Addressing climate change: Emissions from electricity and buildings ~ Hugh Holland



Canada’s electricity is among the cleanest in the world with 81 per cent coming from clean sources compared to about 32 per cent worldwide. Electricity sources (e.g. Hydro) depend on geography. Costs depend on the mix of generation sources and the state of infrastructure maintenance and renewal. Average cost per kilowatt hour across Canada is $0.13 US vs $0.15 in Ontario, $0.18 in the USA and $0.21 to $0.33 in Europe. However, because electricity has been relatively cheap and abundant in Canada, Canadians use 2.5 times more per person than Germany, France, the UK and China, and even 23 per cent more than the USA.

Shown below are the million tonnes (mt) of emissions from electricity and buildings. It is a formidable goal to reduce Canada’s emissions by 30 per cent from 2010 to 2030 while at the same time, population is expected to grow by 18 per cent to over 40 million. It is indeed possible to cut emissions while scaling up capacity with clean sources, but it will cost more if we don’t also reduce energy consumption per capita.

The key strategies to consider are Conservation, Conversion (from coal to nuclear, wind, hydro and solar sources) and Co-Generation (of electricity and heat). There is potential to reduce both the amount of electricity and heat per person, and the emissions from generation. It makes sense to consider emissions from electricity and buildings together because of the many industrial and residential opportunities for co-generation of clean electricity and heat.

Emissions from Electricity

If every citizen switched to LED bulbs for lighting, made sure lights and motors were turned off when not needed, and set the thermostat at a comfortable 22° C for both heating and air-conditioning, collectively we could conserve a lot of energy and save a lot of money. Most set their air-conditioning too low.

But decisions about sources and maintenance are made by provincial governments. Six provinces no longer use coal to make electricity. Conversion from coal and natural gas-based generation to clean nuclear, wind, hydro and solar could save 67 mt of CO2 (41 mt in Alberta, 15 mt in Saskatchewan. (The calculations are easy to do) The Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador will eliminate the 9 mt from coal power in Nova Scotia and 2 mt in New Brunswick). That still allows for the use of natural gas to back up intermittent wind energy and for winter peak loads. Wind requires 100 per cent back-up capacity from natural gas because there are weeks with no wind. In our northern climate, solar is best used for the additional summer peak loads because no back-up is necessary for that application.

For the next 20 years, the world’s limited capacity for making electricity storage batteries should be reserved for electric vehicles. There are other good alternatives for electricity generation and back-up, but there are no viable alternatives to batteries for electric vehicles.

Natural gas is cleaner than coal, but the world’s proven reserves of natural gas are a finite resource that should be conserved for the most difficult heating applications in the future.

More and more experts have concluded that nuclear is the only energy source with the potential to replace the 38 per cent of global electricity that currently comes from burning coal.

Canada’s CANDU nuclear technology is currently the world’s safest. CANDU reactors supply 57 per cent of electricity for Ontario and 31 per cent for New Brunswick. And Canada is well positioned to launch the next generation of small modular reactors (SMRs) using molten-salt technology. SMRs are fail-safe, do not use or produce weapons-grade materials, can use stockpiles of nuclear waste from earlier reactors as fuel, and will be mass-produced to make costs lower and more predictable.

The governments of Canada and the USA are supporting several Canadian companies now engaged in SMR development and they expect to launch in the late 2020s. (Google Terrestrial Energy) SMRs are ideal for use in co-generation facilities and in remote areas that now use oil to make electricity.

This 300 MW SMR makes the same amount of electricity as:
– 300 MW x 10 acres / MW / .14 or 21,428 acres of solar panels, since in our climate solar panels produce at capacity 14% of the 8,760 hours in a year.
– 300 MW x 1 turbine / 2 mw / .25 = 600 wind turbines since on-shore wind turbines produce at rated capacity for 25% of the 8,760 hours per year.
Also. the solar panels and wind turbines require 100% back-up by carbon-emitting natural gas plants, or expensive storage facilities such as scarce batteries. because we get weeks at a time with no solar or wind output. The SMR produces at capacity 24/7 with no expensive back-up required.

Emissions from Buildings

Energy conservation must become the main consideration for building codes, design and engineering. Location and design of windows, doors and insulation can achieve near-net- zero energy requirements. High-efficiency air-source heat pumps are now suitable for northern climates in new buildings and to convert older buildings. Ground-source heat pumps can be used in rural areas with space and soil depth.

Co-generation of electricity and hot water for heating typically uses about 1/3rd less energy than making electricity and heat separately. Co-generation and district heating are done extensively in Europe and several places in North America. Much like in-floor heating in a house, the hot water is piped through accessible channels under streets or sidewalks to provide district heating for industrial, residential and commercial buildings. In Sweden and Vancouver Island, thousands of tonnes of municipal waste are diverted from landfill to high-temperature Waste-to-Energy (WTE) facilities that make clean electricity and hot water for district heating. Charlottetown PEI heats their hospital with a WTE facility. As shown below, Helsinki Finland plans to install a Small Modular Reactor for electricity and district heating.

