When it comes to investing in nuclear, can Canada afford not to?
What have you cut back on recently because of rising prices at the grocery store?
I don’t know if you’ve seen Canadians’ “grocery hauls” online—photos of a trip to the store with an accompanying price tag—but I’m seeing them all over my feeds these days.
And if food prices are concerning to Canadians, so are energy costs. A friend of mine said every month she dreads opening her utility bill more and more—and she’s not alone.
According to one energy analyst, most Canadians could expect their natural gas or electricity bills to rise by between 50 and 100 per cent on average this winter.
So it’s no wonder that the cost of energy is a top-of-mind issue for Canadians my age, just starting out in their first apartment or home—all the way up to seniors on a fixed budget.
This winter, we asked more than 1,600 Canadians across all income levels and ages what concerns they had about energy-related issues—things like electricity prices, job losses, and reliable power supplies.
71% of Canadians said they were “very concerned” about the high costs for energy and electricity costs, with another 22% who are “somewhat concerned.”
Energy changes on the path to net zero
With this in mind, now let’s add in the context of the coming global shift in how the world makes and consumes energy if we’re going to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
Umm… how, exactly?
If somewhere between six and 19% of Canadian households are currently facing energy poverty, depending on the measure, how do we then ask consumers to make changes to our daily lives like driving an electric vehicle or switching to a heat pump?
To put it simply, if lowering our carbon emissions isn’t affordable, it’s already out of reach.
We expect that electricity will be available when we need it—flip a light switch and it’s on—so how can we make sure that we also can afford to use clean electricity to keep those lights on?
The answer lives in 19 nuclear power reactors across Canada—one of which is here in Bruce County where I live and work.
Nuclear is an affordable way to supply Canadians with the electricity that we’ll need to make these massive changes to a net-zero grid.
Posting your “energy haul” on Instagram
Nuclear power provides low-cost electricity to the grid day in and day out, rain or shine, summer or winter… and more winter… and still winter.
And it’s a bargain! Forget posting your grocery haul—we should all be Instagramming our energy haul.
The Ontario Energy Board (the independent regulator of Ontario’s electricity and natural gas sectors) regularly publishes a thing called the Regulated Price Plan. This document walks through the calculations involved in determining electricity rates in the province of Ontario.
It also includes the cost of producing electricity (called “Total Unit Costs”) for each source of electricity generation in the province.
And guess what? Nuclear repeatedly comes in among the lowest cost sources in Ontario. At only 10.1 cents/kilowatt hour (kWh), it is second only to hydroelectric (water) power in terms of Total Unit Cost.
Yeah, but what about the cost to build a nuclear plant?
Okay, so building any source of electricity generation that’s going to reliably provide immense amounts of emissions-free power 24 hours per day, seven days per week is a big undertaking.
However, what I didn’t know before I started working in the nuclear industry is that particularly in Ontario, the benefits provided by nuclear plants and the low total unit cost (see above), are totally worth the initial investment, especially when we consider how hard it is to decarbonize the grid.
Let me explain.
One term I hear a lot in my work is “baseload” power. Baseload means the minimum amount of electricity that’s needed to be supplied to the grid at any given time.
And both nuclear and hydroelectric generating stations are the only viable sources of emissions-free generation that can meet this demand as baseload sources of generation.
Intermittent sources like wind and solar can’t play this role unless we also add a whole bunch of additional infrastructure (like large batteries or other methods of storing electricity).
But nothing’s free, right?
Adding energy storage to save power from wind or solar—to be used when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing—naturally comes with a cost, one that significantly increases the cost to build more solar or wind resources.
The made-in-Canada advantage
I also learned from my colleagues here at the Nuclear Innovation Institute that the Canadian nuclear sector has another significant economic advantage: a made-in-Canada technology with a Canadian-based supply chain.
You can check out why our country’s CANDU (Canadian Deuterium Uranium) reactors are so safe in my colleague Chad’s blog post—but did you also know that this homegrown technology has a supply chain right here in Canada?
Setting aside the headaches of supply chain interruptions importing other types of energy generation like solar panels and wind turbines, why would Canada want to spend more than it needed to abroad—instead of supporting homegrown power projects?
Such projects currently underway at Bruce Power and Ontario Power Generation’s Darlington nuclear sites will refurbish reactor units and extend the life of these plants by decades.
These projects are supporting Canadian technology, Canadian businesses, and Canadian workers. In fact, 98% of the spending on these projects stays in Canada, 90% staying in the province of Ontario.
With the importance of reaching net zero, challenges to global supply chains, inflation concerns, and more—when it comes to nuclear in Canada, it’s not so much a question of can we afford it, but instead, can we afford not to?
Jordan Durrer is a Program Coordinator at the Nuclear Innovation Institute.