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GOLDSTEIN: Nuclear power, natural gas are fuels of the future

Pickering nuclear power plant.
Pickering nuclear power plant.

The previous Liberal government of Ontario — whatever its failings — can rightly boast it successfully completed one of North America’s largest-ever reductions of industrial greenhouse gas emissions linked to human-induced climate change.

From 2003 to 2014, a remarkably short time frame for such an achievement, premier Dalton McGuinty and his successor Kathleen Wynne cut Ontario’s use of coal to produce electricity from 25% of all power generation, to 0%.

They did this almost entirely through the use of nuclear power and natural gas to replace coal.

Nuclear power emits neither greenhouse gases nor traditional airborne pollution, while natural gas burns at about half the carbon intensity of coal, as well as burning more cleanly than coal with regard to traditional pollutants.

While McGuinty and Wynne played up the role of renewables such as wind and solar power in eliminating Ontario’s use of coal, they were bit players because neither can provide base-load power to the grid on demand, nor can the intermittent energy they produce be stored until it’s needed.

All wind and solar did was to drive the cost of electricity higher than it had to be.

The point is that if human-caused climate change poses an imminent and existential threat to humanity,  the entire world should be doing what Ontario did.

The use of coal-fired electricity — especially in the developing world — is by far the greatest single source of industrial greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change globally, to say nothing of the severe airborne pollution it causes.

As Ontario’s experience shows, given current levels of technology, nuclear and natural gas are the only practical ways we have to rapidly reduce emissions without causing blackouts — which is what will happen if we try to replace coal with renewables like wind and solar power.

As Robert Bryce writes in Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future :

“Natural gas and nuclear power are the fuels of the future because they have high power density, are relatively low cost, and can provide the enormous quantities of energy we need. In addition, they produce lower carbon-dioxide emissions than oil and coal and therefore result in almost zero air pollution … If you are anti-carbon and anti-nuclear, you are pro-blackout.”

Opponents of nuclear power — including many although not all environmentalists — argue it’s too expensive and dangerous because of the problem of radiation.

But if rapidly reducing global greenhouse gas emissions is the priority, then in the real world, nuclear power has to be part of the solution.

Fossil fuel opponents — such as the Global Energy Monitor — oppose natural gas because they argue methane emissions will make the problem of industrial greenhouse gas emissions worse.

Methane is indeed a powerful greenhouse gas and emissions need to be curtailed, but it also only lasts a relatively short period of time in the atmosphere, which makes natural gas as a substitute for coal more viable.

In the end, the bottom line is this: There is no perfect source of energy — each one has strengths and weaknesses.

But if Ontario had tried to eliminate coal-fired electricity without nuclear and natural gas as fallbacks, it would have failed.

So the question is, do we want to solve the problem, or do we want to endlessly debate the problem without solving it?

That’s the real choice.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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