80 per cent of our population already lives in urban areas. As older buildings and older parts of cities are modernized, and as new urban areas are built, planners should consider co-generation of electricity and district heating from WTE and SMR facilities.   By using conservation, conversion, and co-generation, the electricity and building sectors can do their part towards reducing Canada’s emissions by 30 per cent from 2010 to 2030. Money can be saved, and thousands of good jobs can be created while scaling up capacity for the expected growth in population.

This is the second of a four-part series focusing on SOLUTIONS that Canada could adopt to reduce emissions that contribute to climate change. You can read Part 1, Addressing climate change: Emissions from transportation, here.

Data on international electricity prices is from Statista Research website all in $US for consistency purposes. It is consistent with other similar websites.
Data on electricity price by province is from the Natural Resource Canada website converted to $US for consistency. (Residential price in Ontario was used as it is typically higher than the industrial price.)
Data on electricity sources and emissions by source comes from the latest Natural Resources Canada website (for 2016)

Hugh Holland is a retired engineering and manufacturing executive now living in Huntsville, Ontario.

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  1. Hugh has lots of great ideas but implementing them is going to take years and millions of dollars and he never addresses the extra amount of generation that will be needed if most car trucks and planes all go electric can you imagine the amount of power it will take if all the cars in just Toronto all come home at 5.30 and plug there car in. They charge us more now for peak times wonder how much it will cost us if this happens?

      • I think the cost will be so high that it will never be done. I hear talk of retrofitting all the older homes but no one ever mentions the cost of that would likely be cheaper to rebuild a new one. My personal view is we should be trying to just reduce pollution and forget about global warming that will happen no matter what we do but we might slow it a bit by getting rid of pollution. we could start with all the chemicals that are used for everything and if they don’t stop them we will not live to see global warming.

  2. Paul Whillans on

    Sorry Mr Holland……you get a C+ on this one. Your information is about 20 years behind current thinking. “Smart transmission” and battery storage which you have not even mentioned are currently “the hope for the future”.

    • Hugh Holland on

      Paul, I hope you are right but my understanding is that the biggest constraint on EV production and sales is the availability and cost of battery materials and manufacturing capacity for batteries.

    • Judith Lowes on

      I wrote the PMO recently asking for their leadership in developing, and communicating, global warming strategies for Canadians. I pointed to our positive response when it came to reduce, reuse and recycle many years ago. Since we have proved our willingness and ability to support these types of strategies, we would gladly embrace conservation, conversion and co-generation. They need to do the research, develop the strategies and tell us what we need to do.

      Ray, the first step in all things is choose a point and start.

      BTW, I did not contact the Ontario government as these issues do nothing to forward their “open for business” priority.

  3. Murray Christenson on

    Mr Whillans gets an F for his grading of Hugh’s piece…virtually none of this was discussed 20 years ago. The only thing I’d comment on is the use of batteries for EV’s only. Tesla has developed its Big Battery, currently in use at the Hornsdale facility in Australia, which seems to be working well. This service has reduced the cost of grid services to the Australian Energy Market Operator by 90%.

    • Paul Whillans on

      Mr Christenson…. If you read the proceedings of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (1992), you will find this full discussion on the use of electrical energy……including most of Mr Holland’s recommendation.

      The problems with electrical power (assuming that issues of coal generation etc, are well under change) is that its transmission and storage are inherently inefficient. We produce world wide far more electricity the is needed…..just not when needed.

      To that end smart transmission lines and neighbourhood battery storage are being tested in Germany and Scandanavia. The concept is to develop “just in time” production and delivery.

      I noted several months back a gentleman commented on the Doppler that costs of such a plan would cost Ontario “trillions”. I think that he was an electrical engineer, so that estimate may be accurate. But of course in Ontario you would never roll out the whole plan all at once…..with 20%+ of Ontario’s population living with a couple hundred km of 60% of the generating capacity, you start there.

      Lastly, I stand by both my grade and my original commentary……Thank you for asking about the actual factual sources of these,

      • Hugh Holland on

        Paul, we are fortunate that in most provinces in Canada we already provide just in time power by opening and closing hydro dam gates as required to match demand. Battery storage still costs as much as the original generation of power, so it essentially doubles the cost.

  4. I had not heard about SMR’s until your article. How is the fail-safe mechanism implemented? As you say, they are not using weapons-grade plutonium. From what I understand, however, they do use depleted plutonium. ANY leakage of depleted plutonium has the potential to initiated depleted plutonium syndrome; ergo, my concern regarding just how fail-safe; fail-safe really is.

    • Hugh Holland on

      Rob, the fail-safe mechanism is a simple freeze valve at the bottom of the reactor. A plug of frozen reactor material is kept frozen by refrigeration. If refrigeration power is lost (Or control power is lost as happened at Fukishima), or the reactor overheats for any other reason, the freeze valve quickly melts, the reactor material drains to a safe holding tank and the reaction just shuts down, without human intervention. Nuclear reaction require a precise level of temperature and pressure or the reaction just shuts down.

      If there is a risk to using depleted plutonium, there would be no reason to do so.

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