Much like the varied and evolving mix of energy sources used to power our electrical needs in Ontario, our hydro bill is made up of several different components. Award-winning journalist Marg. Bruineman explores what is behind those line items on your bill in a new series of eStream blogs, beginning with the most important – the sources of electricity.
Ontario’s electricity supply is a diverse mix of sources – nuclear, hydro, gas, coal, wind and, to a much smaller degree, solar, wood waste and biogas. But there’s no question, increased demands have put pressure on the system. And, in recognition that our reliance on cheap fossil fuels, like coal, are taking a considerable toll on the air we breathe, protection offered by the ozone layer and the environment in general, there is a concerted effort in Ontario to evolve to cleaner, and largely more expensive, sources of electricity.
The bulk of the energy we use in Ontario is nuclear. The sources and the amounts we use changes according to generation capacity and the demand. In the middle of a cold week day winter afternoon, the Canadian Nuclear Society reported that 52 per cent of our electrical power was coming from nuclear generation, 23 per cent from hydro plants, 19 per cent from gas, four per cent from wind, one per cent from coal and a very small amount from other sources.
Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator recently reported that nuclear represented 56.4 per cent of total electricity generation in 2012, slightly more than the previous year. Hydroelectricity represented 22.3 per cent and natural gas was 14.6 per cent. Wind production increased to three per cent, up from 2.6 per cent in 2011, exceeding coal-generated electricity of 2.8 per cent and the other sources amounted to .8 per cent of electricity generated.
One of the issues is how much we want to rely on nuclear energy. Nuclear reactors produce heat by splitting uranium atoms. The heat converts water into steam to spin a generator to make electricity.
Nuclear electricity production is considered efficient and clean. The issue is safety, when something goes wrong in the nuclear energy field, it can go horribly wrong. Disasters such as Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island serve as examples.
Ontario’s nuclear reactor facilities at Bruce, Pickering and Darlington nuclear power stations use natural uranium in CANDU reactors and are considered to be among the safest in the world.
Ontario’s natural gas supply is limited and expensive – most of the mixture of methane and other gases found underground is imported from Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. Its common use is to heat homes, but it is also used to produce electricity but generally only during peak periods.
Coal is such an easy and cheap source of electricity, but it is dirty and a major contributor to greenhouse gases. Ontario is phasing out the use of coal-fired generation by next year and replacing it with clean energy sources.
Hydroelectricity has long been a favourite source of harnessing energy from the movement of falling or flowing water. It is the ultimate renewable energy – inexpensive, reliable, clean, naturally recurring and is available in our land of rivers with about 200 water power facilities across the province.
Wind is increasingly used to produce electricity with more wind power produced in Ontario last year than that of coal. It is sustainable and clean, but as a newly used source the installation of turbines are being challenged on charges that they are more costly, unsightly, noisy and potentially harmful to neighbours and birds.
Solar is another desirable electricity source because it is clean and readily available. The down side is the capturing technique of solar voltaic panels is not cheap, although it’s coming down with increased production and advanced technology. The other down side is electricity can only be generated during the day. For the first time last year Ontario added power produced at a solar farm to the grid.
Bioenergy uses organic and waste products from agricultural processes to produce heat and generate electricity. Biomass involves using plants, animal waste, organic residue from farms and forestry and crops. Biogas uses manure and farm waste. Both of these are considered carbon neutral, unlike fossil fuels which essentially have stored carbon for millions of years. The compounds released by burning these products are recaptured by living plants, essentially recycling these by-products.
The provincial energy ministry offers simple explanations of our energy mix: www.energy.gov.on.ca/en/ontarios-electricity-system/
Future blogs will examine the other lines in your PowerStream bill: electricity charges at peak, mid-peak and off-peak times, the delivery charge, regulatory charges and the debt retirement charge.