Photo: Energy shift requires shift in conversation

The destruction of $65 billion worth of B.C. trees by mountain pine beetles — once kept under control by winters with temperatures below -30 C for a week or more — should make the province take notice of climate change. (Credit: Dezene Huber via Flickr)

By David Suzuki

Abundant, cheap fossil fuels have driven explosive technological, industrial and economic expansion for more than a century. The pervasive infrastructure developed to accommodate this growth makes it difficult to contemplate rapidly shifting away from coal, oil and gas, which creates a psychological barrier to rational discourse on energy issues.

The ecological and true economic costs of energy use force us to scrutinize our way of living. And because our infrastructure doesn't allow us to entirely avoid fossil fuels, we must face the contradiction between how we should live and constraints against doing so.

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Canada has no national energy plan, other than governmental desire to be a fossil-fuelled energy-export superpower. Given the consequences of human-induced climate change already hitting home, you'd think the highest priority of governments at all levels would be to decide on the lowest-emission energy path. But politicians focused on election intervals have difficulty dealing with generational issues.

Real, important conversations and decisions are instead delayed by diversionary and often irrational arguments and tactics: accusing critics of being hypocrites, claiming foreign money drives environmental agendas and labelling activists as eco-terrorists or enemies of Canada among them. In place of true progress, we get consolidated political power and greater corporate profit and control. Enough already!

Sustainability requires conservation and abundant energy employed with minimal ecological upset. Yet the inability to consider the need to shift quickly from fossil fuels means governments and industry look to mega-technologies like carbon capture and storage to justify inaction on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while dismissing solar and wind as impractical, too expensive or unable to meet energy needs. Nuclear power may be an alternative to GHG-emitting fossil fuels, but it's extremely expensive and would not be online were it not for enormous subsidies. Nuclear fuel is also finite, so costs will rise while the problem of radioactive-waste disposal remains unsolved.

As a northern country, Canada is especially vulnerable to climate change. Polar regions heat faster than temperate and tropical zones — Inuit have noticed the growing impacts for decades. With the longest marine coastline of any country, we're also subject to sea-level rise. And our economy relies on climate-dependent activities such as agriculture, forestry, fisheries, tourism and winter sports, all of which are already feeling climate change impacts.

Where is the political leadership and will to confront climate change? We're seeing some from individuals, grassroots organizations and municipalities. But what about our provinces? Just as the catastrophic loss of northern cod off Newfoundland warned against unsustainable practices, the destruction of $65 billion worth of B.C. trees by mountain pine beetles — once kept under control by winters with temperatures below -30 C for a week or more — should make the province take notice.

Where's the leadership? Once lauded for policies such as the carbon tax and energy agreements with California, B.C.'s political leaders have now embraced liquefied natural gas, claiming industry expansion will create hundreds of thousands of jobs and add billions of dollars to provincial coffers — never mind that no one in power now will be held accountable for these promises because they're several elections from being realized.

LNG should be labelled LFG: liquefied fracked gas. Hydraulic fracturing — fracking — requires pumping millions of litres of chemical-laced water deep underground to shatter shale and liberate embedded gas. It's a short-term way to get energy with long-term ecological impacts on water and whatever organisms might be down there. (It was once thought life disappeared at bedrock, but we now know bacteria are found at least 10 kilometres down.)

Fracked gas is mostly methane, a greenhouse gas more than 30 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Studies reveal leakage around fracking sites may be high enough to affect climate change more than coal! Calling it a "transition fuel" between coal or oil and renewables is nonsense. And fracking is known to cause seismic activity.

B.C. is also planning the Peace River Site C dam, yet a report by the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association claims geothermal could generate similar amounts of power at a much lower cost.

If our leaders are serious about long-term health and prosperity, they need to stop focusing on short-term profits from rapid fossil fuel development and export and start engaging in serious conversations about our energy future.

January 8, 2015
http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/science-matters/2015/01/energy-shift-requires-shift-in-conversation/

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7 Comments

Apr 30, 2015
11:14 AM

@Peter Ottensmeyer re: Nuclear power and waste

While Ontario may currently have nuclear power at 6c/kWh, that is for plants built in 1970’s and 1980’s. New build nuclear is vastly more expensive, just take a look at Hinkley in UK where the power cost on an existing and proven reactor design is far more than the cost of other alternatives.

Ontario is currently reviewing a re-fit of it’s nuclear stations, which required the build out of 7GW of natural gas power to accommodate shutting down the nuclear plants, and then Bruce and OPG have requested to raise power rates to 9c/kWh at a minimum.

So, we spent billions building gas plants that are currently used at <10% output, paying the gas plants to provide spinning reserve, and then paying more for power following nuclear re-fit.

Nuclear power is expensive, and costs are just increasing. Union of concerned scientists believe so too: http://www.ucsusa.org/our-work/nuclear-power/cost-nuclear-power

Your statements on waste re-processing are based on Ontario spending billions on new nuclear build to solve a problem that was created by the industry in the first place! Billions after original billions does not a case for success make.

