and civilizations unknown,” he wrote, addressing the contentious externality of nuclear fuel waste over its lifespan of at least hundreds of thousands of years.
Communities across Canada have been negatively impacted all the way along the nuclear fuel cycle.

On the front end is uranium, of which Canada is the world’s number one supplier. According to the Canadian Nuclear Association’s Nuclear Facts, “In 2008, the uranium mines in Saskatchewan accounted for approximately 21 per cent of the world’s total uranium production.”

Canada’s uranium deposits and mines are concentrated in the Athabasca Region in northern Saskatchewan, in First Nations territory. Strong resistance to uranium mining across the country over the last several decades has resulted in uranium mining bans in different provinces and regions.

“Mining companies came and robbed us of our country, where we lived, fished and hunted,” said Annie Benonie. The 88-year-old from Wollaston Lake near the Saskatchewan uranium mines was interviewed by Swedish journalist Fredrik Loberg last year. “The land will never be restored again [for] future generations,” she said.

Canadian uranium powers nuclear plants in a number of provinces, including Ontario. Today, Ontario’s energy grid stands at a crossroads. According to the Ontario Power Authority, by 2025 80 per cent of the province’s aging energy-generating infrastructure, traditionally powered by nuclear, hydro and coal, will need to be replaced to avoid increasing power line loss and allow for broader deployment of renewable energy projects. By 2030, the province plans to spend an additional $87 billion on overhauling the power grid.

“The constraint in increasing the installation of renewables is currently in transmission and distribution,” Adam Scott, Renewable Energy Coordinator at Environmental Defence, told The Dominion. “Ontario needs dramatic upgrades to the transmission and distribution systems.”

Yet, at this critical moment, the province’s recently released Long Term Energy Plan (LTEP) is focused primarily on the rapid elimination of coal-fired generation—using increases in nuclear, hydro and natural gas generation—in order to meet the modest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change targets of 450 parts per million atmospheric CO2 by 2045.

Of the forecasted $87 billion in capital investment, the LTEP estimates $33 billion will be spent on nuclear power compared with $9 billion on solar, $14 billion on wind, $4.6 billion on hydro and $4 billion on biomass.

Scott, however, is generally pleased with the LTEP, pointing to the fact that it puts a greater emphasis on Ontario’s Feed In Tariff (FIT) program, which compensates wind and solar generators for energy they produce and feed in to the grid. Such programs have been successfully adopted over the past 20 years throughout Europe.

“Ontario added more solar power in its first year than [any FIT program in] Spain, Germany [or] France,” added Scott.

However, not everyone agrees that the LTEP was a step in the right direction. Criticism from environmental organizations has focused on the potential of a nuclear disaster, coupled with the long-term commitment required to re-invest in the technology.

“[Ontario] exempted its nuclear electricity plan from an environmental assessment,” said Shawn Stensil, Nuclear Analyst at Greenpeace Canada, in a news release. Stensil stated that nuclear re-investment “will limit the long-term growth of cleaner, safer and more affordable energy options.” A recent study commissioned by Greenpeace, the Pembina Institute, and the Canadian Environmental Law Association claims that renewable investment with a larger wind portfolio would be cheaper than re-investing in nuclear power.

The enormous cost overruns of nuclear power continue to be a point of contention even among those who are optimistic about the province’s expansion of FIT. “LTEP didn’t move us away from nuclear. We’re actually paying other jurisdictions to use the surplus electricity at night from reactors that can’t be throttled down,” Mike Brigham, Chairperson of the Toronto Renewable Energy Co-op [TREC], told The Dominion.

TREC helps incubate locally owned solar and wind projects such as Windshare, a 100-metre-high turbine located along Toronto’s waterfront that produces enough energy to power at least 100 homes per year. An urban project like Windshare could never be built today, said Brigham, because of recent legislation prohibiting the construction of turbines within 500 metres of residential areas. As a result, groups like TREC have invested a significant amount of resources in solar installations, which can be deployed in both rural and urban areas.

At the other end of the fuel cycle is nuclear waste. In late January, New Brunswickers held a rally outside the NB Power headquarters in Fredericton, protesting the costly and potentially hazardous errors made in the ongoing reconstruction of the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station. Located along the northern shore of the Bay of Fundy, only some 20 kilometres west of Saint John, Point Lepreau has a history of controversy, including a 1997 leak in the reactor core that produced a 75-day shutdown.

Atlantic organizations joined forces with the Nuclear Out of Quebec Movement (MSQN) to denounce Hydro-Quebec’s plans to remodel the Gentilly-2 Nuclear Generating Station in Becancour, 100 kilometres northeast of Montreal. They point to the controversial Point Lepreau reconstruction, slated to go back online in 2012, as reason enough for their opposition.

A joint press statement released by the MSQN and Atlantic organization representatives on January 26, 2011, the same day as the NB protest, said Gentilly-2 will be “far more costly than anticipated, and will create entirely new categories of radioactive waste that will have to remain in Quebec for permanent storage because the federal government takes no responsibility for such wastes.” The release also noted that the upgrades would add approximately 100 tonnes of high-level waste to the existing stockpile for every year of continued operation.

In terms of policy at the federal level, the “Creating the Economy of Tomorrow” budget document on Canada’s Economic Action Plan website outlines investments in science and technology, as well as in universities and research. While improving infrastructure at universities and colleges has the highest stimulus value for 2009-10 out of the 13 categories included, “Strengthening Canada’s nuclear advantage” is in second place at $351 million. Right behind it is “Transformation to a Green Energy Economy” at $200 million. The budget allotment for nuclear development is over ten times more than the amount designated for the Canada Graduate Scholarships program.

The development of sustainable technologies is constantly redefining the potential for “green” energy in Canada; however, as of yet, the term has not captured much real meaning.

Justin Saunders is an information technologist and journalist based in Toronto. Sandra Cuffe is a freelance writer, a contributing member of the Vancouver Media Co-op, and a coffee-lover.

This article was published in A People's Forecast: The Climate Justice Issue, our 2011 special issue. To read more articles as they are published, click here.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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