Darlington was recently shut down for a heavy water spill, requiring >500MW of power to be turned on rapidly, which all costs money, having that amount of power shutting off without pre-warning costs money to account for.

Whereas Wind and Solar already are highly predicted days in advance, so we know how much spinning reserve is necessary for gas plants ahead of time.

Goodbye nuclear, we wont miss you when you are gone, but we will be living with your legacy for thousands of years.

Jan 17, 2015
3:31 PM

Latest bad news about fracking is that it has been shown that fracking causes earthquakes. Just another piece of frightening information about this practice of blowing up our Great Mother Earth for selfish and unnecessary reasons.

Jan 11, 2015
1:17 PM

Regarding organisms living at the depth of oil and gas deposits, we should also be concerned about impacts on life up here caused by largely unknown organisms from down there being brought up here with the hydrocarbons being extracted and associated produced waters.

Jan 11, 2015
7:02 AM

Our “leaders” appear to believe that their function is to act as sales people for our natural resources rather than the guardians of the environment and hence the common good that they should be.

The only consequence to following a more environmentally responsible path, is that we would have to alter the types of output that our economies produce. Far from being disastrous, this would only create greater economic opportunity while at the same time giving nature the chance to recover from the damages our primitive industrial past has inflicted.

Jan 11, 2015
1:10 AM

Keep on fighting for our precious environment,what else is more important?

Jan 10, 2015
11:15 AM

David,

we met at the Ontario Cancer Institute perhaps in the early ‘70s when you were in fruit fly genetics and gave a talk on genetic engineering. I was in biophysics and molecular biology at the time, with a background in engineering physics. I have since retired (2004) and as a retirement “hobby” have taken up the elimination of nuclear fuel waste in a productive manner.

The latter is strongly related to the statement in your article: “Nuclear fuel is also finite, so costs will rise while the problem of radioactive-waste disposal remains unsolved.”

Therefore I should tell you that the problem of radioactive waste disposal was solved some decades ago by expatriate Canadian Chuck Till at the Argonne National Labs in Idaho, in a way that also multiplied the nuclear energy yield about 100-fold.

Till and colleagues demonstrated that all of the heavy atoms in the waste, the ones that present us with the “million-year” radiotoxicity, can be split in a fast-neutron reactor to produce energy. In being split (fissioned) they cease to exist in that form, and as a consequence their million-year radiotoxicity ceases to exist. They turn into smaller atoms, fission products, about half the size of the original uranium or other heavy atoms in the fuel, the plutoniums, americiums, etc. Such fission atoms are about 70% non-radioactive stable atoms, while virtually all of the remainder decay in a few decades, with only Sr-90 and Cs-137 needing about 300 years to reach the level of uranium from which they were formed. We can talk about how to handle a few such as iodine-129, etc.

The reactor could “burn up” 20% of the fuel (compared to 0.74% in our CANDU reactors), and 35,000 of the used fuel rods were recycled through the reactor again and again after the 20% fission product “ashes” were removed. In this fashion 100% of the nuclear energy in the fuel can be (was) extracted.

So consider doing this to the roughly 50,000 tons of stored spent CANDU fuel in Canada. Extracting 100% of the energy rather than the 0.74% that we do currently, increases the energy yield about 130 times compared to the huge amount that we have extracted since nuclear energy became available in Ontario over 50 years ago. It is easy to calculate that the stored “radioactive waste” alone would provide about 4600 years worth of energy at the level that we are currently producing nuclear power in Canada. That is not yet infinite, but there is more uranium in the ground and even in ocean water that would be economical to extract for such efficient reactors. Moreover, by removing much of the relatively benign uranium from the spent fuel “waste” for later use, the long-term hazardous heavy atoms can preferentially be used up quicker in the reactor to eliminate their long-term hazard in a few decades.

Concerning carbon dioxide emissions, we have enough stored nuclear “waste” in the world, if used in such “waste”-burning fast-neutron reactors, to avoid the release of 19 trillion tons of CO2 (using coal, half that for gas), or about 6.4 times the current CO2 content of the atmosphere.

We can buy such a reactor commercially now from General Electric-Hitachi in the USA, their PRISM reactor. They are offering it to the UK to disposition that country’s plutonium stockpile.

I could also discuss the concept that nuclear power is extremely expensive. As a beginning, at the moment the cost per generated kWh in Ontario is about 4.7 cents from hydroelectric, 6 cents from nuclear. I don’t know what hydroelectric generation costs in BC.

With kind regards, Peter

Peter Ottensmeyer PhD FRSC Professor Emeritus Department of Medical Biophysics University of Toronto

Jan 08, 2015
6:21 PM

If our leaders are serious about long-term health and prosperity, they need to stop focusing on short-term profits from rapid fossil fuel development and export and start engaging in serious conversations about our energy future.

Can we please make this an election ISSUE as well as all our other resource issues for sustainability without environmental collapse…

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